A young Colombian citizen holds a banner reading "Colombia resists. Pamplona is with you." Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo

Despite rising death toll, protests continue in Colombia

For a third consecutive week, anti-government protesters have taken to Colombia’s streets to demand economic assistance and stand up against the recent uptick of violence, according to Al Jazeera


As of May 11, Colombia’s human rights ombudsperson reported 41 civilians and one police officer had died in direct connection to the protests. 


Protests originally broke out on April 28 in relation to proposed tax reform that would potentially increase taxes on public services, fuel, wages and pensions. Although Colombian President Iván Duque announced on May 2 he would withdraw the new reforms, protests have continued over broader economic demands. 


“I am asking Congress to withdraw the law proposed by the finance ministry and urgently process a new law that is the fruit of consensus, in order to avoid financial uncertainty,” Duque said, according to Reuters. “It is a moment for all of us to work together without malice.”


While some of the demonstrations remained peaceful, many protesters and human rights groups argue governmental pressures, along with violence by police officers and military forces have turned many demonstrations violent and deadly. 


“Since [April 28], there have been demonstrations, mostly peaceful, in different parts of the country in response to the tax reform bill presented by President Iván Duque, which have often been violently repressed,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. 

“On [May 1], the president announced a military presence in ‘urban centers where there is a high risk to the integrity of citizens,’ and stated: ‘I want to issue a clear warning to those who, through violence, vandalism and terrorism, seek to intimidate society and think that by this mechanism they will break the institutions.’” 

According to AP News, some government officials have announced that they believe rebel groups have infiltrated protests and drug-trafficking enterprises are subsidizing demonstrations.

“The population’s discontent over economic measures that they perceive as unfair and may put their human rights at risk should not be labeled ‘vandalism and terrorism,’ as President Iván Duque has done, nor be used as an excuse for violent repression,” Guevara-Rosas said.

“Thousands of young people have taken to the streets across Colombia because they feel they have no future. They see government institutions as distant entities that are not willing to listen to them,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s director for the Americas, according to AP News. “While some of them have engaged in violence, police officers have arbitrarily dispersed peaceful protests and responded with excessive, often brutal, force to violent protesters.”

The economic issues that are being protested were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as now over 40% of the population lives with less than enough to satisfy their basic needs.

“The Colombia protests are not just about [COVID-19], they are about anger towards Duque for police repression from 2019 onwards, not advancing the 2016 peace accord, rising massacres and killings of social leaders and the perception by middle and working-class Colombians that the government is only interested in advancing the economic and political elites’ agendas,” said Gimena Sanchez, director of the Washington Office on Latin America Director for the Andes. 


“It goes beyond the usual people you would find at these protests; student organizations, labor unions, transport unions,” said Sergio Guzman, director of the consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis. “A much broader segment of society wants to show its discontent.”


A day after Duque withdrew the tax reform, Alberto Carrasquilla, Colombia’s finance minister, resigned. On May 13, Colombia’s Foreign Minister Claudia Blum also resigned following the conflict.


“I have accepted the resignation of Dr. Alberto Carrasquilla as [finance minister],” Duque wrote in a tweet. “My gratitude and respect always for your contribution at the head of the economic team. During his administration, important achievements were achieved, including an unprecedented social program to face the pandemic.” 


Despite the resignations, withdrawal of the tax reform and rising COVID-19 cases, protesters continue to take to the streets to voice their grievances.


‘How bad must the situation be for us to march in the middle of a pandemic?” said Jhon Ramirez, a protester in Zipaquira, a city near the capital of Bogota. “The violence has taken a backseat because we can’t deal anymore with this government that won’t stop killing us.”