Colombians protest after a week of violence leaves 24 dead and 800 injured

Thousands of Colombians took to the streets Wednesday in the seventh day of anti-government protests that have riled the nation and left at least 24 dead and some 800 injured.

The latest demonstration took place after a night of riots that left shops in cities like Barranquilla and Cali in ruins. A police station in Bogota was set on fire with frightened agents still inside, authorities said.

More than 47,000 officers in uniform have been mobilized throughout the country to try to maintain order. In Cali, one of the cities hardest hit by the turmoil, the streets were being patrolled by around 700 soldiers, 500 anti-riot agents and 1,800 regular police officers.

President Iván Duque said Wednesday that he had not ruled out declaring a “state of national commotion” if needed to stop the violence. The constitutional mechanism to protect the nation during periods of grave duress would grant him exceptional powers to contain the crisis.

Some of the protesters — which include labor unions, teachers, students and indigenous movements — are asking Duque to step down. The demonstrations began on April 28 to protest a tax reform proposal that was discarded following the unrest. Since then the protests have swelled to include a long list of grievances held by various groups.

While organizers have been calling for peaceful marches, several have turned violent, and human rights organizations are condemning authorities for excessive use of force. Official numbers put the number of victims at 24 dead and more than 800 wounded, though local rights organizations say the number of dead surpasses 30, most of them victims of bullet wounds.

“What we can say clearly is that we have received reports, and we have witnesses, (of) excessive use of force by security officers, shooting, live ammunition being used, beatings of demonstrators and as well detentions,” said Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Human Rights Watch also expressed alarm at witness accounts of police abuse.

“The situation is getting out of hand,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the organization’s Americas director. “It is urgent that the Colombian government adopt measures to lower tensions, de-escalate the situation and protect human rights.”

Police officers have also been injured in the unrest.

A mob set fire to a police station in Bogotá on Tuesday with 10 officers inside who barely managed to escape the flames, authorities said. City officials said that 15 police stations were targeted by vandals in actions that Mayor Claudia López described as “brutal.”

“They tried to burn them alive,” she said on her Twitter. “The scenes of pain, anger and violence that we saw last night are inadmissible.”

Thirty people were wounded during the Tuesday night attack, 16 of them officers, she added.

Reacting to the attacks on police stations, Duque said that the assaults were perpetrated by terrorist groups that are taking advantage of the legitimate claims of social groups to carry out acts of violence. He did not offer any evidence to back up his claim.

“We are hurt by the attacks on the CAI (police stations), where we have seen our policemen become vile victims of acts of cowardice and intimidation (…) The vandalism threat we face consists of a criminal organization hiding behind legitimate social aspirations to destabilize society,” he said.

The president said that authorities have made 553 arrests so far and offered a reward for information leading to the arrests of those behind the attacks.

While the protests began over the discarded tax reform, today they are channeling anger over a host of issues, ranging from the government’s incomplete implementation of the historic 2016 peace accord with leftist guerrillas and class inequality to the lack of government attention on social issues and failures to reform the police, said Colombian analyst Sergio Guzmán.

In an attempt to calm the public, Duque has said he is willing to start a dialogue with leaders of the opposition and civil society, although stopping short of including some of the protest leaders.

But many have doubts about the government’s true willingness to sit at a negotiation table, given that it promised to do so during the 2019 protests, only to later abandon the dialogue once the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life around the world.

The government’s response to the pandemic is also a driver of the recent unrest.

Evan Ellis, research professor for Latin America at the War College of the United States Army, said that the pandemic is accentuating social pressures not only in Colombia, but in most countries in the region, spurring people into the streets to protest.

“What the coronavirus is doing is worsening all the pressures on the social fabric in all countries and if you look at Latin America, you will find a situation of protest after protest,” said Ellis, who has been studying the political impact of the pandemic in the region.

“In the case of Colombia, the tax reform was only the match that set fire to a country flooded with gasoline,” he said.” And you have to understand that there is a lot of gasoline accumulated throughout the region.”

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