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A protester clashes with a police officer in Bogota, Colombia, during demonstrations against the Colombian government on May 5, 2021.FEDERICO RIOS/The New York Times News Service

What started off in Colombia as a peaceful protest in late April against an unpopular tax proposal has grown into deadly demonstrations that have stretched into their second week.

The turmoil is a broader display of anger against police brutality and the economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic in a country that was already suffering from economic hardship.

Colombia’s human-rights ombudsman said the clashes between protesters and security forces have left at least 24 people dead. But rights groups and non-governmental organizations say that number is much higher, and scores of individuals remain unaccounted for.

With thousands of people still taking to the streets, Colombia is a country on edge as social media is inundated with images of protesters being beaten by riot police and officers opening fire indiscriminately. This has only added to the resentment across the country.

The violence directed at protesters prompted the United Nations this week to accuse Colombia’s security forces of using excessive force against demonstrators.

The marches began after President Ivan Duque proposed a tax overhaul meant to close a pandemic-related economic shortfall. Even though he withdrew the contentious plan four days after the protests began, the unrest continues. The crowds have only grown, fuelled by outrage over the government’s actions against demonstrators that has seen riot police responding with tear gas, stun grenades, batons and firearms.

“Even during the worst years of the [decades-long] armed conflict, events of human-rights abuse weren’t this prolonged or widespread,” said Adam Isacson, director for defence oversight at Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a non-governmental organization.

“Government forces openly attacking people in several parts of the country at the same time is something I haven’t seen in 25 years of closely following Colombia.”

There were strikes and demonstrations in November, 2019, that were largely focused on government inaction over extrajudicial killings. But those protests came to a halt last year because of the pandemic. Now, however, demonstrators have broadened their demands on government to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in the health and education systems.

“The roots of these protests are a secret to no one,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for International Crisis Group. “COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated Colombia’s extreme inequality in every sense of the word: income, health care, education, even basic security and safety.”

In Bogota, student Juan Mendoza made his feelings clear: “This has all been a pressure cooker and it’s a protest against the political mismanagement of the past few years. The tax reform proposed would have raised the prices of basic foodstuffs on a population without work, without subsidies and this was the final straw.”

Other key issues at stake for the protestors include the government’s unwillingness to adhere to the 2016 peace accord signed with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas, and the killings of social and community leaders that remain uninvestigated. (Fifty-seven social leaders and 22 former FARC combatants have been killed so far in 2021 according to Indepaz, the Colombian Institute for studies on development and peace).

The protesters are also angry over the potential restart of aerial fumigation of coca cultivations with glyphosate and the sluggish response to the pandemic, which has so far resulted in the deaths of close to 76,000 people.

Aside from the President, another political figure looms large in Colombia’s current discord – his mentor and former two-term president, Alvaro Uribe (2000-08).

At protests across the country, citizens hold placards with the number 6,402 – referring to the estimated number of people killed between 2002 and 2008 in what is known as the “false positives.” People were lured from Bogota and other cities with the promises of jobs, murdered, then dressed as guerrillas in order to boost body counts by falsely presenting them as enemy combatants. Despite continuing investigations since 2005, Colombians are still waiting for answers as to why thousands were extrajudicially killed by members of the Colombian army under Mr. Uribe’s presidency.

The former president condemned the protesters in a tweet suggesting that the armed forces were within their rights to use extreme force. That has since been taken down for violating Twitter’s rules regarding the “glorification of violence.”

Colombian Defence Minister Diego Molano has asserted that in the southern city of Cali, where some of the most violent events have taken place, riots have been infiltrated, planned and financed by illegal armed groups.

“Obviously there are going to be insurgent and illegal elements trying to make best use of the situation but they are not leading things,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy. “This may change in the future though as the anti-government sentiment feeds into their anti-government narrative.”

The current momentum is with the protests. The government seems intent on increasing the police and military presence, while demonstrators cover all acts of police brutality from every angle, immediately uploading video for the world to view.

“Nothing seems to suggest that the people are in a de-escalatory mood. Neither the government nor the protestors,” Mr. Guzman said. “We need to find common ground and solutions but at this moment, no one thinks that negotiating is politically viable and in times of crisis, political non-co-operation is profitable.”

With students on the streets, truck drivers blocking highways and key routes to cities, Indigenous groups arriving in Cali in support of countrywide protests, and the resignation of finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla, there is clearly no quick fix to quell the unrest.

As Luisa, a demonstrator The Globe and Mail is not fully identifying because she fears police reprisals, said: “The people will not stop marching, this is a dictatorship disguised as a democracy and we are tired of it.”

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