MEDELLIN, Colombia - The death toll in Colombia is rising amidst clashes between anti-government protesters and police. Officers are being blamed for multiple deaths as demonstrations against President Iván Duque’s proposed tax measures stretch into their eighth deadly day.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported 24 deaths since the protests began, among them one police officer. Some NGOs estimate the number of dead as high as 37, with the majority of those caused by police brutality.
“During the past several days, we have confirmed that police forces carried out articulated, premeditated, and deliberate actions to ravage citizens and sow terror among them, restraining them from exercising their constitutional right to protest,” said a spokesperson for Temblores, an NGO that acts as a watchdog for police violence.
Civil unrest has roiled Colombia since April 28th when thousands of protesters came out to demonstrate against a controversial tax reform that proposed an increased burden on the middle and working classes. Colombia is under pressure to raise taxes after being battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reform was what originally incensed demonstrators. But the movement has exploded into a wider pushback by tens of thousands of protestors over long-standing grievances.
Protesters want better health services, pension reform, and protections for social and environmental leaders. They are calling for a universal basic income, as well as denouncing the perceived failure of the government to implement the country’s peace accords with the FARC guerrilla group. They’re also demanding an end to fumigating coca crops - the base ingredient in cocaine.
“Of course a reform is necessary. But why is this government asking us to pay more? Why not the rich? And why is the police killing us?” 22-year-old design student and protestor Laura Vanessa Rodriguez told VICE World News in Medellín.
“Colombia tells us we’re a democracy. But what we really are is a dictatorship.”
President Duque’s withdrawal of the reform on Sunday did little to quell the unrest. Instead of a plea for calm and unity, the president says he is listening to protest groups but seems more focused on how security forces will root out what he believes to be “terrorist agents” wreaking havoc and vandalizing property.
“We want to tell you that we have installed a space for listening to citizens, without ideologies, but with patriotism,” said Duque.
“Our duty is with life and we have a duty to protect it. Moreover, it’s the fundamental mission of our security forces to support it.”
But Duque’s government ratcheted up the tension on Wednesday when he defended the police and offered a reward of $3,000 for information leading to what his government claims are “urban terrorists” infiltrating the protests. The government has also said that organized crime is behind some of the demonstrations.
The president even tweeted out a phone number to call - effectively a hotline for citizens to report violence and vandalism.
The government’s response has only served to deepen frustrations. Demonstrations have been particularly violent in the capital Bogota and Cali, Colombia’s third city. According to Temblores, 70 percent of the police-authored homicides reported have been in the city of Cali.
“We condemn violence, regardless of who commits it,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.
“We urge Colombia’s leaders to seek real dialogue instead of inflammatory tweets.”
Decades of civil war and yawning inequality have left Colombia deeply polarized. In 2016, Colombia’s government signed a peace agreement with the country’s main rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). That deal demobilized thousands of fighters but it left the South American nation split on the matter of how much justice former FARC leaders should receive.
President Duque was voted in, in part, on the promise of reforming the troubled peace accords. His base wanted harsh prison sentences for FARC leaders. Sympathizers with the peace deal’s original terms saw Duque’s electoral win as a threat to peace and stability.
Since being voted into office in 2018, Iván Duque’s government has contended with multiple bouts of unrest. Having originally pledged to govern for both sides of Colombia’s political spectrum, Duque has been unable to escape the shadow of his political mentor, Alvaro Uribe.
The polarizing former president is remembered by some Colombians for restoring security to a lawless drug-torn country during the early 2000s, while considered by others to have financed paramilitarism. However, despite litigation efforts, allegations against the former president have not materialized into a conviction.
The European Union condemned Colombia’s police violence, as has the United Nations. The United States, who funds Colombia’s security apparatus with millions of US dollars each year, remained quiet about the protests until Tuesday before issuing a statement condemning vandalism and urging “restraint” by the security forces.