At least 17 people have died and more than 800 have been injured in clashes that erupted in Colombia during five days of protests against a government tax reform plan, authorities said on Monday.
The Ombudsman’s office said 16 civilians and a police officer died in violence during protests that began across the country on April 28, while 846 people, including 306 civilians, were injured.
Authorities arrested 431 people as the government deployed the army to the worst-hit towns.
Some NGOs accused the police of shooting civilians.
Defense Minister Diego Molano said the violence was “premeditated, organized, financed by FARC dissidents” and members of the ELN.
The FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – leftist rebels signed a peace accord with the government in 2016 ending more than half a century of conflict, leaving the ELN – National Liberation Army – as the last recognized guerrilla group in the country.
Faced with the unrest, the government of President Ivan Duque on Sunday ordered the withdrawal of the proposal from Congress where it was being debated.
Duque has denounced the “vandalism” of protesters as the country battles a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite this, dozens of people were out on Monday in the capital Bogota and Medellin in the northwest, protesting and blocking roads.
Both cities are subject to nighttime curfews due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The tax reform had been strongly criticized for having sanctioned the middle classes during a period of economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The government introduced the bill on April 15 as a way to finance public spending.
The objective was to generate 6.3 billion dollars between 2022 and 2031 to revive the fourth economy in Latin America.
Hit by coronavirus restrictions, Colombia’s economy shrank 6.8% in 2020, its worst performance in half a century.
Unemployment had reached 16.8 percent in March, while 42.5 percent of the 50 million people now live in poverty.
– Alarm triggered by military deployment –
Most of the demonstrations started peacefully but ended in clashes between demonstrators and public forces.
On Sunday, Duque said he would draft a new bill without the most contentious points: a VAT hike on goods and services, and an expansion of the taxpayer base.
Despite this, the National Strike Committee called for a new protest on Wednesday.
“The people on the streets are demanding much more than the withdrawal of tax reform,” the commission said in a statement.
The NGO Temblores said it had recorded 940 cases of police violence against civilians and was investigating the deaths of eight protesters who were allegedly attacked by police.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said one person was killed by police in Cali, one of the cities most affected by street violence.
The deployment of the army in the streets has sounded the alarm in Colombia.
In September 2020, 13 young people died in clashes during a demonstration against police violence.
Another 75 people were injured by projectiles, which were reportedly thrown by the police.
The protesters were angered by the death of Javier Odronez, 43, after being brutally beaten by an officer.
© 2021 AFP