In Colombia, protests that started over a deeply unpopular tax reform have yielded a staggering death toll. Under the direction of conservative President Iván Duque, Colombia’s militarized police—armed with US-made tear-gas canisters and Israeli rifles—have killed 39 people in just 10 days of protests, according to the monitoring group Temblores. Twelve protesters have reported being sexually assaulted, while 963 have been arbitrarily arrested. The Ombudsman’s Office reported that 548 people have gone missing during the 10 days.
Viral cell phone videos have painted a clearer picture of repression on the ground: a 17-year-old shot point-blank after kicking a police officer, swarms of riot police firing ammunition at large crowds in Cali, and a young man bleeding out after receiving a gunshot from an ESMAD officer to the head. In one disturbing video, armed civilians fired repeatedly at Indigenous protesters under broad daylight in Cali, injuring at least nine.
“We don’t even know if we’ll make it back home,” said 20-year-old Leidy Torres about recent protests. “Everyday we see people dying.”
Indignation over a now-canceled tax proposal initially drew thousands of protesters to the streets of Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, and other large cities on April 28. That was the first day of a national strike organized by a coalition of workers’ unions, including the Central Union of Workers, the General Confederation of Labor, and the Colombian Federation of Educators. Tens of thousands of people, including students, Indigenous groups, feminists, peace activists, and unionists, joined the protests. Their greatest objections included the bill’s expansion of sales taxes on basic foodstuff, such as bread and eggs, and a proposed extension of income taxes to many middle-class Colombians. The strike committee called the bill an “affront” to the poor and vulnerable who are still reeling from the pandemic’s economic fallout.
But the tax reform bill was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, said protester Maribel Santacruz, 43, at a recent rally. “We’re tired,” she said as she handed out dozens of free sandwiches she made for hungry protesters. “During the pandemic, people were supposed to get subsidies, but they ended up with nothing to eat. What you see now are people reacting. The government promised a lot of things, but hasn’t followed through.”
The bill proposed by President Duque was advertised by the government as an effort to finance social spending to combat the negative effects of the pandemic, but critics believed the administration to be putting the concerns of foreign creditors over the needs of the poorest Colombians. Almost 25 million Colombians—nearly half of the country’s population—are living in poverty, according to government numbers.The unemployment rate has almost doubled compared to pre-pandemic figures.
At a roadblock last week, Torres described putting her dreams on hold during the pandemic. She lost a part-time job that paid for her college classes and had to postpone a semester of school. Thousands of Colombians have been forced out of college in the past year, threatening the aspirations of many who see education as the only way out of poverty.
“There are no jobs, sales tax is at 19 percent, and now there is a new tax reform bill that is going to affect all Colombians,” she said.
On May 2, Duque withdrew the tax reform bill in response to the protests. His finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, resigned the next day. But demonstrators are not ready to head home just yet. The strike has expanded to include larger demands such as a universal basic income and free college education for individuals and families in the lowest tax brackets. The protests have built upon frustrations that surfaced nearly two years ago, during another national strike in 2019. At the time, protesters poured onto the street in similar numbers, forcing Duque to have multiple meetings with the national strike committee over demands that included better access to health care, education, and a prompt implementation of the 2016 peace deal. Duque refused to make any concessions.
Since then, poor pandemic management has deepened social inequality rates, historically some of the worst in Latin America. President Duque’s approval rating has dropped to a record low after failing to rescue businesses from bankruptcy and the poor from hunger. During one of the longest quarantines in the world, many informal laborers, which make up 49 percent of the workforce, were forced off the streets with police violence.
“Protests will continue for as long as there is no effective result from the dialogue,” Francisco Maltés, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT), said in a recorded video last week. Along with the CUT, Colombia’s largest unions have led the strikes both this year and in 2019.
But critics say that the president is as adverse to dialogue now as he was during the 2019 negotiations and that there are no safety guarantees for protesters. A sit-down with opposition figures on May 7 and a meeting with strike leaders on May 10 failed to yield any compromises.
“There was no empathy from the government with the reasons and demands that have led to the national strike,” said Maltés in a press conference, during which union leaders called for a national strike again on May 12.
Meanwhile, as the protests persist, they have continued to meet a repressive police response, with support from Colombia’s leading conservative politicians. In an interview with CNN on May 4, former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe—who founded the right-wing party Duque belongs to, Centro Democrático—lamented that police were “disarmed” and “could not use lethal weapons” on protesters. An earlier tweet sent by Uribe, supporting “the right of soldiers and police to use their weapons to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from the criminal action of vandalism,” was taken down by Twitter for “glorifying violence.”
Similarly, Defense Minister Diego Molano has claimed without evidence that protests are being infiltrated by leftist guerrilla groups seeking to destabilize the country, an official line often used to stigmatize protests and justify the use of force. Marco Rubio echoed this claim in a tweet on May 6. If this were true, says analyst Ariel Avila, the president would be conceding that illegal armed groups are operating in Colombia’s largest cities, a scenario that would hark back to the worst security situation the country lived in the 1990s.
“These are kids on the street. They’re our youth,” said Luz Mary Martínez, a member of the Police Victims’ Bloc, a group that emerged last year following the state crackdown on anti-police brutality protests. “The most that they carry are homemade shields and a rock.”
Through US arms sales programs, the Colombian government has equipped Colombia’s riot control police known as the ESMAD with US-made stun grenades and tear gas, used to terrorize protesters, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Following recent protests, international organizations like WOLA and Peace Brigades International are calling on Congress to end the sale of equipment and training to ESMAD until reforms are made. Colombia remains the largest recipient of US foreign aid in Latin America, receiving over $400 million per year, half of which is allocated for military and security programs.
Some believe that the protests should stop now that the tax proposal has been withdrawn, yet there are no indications that they will. Despite the threat of violence, grassroots organizations are active and planning events every day. Aside from marches, there have been live concerts, art performances, and teach-ins. And while some residential areas resemble war zones during police crackdowns, survival tactics and a spirit of resilience learned during the armed conflict’s darkest days are helping people stay safe and persevere today.
In Bogotá, peaceful protesters have gathered in “humanitarian spaces,” designated areas where communities have prohibited the presence of all armed actors. The Indigenous Guard, an unarmed force that protects Indigenous homes from guerrilla and paramilitary violence, is protecting protesters in Cali. The Mothers of Soacha, a group of victims of extrajudicial killings, led a march on Mother’s Day in rejection of the police violence that has taken away the lives of so many mothers’ children.
“There’s a general feeling of hurt,” said Martínez. “But also of joy, resistance, and that if we come together, we can achieve change.”