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In Colombia, death toll following protests mounts as unrest continues

The government has come under fire from international groups for its heavy-handed response to the protests.
A riot police officer shoots towards protesters at Bolivar Square during a national strike on May 05, 2021 in Bogota, Colombia.
A riot police officer shoots toward protesters at Bolivar Square during a national strike Wednesday in Bogotá, Colombia.Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images

Colombia entered its eighth day of national anti-government protests, with police firing tear gas at crowds in the capital, Bogotá, after they attacked a police station.

There have been 24 confirmed deaths so far, about half of which have been linked to police violence; some independent groups say the death toll is as high as 37. Colombia's Defensoría del Pueblo, its public ombudsman, has said 89 people were missing following the protests. International organizations, like the European Union and the U.N. human rights office, warned about the use of excessive force.

The demonstrations were ignited by a plan for tax reform that has since been canceled. But the protests continued, morphing into calls on the government to address growing poverty, inequality and police violence.

The tax increase that President Iván Duque insisted is necessary to fix the country’s economy has been scrapped, and Duque said he would seek a new one. The Andean country’s economy fell by almost 7 percent last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic-related lockdowns have aggravated Colombia’s inequality, with 42.5 percent of the country’s population now living in poverty.

Duque has said his government will create “spaces” for civil society groups, political parties and the private sector to meet with government representatives. Some groups say he failed to deliver on similar promises during protests in 2019.

In a video Wednesday, Duque repeated claims by other government officials that criminal organizations were hiding among the protesters. “The extreme vandalism and the urban terrorism that we are observing is financed and articulated by narco-trafficking mafias,” he said.

Colombia is a close ally of the U.S., making the situation a delicate balance for the Biden administration to address.

Protesters gather around a statue of Simon Bolivar in Bogota on Wednesday.
Protesters gather around a statue of Simon Bolivar in Bogota on Wednesday.Sebastian Benavides / NBC / Telemundo

Juan S. Gonzalez, who heads the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, struck a diplomatic tone in a tweet Wednesday.

Gonzalez, who was born in Colombia, said that “the right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom," adding: "Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took a swipe at Colombia’s leftists, echoing the Colombian government's claims, as the affinity between Colombia’s right wing and some in the U.S. Republican Party appears to strengthen.

In a tweet Thursday, retweeted by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and conservative Colombian Sen. María Fernanda Cabal, Rubio wrote, “Behind much of the violence occurring in #Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”

The country is intensely polarized as its presidential elections approach next May. Socialist candidate Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, is leading in recent polls.

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said in a statement about the situation in Colombia that “all over the world, citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully."

"Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right,” it said.

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