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A perfect storm: What's behind the Colombia protests?

Anger over a tax reform proposal has spread to include economic frustration, rising inequality, the scarceness of Covid-19 vaccines and police violence.
Image: Colombian President Meets National Strike Committee Amid Ongoing Social Unrest
Protesters block streets with homemade shields on Monday in Bogota, Colombia. Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images

Colombia has been roiled by nationwide, antigovernment protests for more than two weeks, with the city of Cali emerging as the epicenter.

The demonstrations were initially sparked by anger over pandemic-related tax reforms, but have since intensified and spread, tapping into long-simmering fury over police violence amid growing inequality and disparity.

At least 42 people have died so far, according to Colombia's human rights ombudsman.

The president, Iván Duque, has blamed "drug trafficking mafias" for the acts of vandalism and offered a reward of up to 10 million Colombian pesos (about $2,600) to those who help identify and capture the perpetrators.

Social media, however, has made it possible to document the repression by security forces, particularly from the Colombian Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD), which has been singled out for various incidents, such as the death of 18-year-old Dilan Cruz during a November 2019 national strike, and more recently the death of Nicolás Guerrero, a 21-year-old activist who was shot in the head during demonstrations in Cali.

"There are completely unarmed people in the marches and they are confronted with officers armed to the teeth, practically military, and that has shocked the Colombian community in Florida, and throughout the world," said Carlos Naranjo, 37, an activist and member of the group Colombianos en Miami, or Colombians in Miami.

How did the demonstrations start?

The National Unemployment Committee, made up of unions and labor organizations, called for protests on April 28 against a tax reform proposed by Duque to address a deficit as a result of the pandemic. The proposal would have raised taxes on household products like milk, eggs and meat as well as gasoline and utilities. Those who earn more than 2.4 million Colombian pesos (about $624) a month would have had to declare income taxes starting in 2022.

The proposal generated outrage from unions and politicians, who said it would hurt the middle class and the most vulnerable.

The moment that sparked the most controversy was when Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, one of those behind the proposal, mistakenly said during an interview that a dozen eggs cost 1,800 Colombian pesos, instead of 4,300. Many took it as proof of the disconnect between the ruling class and the reality that the country's working class live in.

The call for the strike was successful with huge marches in multiple cities that continue today. The protests now include demands for the government to solve the health care crisis, the scarceness of vaccines in the country, and the ever-deepening poverty and inequality.

What happened to the tax proposal?

Tax reform was proposed because the government needs to raise 25 billion pesos (about $6.85 billion) to correct its economic imbalance.

Lower and middle-class citizens have been outraged that they have to contribute to these new state revenues through taxes. The pandemic and lockdowns have affected people's incomes. Poverty in 2020 rose to 42.5 percent, up from 36 percent the previous year. In March the unemployment rate reached 14 percent, up from 12.6 percent in the same period last year.

Because of pressure from the protests, Duque withdrew the reform on May 2 and said he would seek a new plan through consensus. The next day, the finance minister resigned.

"The situation in Colombia is difficult, like everywhere else, but it can be easily solved if the government really cared about taxing people with money," said James A. Robinson, director of the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago.

Why do the demonstrations continue?

Researchers have pointed out that inequality and undelivered promises on social issues are an explosive mix during moments of crisis. The conflict between guerrilla groups and the government made Colombia the scene of a low intensity war for over half a century.

The tax reform was the catalyst for the social unrest that has been fueled by violence, unemployment, noncompliance with a peace agreement, mismanagement of the pandemic and hunger.

"The causes of the mobilization range from poverty, the constant assassinations of social leaders, and problems that have not been resolved," said Juan Pablo Madrid-Malo, coordinator of the Foundation for Press Freedom in Colombia.

Robinson, of the University of Chicago, says the peace deal with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has created a space for new leftist politics to emerge that is more inclusive. "This is different," he said.

Duque's government began negotiations with the committee last week.

Police abuses

Human rights organizations have kept their own tally on the death count and called on the government to stop the use of excessive force.

In recent days, several cases of police abuse have been captured on video, including that of 17-year-old Marcelo Agredo, who kicked a policeman in Cali and was shot while fleeing. Agredo, a high school student, died shortly after.

Nicolás Guerrero, 27, a graffiti artist known as Flex, was also protesting in Cali when he died on the Puente del Comercio. A live broadcast on social media showed how his body was lying on the floor after shots were heard. The protesters hold ESMAD responsible for his death.

Santiago Murillo, 19, was returning home in Ibagué and was shot in the chest and killed as he went through a protest. He was two blocks from his house and the event was also recorded on video.

The United Nations and the European Union have warned about excessive use of force by police.

Accusations of violence and human rights abuses by the country's security forces are not new. Various organizations have denounced cases such as that of Dilan Cruz, who was shot in the head during a demonstration put down by members of ESMAD on Nov. 23, 2019; the death of nine young people during a fire at a police station in Soachá on Sept. 4, 2020; and at least 13 homicides allegedly committed by the forces of order last Sept. 9-10 in Bogotá.

"The demonstrations are taking other directions, not only because the power of citizen mobilization, but also because of the needs that afflict the country. One of these is police violence," said Sebastián Lanz, co-director of Temblores, an organization that has recorded more 1,200 cases of police violence and over 800 arbitrary arrests during the protests.

Lanz says that these detentions are irregular and "completely illegal" because people are transferred to centers where there are no public prosecutors to verify the human rights situation of the detainees. He says this is why "nobody knows what is going on in there."

What happens in Cali?

The city of Cali, in the country's southwest, with 2.2 million people, has been militarized since the government's order.

Analysts agree that Cali's geographic location makes it a hotspot for protests because of its proximity to areas affected by the conflict among guerrillas, paramilitaries and the military as well as drug trafficking and the displacement of people.

According to official data from 2019, Cali was the most dangerous city in the country, with 45.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

Alfredo Mondragón, a human rights activist who lives in Cali, says the city has an economic structure that focuses primarily on services with few major industries. Displaced people from marginalized communities have been settling in the North and the South and they have a cultural tradition of Indigenous resistance.

"When you add to that the economic problems of the pandemic, a kind of social bomb is generated," Mondragón said.

Many protesters say they will continue to take to the streets because of their disagreement with government policies.

"In several areas the police shoot with firearms, and the plainclothes policemen appear in vans firing," said Michel Adolfo Torres Carmona, a protester from Cali. "There are many missing people. But we must continue the fight. The world must know what they are doing to us."

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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