Mass protests were held across Colombia on Wednesday after a night of unrest in the capital city, as street violence continued after more than a week of angry anti-government demonstrations.
Twenty-three protesters and one police officer have been killed in the unrest that began with with a general strike over an unpopular tax reform but has grown into an outburst of rage over poverty exacerbated by the pandemic, human rights abuses and the authorities’ heavy-handed response to protests.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands marched through Bogotá, the capital, despite the threat of police violence and the pounding rain.
Several hundred gathered in the historic Plaza Bolivar, in front of the capitol, in a largely peaceful demonstration pockmarked with a few stone-throwing agitators. Riot police had cleared the square with teargas and flash bangs by evening.
María José López, a student, took cover from a volley of teargas under an awning nearby as a platoon of riot police marched past. “I’m here because my country is sick, it is completely unwell,” López said. “The government doesn’t know how to listen, only to send in the troops.”
Dozens of protestors and police officers were hurt in clashes on the poor southern fringes of Bogotá on Tuesday night. Crowds wrecked 25 police kiosks, setting one on fire and injuring five officers, according to city officials. Bus stations across the city were also vandalized. By the end of Wednesday’s marches, 45 stations were out of service due to damage.
Elsewhere, demonstrators blocked roads and painted anti-government slogans on the asphalt as people banged pots and pans from their apartment windows above.
“We must de-escalate. Seriously,” tweeted columnist Jorge Galindo, echoing nationwide calls for calm. “Nothing else matters now.”
President Iván Duque, whose three years in office have been marked by nationwide protests, has been powerless to quell the unrest despite ordering the militarization of major cities and withdrawing his tax plan. His government has attempted to frame the protests as the work of “terrorists” from dissident rebel groups.
Meanwhile Colombia continues to be ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far claimed more than 75,000 lives, with daily deaths last week breaking the country’s records. The number of people living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people last year amid coronavirus lockdowns that exacerbated the country’s deeply entrenched inequalities.
Much criticism has focused on the police response to the disturbances, with warlike scenes in cities across the country as officers in riot gear launch teargas and fire on crowds, sometimes with live rounds.
Videos analysed by Amnesty International confirmed that police have used lethal weapons, including rifles and semi-automatic guns, against protesters around the country.
“It is deeply alarming to see the heavy-handed crowd control response across the country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director of Amnesty International. “The people’s discontent over the economic crisis is clear – it is unjust and puts their human rights at risk.”
The drone of helicopters above has been a constant soundtrack in the south-western city of Cali, the center of unrest where at least 11 protesters have been killed in the last week. Locals reported that internet coverage was unusually spotty during Tuesday night’s demonstrations.
“There’s no food and no fuel, just helicopters all the time,” one resident of Cali told the Guardian. “Militarization is in process, gunshots and gas fill the streets.”