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In Colombia, 19 people were killed in pandemic protests

BOGOTA, Colombia – Among the dead is a ninth-grader who went out to protest with his brother; an artist shot in the head as the cameras rolled; and a teenager whose excruciating cry of grief – “Son, I want to be with you!” – have been shared thousands of times online.

At least 19 people were killed and hundreds more injured during protests in Colombia, in which tens of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against tax repairs designed to fill the fiscal hole associated with the pandemic.

On Sunday, President Ivan Duque announced he would withdraw the current proposal and instead seek a new plan, this time by consensus. “Reform is not a fad,”

; he said, “reform is a necessity.”

On Monday, the country’s finance minister said he would resign.

But the decisions did little to provoke public outrage, and the protests turned into a national protest over the growing poverty, unemployment and inequality caused by the arrival of the coronavirus last year.

Latin America, and South America in particular, has been particularly hard hit by the virus, and many countries in the region are facing dire fiscal conditions if reforms are not made.

Mr Duque was among the first to try to tackle his country’s economic problems, and the public response here does not bode well for other regional leaders, said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia’s risk analysis consultant.

“This is one of those moments when a key breakthrough in society is happening,” he said. “And people are tired and wake up from the power of the street.”

The protests continue in part out of anger over what several human rights groups have called a tough state response in an attempt to control them.

Several cases of police abuse have been videotaped in recent days, including one in which a young protester was seen kicking a police officer on a motorcycle. The video shows a police officer reacting by shooting the protester as he fled.

The protester was Marcelo Agredo, a 17-year-old ninth-grader who went out to march with his brother. He died soon after, according to his father, Armando Agredo. The death was confirmed by the country’s ombudsman, a government agency that investigates human rights abuses.

“You don’t take a person’s life for a kick,” said Mr. Agredo, a 62-year-old retired taxi driver. “We want justice.”

Credit …Armando Agredo

Amid this anger, former President Alvaro Uribe turned to Twitter to say that Colombians should support “the right of soldiers and police to use their weapons to defend themselves” against “terrorism.”

The social media site removed the message shortly afterwards, saying it was violating rules “regarding the glorification of violence.”

Mr Duque, politically mentored by Mr Uribe, soon deployed more troops on the street to quell the unrest.

The protests began on Wednesday and by Monday at least 18 civilians and one police officer, Jesus Solano, had died, according to the country’s ombudsman. Among those killed was 86-year-old Jesus Flores, who died “apparently from inhaling gas”.

According to the national police, at least 540 police officers were injured during the demonstrations, while more than 100 buses were vandalized or burned. Police said they had also identified nearly 17,000 people who did not comply with public health measures such as wearing masks.

The protests come just as the country is experiencing the deadliest moment of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database that tracks deaths and infections.

Mr Guzman of the Colombia Risk Analysis said there was broad agreement that fiscal reform was needed to keep the country afloat. but that the government had waited too long to repeal the unpopular tax proposal, allowing the anger, frustration, and discontent that had raged over the past year to return.

“Now it’s a lot about the way the government has run the country for two and a half years, it’s about the blockades, it’s about people’s dissatisfaction,” he said.

Colombia’s economy shrank 7 percent last year, while poverty rose from about 36 percent to nearly 43 percent of the population, according to data released last week.

The tax proposal would raise tariffs on some everyday goods, while maintaining pandemic-era cash subsidies designed to help people in need.

In the end, however, many on the streets said they saw only tax increases – and a government that they said was out of touch with their needs.

“They pushed us to hunger,” said Natalia Arevalo, 29, protesting in Bogota. Ms Arévalo, who sells clothes, said last week that a new blockade aimed at curbing the spread of the virus had severely curtailed sales. “Now they want to take what little we have left.”

Some of the biggest protests were in Cali, Colombia’s third largest city. On Sunday, Nicolas Guerrero, a young artist, was among hundreds gathered in the northern part of the city. Suddenly shots erupted.

A grainy video, broadcast live and watched by many, shows shouts and confusion.

Juan Gomez, a 27-year-old lawyer, was there watching Mr. Guerrero bleed at his feet.

“It was awful,” Mr Gomez said. “I’ve never seen anyone die before my eyes.”

“There is no proportionality,” he said of the force used on the street. “There’s no point.”

He spoke on the phone on Monday. He was angry enough to say he planned to return to the streets later that day.

Sofia Vilamil participates in the reporting.

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