Monday, March 4, 2024

LATIN AMERICA | 06-05-2021 12:45

Pressure mounts on Colombian government as protests enter second week

Students, unions, indigenous people and other groups assembled in the capital Bogotá, as well as the cities of Medellín in the northwest and Cali in the southwest.

Thousands of demonstrators poured onto Colombia's streets Wednesday, the eighth straight day of protests despite clashes that have left at least 24 dead and hundreds wounded.

Students, unions, indigenous people and other groups assembled in the capital Bogotá ,as well as the cities of Medellín in the northwest and Cali in the southwest.

Their frustration was initially triggered by a proposed tax reform – since withdrawn. But the demonstrations have become freighted with anger over the government's policies on health, education and inequality, as well as the violent repression by security forces.

According to official figures, at least 24 people have died – 18 of whom were shot – with more than 800 others wounded and 89 people reported missing during the week. Others have higher tolls. The Temblores NGO reported 37 people dead. Reporters Without Borders meanwhile said that 76 journalists were assaulted, 10 of whom were injured by security forces.

Demonstrators staged protests at various points around Bogotá on Wednesday, holding banners with slogans calling for President Iván Duque to resign.

Presidential adviser Miguel Ceballos said that the government will meet with demonstrator representatives "next week," while the high courts requested that any conversations include "all parties" from the "peaceful protests and social unrest."

Thousands, most wearing face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, gathered at the downtown Plaza Bolívar near the presidential headquarters. Police prevented one group from entering Congress.

Another 8,000 people took to the streets of Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city, by mid-morning.

While the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, violence has escalated in some cities.

Despite recent calls for calm from the international community, fresh havoc was wreaked in the capital overnight.

"Police are attacking us ... we're not vandals," said a 36-year-old woman named Natalia who declined to give her last name. She was in a crowd of people dressed in mourning garb.

Thirty civilians and 16 police officers were wounded in attacks on police stations, the Bogotá Mayor's Office said.

The aftermath of the clashes was visible Wednesday in the form of torched police stations, vandalised bus shelters and banks and smoldering tires.

"It hurts to see this but what hurts even more is the negligence of a deaf government that prefers to send out the security forces," Héctor Cuinemi, a 19-year-old student in Bogotá, told AFP.

Government crackdown

On Tuesday, the United Nations, European Union and the United States, as well as human rights organisations, criticised Colombian security officers' use of force.

One of the worst incidents took place in Cali late Monday when five people died and 30 were wounded.

By Wednesday, many roadblocks remained in Cali – Colombia's third-most populous city and one of the most violent in Latin America – with trucks carrying fuel and medical supplies requiring military and police protection to get through as the country battles a second wave in the coronavirus pandemic. 

The government blames the violence on armed gangs, including dissidents of the disbanded leftist FARC guerrillas, members of another leftist rebel group, the ELN and drug-traffickers.

The president has previously promised to open "spaces for dialogue" with the various protesting sectors, although he has defended the security forces and said they are the main victims of the violence.

The social unrest comes just over a month ahead of the start of the Copa América, jointly hosted by Colombia and Argentina.

South American football's governing body CONMEBOL moved five continental club matches that were to be played this week in Colombia to other countries.

But Duque vowed that the Copa América would continue to be jointly hosted by Colombia.

"The Copa will happen... in the two countries. I think it will be an important message at this time," he said.

The anti-government protests highlight the economic despair faced by many in the wake of the global coronavirus crisis. 

In its worst performance in half a century, Colombia's GDP shrank 6.8 percent in 2020, and unemployment stood at 16.8 percent in March.

Almost half the population lives in poverty, according to official figures.


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by Lina Vanegas, AFP

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