Colombia is preparing for further unrest after a weekend in which largely peaceful national demonstrations were met with a violent police response, in which at least 16 protesters and one police officer were killed and hundreds injured.
Videos shared on social media over the weekend showed police firing on protesters, sometimes up close, beating crowds with motorcycles and hitting protesters with their shields.
Demonstrations began with a general strike last Wednesday over unpopular tax reform, but escalated rapidly when protesters were greeted by riot police armed with tear gas, round bags and clubs.
“They may have weapons, but they can’t kill us all,” Gabriela Gutierrez, one of a group of students who set up a blockade in central Bogota, said on Monday. “Colombia needs a change and we will be on the streets until we get it.”
Along with the unpopular tax proposal, protesters also opposed a deeply polarizing government, in defense of endangered human rights leaders, to increase social media during the pandemic and to reform the police.
Although most of the demonstrations were peaceful, incidents of robbery and vandalism were reported in Cali, Bogota and other cities. The road between Cali and Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest seaport on the Pacific coast, was also blocked by protesters.
Tensions rose on Saturday night when President Ivan Duke ordered troops to take to the streets. But less than 24 hours later, he was forced to repeal a proposed tax reform that would increase taxes on individuals and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to devastate public health and the economy.
“Reform is not a whim, but a necessity,” Duke said in a televised address Sunday afternoon as he announced the turn.
The Duque concession did little to quell the protesters’ anger, with strike leaders saying the demonstrations would continue this week and that a new national strike would take place on Wednesday.
“People on the streets are demanding much more than the axis of reform,” Francisco Maltes, president of Colombia’s central union, told a news conference Monday morning, adding that the brutal police response “shortened democratic guarantees for social protest.”
Scenes of police brutality became tediously familiar in Colombia. Anti-police demonstrations erupted last September after Javier Ordonez, a lawyer, was killed by officers. At least 10 people were killed and dozens of police pavilions were set on fire in the ensuing unrest.
The confirmed number of victims of the current violence is expected to increase in the coming days.
Monday morning, after a night of casserole – a noisy spectacle in which people knock pots and pans out of their windows – truck drivers block roads across the country. In Bogota, while Duque held an emergency meeting with his finance minister, drivers issued approval as their students waved slowly through the blockade.
“Every time we protest, the police withdraw their weapons,” said Alejandro Rodriguez, another student protesting in Bogota. “We will not worry about their violence.”