Colombia enters second week of violent unrest as police crack down on protests

By Joe Parkin Daniels

Colombia has entered its second week of violent unrest as riot police continued a brutal crackdown on nationwide protests against poverty and inequality exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

As many as 37 people have died in the protests so far according to Temblores, a local NGO that monitors police violence, though that number is expected to rise, with at least 89 people reported missing since protests began on 28 April.

Fresh clashes broke out on Wednesday night in Bogotá and other cities across the country as heavily armoured police unleashed their arsenal of flash-bangs, teargas and water cannons on protesters.

In the historic centre of the city, a group of students took refuge from volleys of teargas and the pelting rain. “We just want the right to protest peacefully, to feel like we have a future,” said María José López, a student, as a platoon of riot police marched by. “We are the majority but they don’t listen to us.”

Elsewhere, demonstrators held candlelight vigils and painted anti-government slogans on the asphalt as people banged pots and pans from their apartment windows above.

Demonstrations began over an unpopular tax reform but have since grown into outburst of rage over poverty, human rights abuses and the authorities’ heavy-handed response to protests.

Protesters hang a sign on a bridge that reads ‘SOS Colombia’ in Bogotá on 5 May.
Protesters hang a sign on a bridge that reads ‘SOS Colombia’ in Bogotá on 5 May. Photograph: Maria Jose Gonzalez Beltran/LongVisual/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

President Iván Duque has since dropped the tax reform and called for dialogue to resolve the crisis, though observers say those talks are unlikely to yield results in the near future.

Duque and his ministers have at times appeared more concerned with vandalism and attacks on police stations and toll booths than the rising death toll. His government has yet to acknowledge the police’s role in the violence, instead attempting to frame the protests as the work of “terrorists” from dissident rebel groups.

“While the presidency has announced plans to hold a new national dialogue, this does not seem likely to offer a path out of the current crisis,” wrote Elizabeth Dickinson of International Crisis Group, a thinktank, in an analysis published on Thursday morning, ahead of more planned marches. “The authorities’ focus on treating the protest movement as a law enforcement problem and the accumulation of grievances leave little hope for a peaceful resolution in the short term.”

Amid Wednesday night’s skirmishes in the capital, many protesters saw little point in taking the president at his word.

“Why would we trust the government in any negotiations when all they do is lie?” asked Enrique Gama, a lorry driver who was protesting with fellow union members at a roadblock in Bogotá.

Protesters and riot police clash in Bogotá on 5 May.
Protesters and riot police clash in Bogotá on 5 May. Photograph: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

In Pereira, a city in the western coffee-growing region, residents held vigils for Lucas Villa, a young protester fighting for his life in an intensive care unit after being shot eight times by police just hours after he had been filmed dancing at the marches and advocating for peaceful protest.

Meanwhile Colombia continues to be ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far claimed more than 75,000 lives, with daily deaths last week breaking the country’s records. The number of people living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people last year amid coronavirus lockdowns that exacerbated the country’s deeply entrenched inequalities.

Duque has been powerless to quell the unrest despite ordering the militarization of major cities and withdrawing his tax plan. His government has attempted to frame the protests as the work of “terrorists” from dissident rebel groups.

Amid growing popular anger, observers have advised caution over the possible spread of disinformation. But videos analysed by Amnesty International confirm that police have used lethal weapons, including rifles and semi-automatic guns, against protesters around the country.

“It is deeply alarming to see the heavy-handed crowd control response across the country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director of Amnesty International. “The people’s discontent over the economic crisis is clear – it is unjust and puts their human rights at risk.”