Gunshots echo through the dark, racing and screaming. Colombia has experienced a new day of violence in the streets during the early hours of this Tuesday that has alerted international organizations. The UN and the European Union have condemned police brutality and called for those responsible for the repression to be held accountable for their actions. Officially, there are 19 dead and more than 800 injured since the protests started last Wednesday due to a tax reform that President Iván Duque has already withdrawn.
The most shocking scenes come from Cali, where the highest number of deaths has occurred. Clashes between police and protesters have been constant throughout the night. There are images of armored cars dispersing the crowd with tear gas and detonations of weapons. The first floor of a hotel where policemen were staying went up in flames. Protesters have put up checkpoints on the main access roads and the airport is blocked. The supermarket shelves are empty. Authorities have opened corridors so that the city of 2.2 million people can stock up on gasoline, medicine and food.
The UN Office for Human Rights said that those responsible, on the ground, have witnessed “excessive use of force by the police.” The spokeswoman for the office, Marta Lamas, in a press conference, assured that the agents used live ammunition, beat the protesters and there were arrests. “In the context of a tense and volatile situation in which some protest participants have also been violent,” he added.
Brussels has also reacted to the Colombian crisis. The spokesman for the European External Action Service, Peter Stano, said that the union condemned the acts of violence, which aim “against the legitimate rights to demonstrate, freedom of assembly and expression”. He said he had confidence in Colombian institutions to investigate and jail those responsible for any abuse and violation of human rights.
The protests, mostly peaceful, have sometimes led to acts of vandalism. Protesters have burned buses and benches and looted shops. The authorities assure that there are more than 400 injured policemen. President Iván Duque has described these riots as “low intensity urban terrorism.” The totem of the Colombian right, former president Álvaro Uribe, wrote in a tweet, later deleted by the social network for contravening its norms, in which he supported the right of soldiers and police to use their weapons to defend their integrity. The left interpreted it as an invitation to bloodshed. The Defense Minister, Diego Molano, assured that the violent acts have been premeditated, organized and financed by the dissidents of the Farc, a small group that did not adhere to the peace process, and the ELN, the last recognized guerrilla in Colombia. For now there is no evidence that this is the case.
The tax reform has been the conjunctural reason why people came out to protest, but as a background tidal wave there is great dissatisfaction with the general situation of the nation. Colombia, the fourth largest economy in Latin America, suffered a 6.8% drop in its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, the largest in recorded history. Unemployment, which in the midst of the strictest confinement measures exceeded 20%, closed the year of the pandemic at 15.9%, while monetary poverty rose to 42.5%. These data represent a setback of nearly a decade.
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