Colombia braces for further unrest after a weekend in which largely peaceful protests across the country met a backlash from police that left at least 16 protesters and one policeman dead and hundreds injured .
Videos shared on social media over the weekend showed police officers shooting protesters at times from up close, crushing crowds with motorcycles and hitting protesters with their shields.
The weekend drama was summed up in a shocking TV clip in which a live photo from the central town of Ibagué captured the moment a woman learned that her 19-year-old son had died after being shot and killed by the police. “Kill me too, they also killed me,” she cried. “He was my only son!
The protests began with a general strike last Wednesday for unpopular tax reform, but quickly escalated when protesters were greeted by riot police armed with tear gas, bean bullets and clubs.
“They may have guns, but they can’t kill us all,” Gabriela Gutierrez, a member of a student group who has set up a roadblock in downtown Bogotá, said on Monday. “Colombia needs change and we will stay on the streets until we understand it.
Along with the unpopular tax proposal, protesters also marched against a deeply polarizing government, to defend threatened human rights leaders, for an increase in the social safety net during the pandemic, and for police reform.
Although the vast majority of the protests were peaceful, incidents of looting and vandalism were reported in Cali, Bogotá and other towns. The road between Cali and Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest seaport on the Pacific coast, was also blocked by protesters.
Tensions escalated on Saturday evening when President Iván Duque ordered troops to take to the streets. But less than 24 hours later, he was forced to abandon the tax reform project that would have increased personal and business taxes during a coronavirus pandemic that continues to ravage public health and the economy.
“Reform is not a whim, it is a necessity,” Duque said in a televised speech Sunday afternoon announcing the U-turn.
Duque’s concession did little to quell protesters’ anger, with strike leaders saying protests would continue this week and another nationwide strike would take place on Wednesday.
“People on the streets are demanding much more than the suppression of reforms,” Francisco Maltés, president of the Colombian trade union center, told a press conference on Monday morning, adding that the brutal police response had “reduced democratic guarantees. for social protest ”.
Scenes of police brutality have become increasingly familiar in Colombia. In September, anti-police protests erupted after Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer, was shot and killed by police officers. At least 10 people were killed in the unrest that followed and dozens of police kiosks were set on fire.
The confirmed death toll from the current violence is expected to rise over the next few days.
Monday morning, after a night of casseroles – a noisy spectacle where people bang pots and pans on their windows – truckers were blocking roads across the country. In Bogotá, as Duque held an emergency meeting with his finance minister, drivers honked their horns in approval as students slowly waved them through the blockade.
“Whenever we protest, the police pull out their weapons,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, another student demonstrating in Bogotá. “We will not be intimidated by their violence.”