For the past nine days, the streets of Colombia have been full of protesters venting their anger at the government. The state’s authoritarian and violent response has been disproportionate and unjustifiable, and must end immediately.
The protests were initially provoked by a tax reform project that has since been discarded. Now, they have taken on a new meaning, addressing not only other structural problems throughout Colombian society but also against the brutality of the police that has been witnessed throughout the country.
So far, 37 people have been killed by police, according to the NGO, Temblores. A further 90 people are missing, including two minors, according to statistics made public by the Colombian ombudsman’s office. The United Nations Human Rights Office has urged President Iván Duque’s government to remember its responsibilities towards citizens and to condemn the violation of human rights.
However, the current atrocities did not spring out of nowhere nine days ago – they were long warned about.
Colombians have lived through more than 60 years of conflict so violence has long been normalized. More than 300 social leaders have been murdered and there have been more than 50 massacres of defenseless civilians every year since the signing of Colombia’s peace agreement with Farc in November 2016. Incomprehensibly, the authorities are unable to tackle this dire situation.
With the indiscriminate and lethal targeting of violence towards citizens as they legitimately protest in the streets, a new red line has been crossed.
Firing at civilians
On 28 April (also known as #28A, the hashtag used to call the strike), unions, Indigenous groups, opposition politicians and civil organizations called for Colombians to take to the streets with one purpose: to protest against the tax reform bill that the then finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla had presented before Congress, which was considered profoundly unjust to ordinary citizens.
The bill proposed to lower the income tax base to those who earn 2.4 million pesos a month ($540) and the pension tax base to 4.8 million pesos a month ($1,080). Also, from 2023, the base would be further expanded and all Colombians who earn more than 1.4 million pesos ($378) per month would have to declare their earnings for taxation. Considering the minimum monthly wage in Colombia is 908,526 pesos, which is equivalent to about $245, it is clear why Colombians took to the streets en masse to protest.
From the very start of the strike, there were some minor acts of vandalism alongside the peaceful protests. Those acts of vandalism, however, were nothing compared to the assaults committed by the Mobile Anti-Riot Squads (ESMAD in Spanish) of the National Police.
Although attacks against civilians were barely mentioned by the mainstream media, social media sites, especially Twitter, were inundated with reports of police abuse. As the protests continued, Colombians woke up to a new reality: those responsible for protecting citizens were firing bullets at them instead.
The spiral of violence became especially intense in Cali. During the first weekend of May, the city’s citizens flooded the streets and confronted the police, in some cases, aggressively. Given the magnitude of the protests that spread throughout the country, on the night of 2 May, President Duque withdrew the tax reform bill and announced that a new one would be drafted.
The violence escalated when police refused to agree to a call to disarm made by the Bogotá mayor, Claudia López
That same night, the Instagram account of popular Cali DJ, Juan De Leon, broadcast a livestream for more than five hours that appeared to show ESMAD and police forces using tear gas and firing on young people in Cali. At the same time, thousands of Twitter accounts claimed that a young man, Nicolas Guerrero, had died from a shot to the head, fired by an ESMAD member. He was later confirmed dead, and he wasn’t the only one. The ombudsman confirmed that at least 17 Colombians had died at the hands of police as of 4 May. The following day, Carrasquilla and his vice-minister resigned, as the crisis grew.
The protests continued in several cities, as well as the capital of Bogotá, throughout the past week. On the night of 4 May, the violence escalated when police refused to agree to a call to disarm made by the Bogotá mayor, Claudia López. As tensions ratcheted up, 16 police detention centers were destroyed. An attempt to burn down one center with at least ten police officers inside left five injured.
On 4 May, Duque finally announced he would open a dialogue with university representatives, community leaders, governors and mayors but so far has excluded the main protest organizers, such as youth organizations and unions. The following day, a congressional commission was approved to mediate between the government and the protesters, and a humanitarian corridor for medical and food transport was set up.
The international response was immediate. Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, in a video posted on social networks, that the group was investigating how many deaths from police violence have occurred and called on the government to remember its responsibilities. Meanwhile, Humans Rights Watch and its director, José Miguel Vivanco, have called on the president and his government to stop attacking civilians and to restore order.
The deputy spokesperson for the US State Department, Jalina Porter, released a statement saying: “In all countries of the world, citizens have the right to protest peacefully”, although she rejected “vandalism”. Porter also called on the Colombian security authorities to show “the greatest restraint” in dealing with the protests and added that Washington “supports” the government of Colombia in its quest to solve the situation through “dialogue”.
The president should listen to the discontent of the Colombian people. It is time to face reality, or resign.
The Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP in Spanish) has denounced the 40 attacks to date on journalists covering the strike. The Colombian human rights organization, DeJusticia, joined 22 human rights organizations to ask the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to document the victims, as well as the organizational processes that have been affected by violence and disproportionate use of force during the strike. Meanwhile, Anonymous announced on its social networks that it had hacked the page of the Colombian army, the page of Congress, and made the email addresses and cellphone numbers of members of the army publicly available online.
No time for silence
Despite the escalation of public and political pressure, Duque has remained quiet. On the first day of the strike, he claimed that the protesters were simply vandals. Later, he announced the withdrawal of the tax reform bill and accepted Carrasquilla’s resignation. The next day, the Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights claimed that “rights must be earned”.
When Duque announced a space for dialogue on 4 May, he still failed to order security forces to stop being violent in the streets. The next day, he offered a “reward of 10 million pesos” (more than $2,000) in exchange for information on “perpetrators of vandalism”. He did not make any reference to those killed by the police.
There are also concerns that Duque is buckling under the pressure of his mentor, the former president Álvaro Uribe, who asked him to take the army into the streets on Twitter. The actions of Duque’s senior officials also raise cause for concern. For instance, the ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, initially said he was unaware of acts of violence by the police, with reports published citing far lower figures for civilians killed by police compared to those recorded by human rights organizations.
And yet, in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe for which his ineptitude is ultimately responsible, Duque fails to act, which could be interpreted as affirming his contempt for his country’s citizens.
Duque’s troubles go way beyond the tax reform bill and the protests. Around 21 million Colombians live in poverty, unemployment is at 17.2% and the country now has almost three million COVID-19 cases at a time where the government’s health bill has been widely criticized.
The president must order an immediate cessation of police violence, withdraw the army from the streets, and investigate abuses, homicides and disappearances. But above all, he should listen to the discontent of the Colombian people. It is time to face reality, or resign.
Get our weekly email