Protester washes tear gas during the demonstrations of April 28, 2021, Medellín. Protester washes tear gas during the demonstrations of April 28, 2021, Medellín. Source: Flickr - Humano Salvaje / cropped from original / / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Jonathan Maunders reports on the mass protests across Colombia in response to police brutality and planned government austerity measures

What started as a general strike called in response to an unpopular tax hike quickly spawned into angry protests against inequality and the Colombian authority’s violent response towards the demonstrations, which have seen the death of twenty-three protesters and many more missing.

While Colombia’s right-wing president, Iván Duque, has been forced to withdraw the planned tax rises, the protests have continued to grow, with trade unions accusing his government of failing to listen to the wider demands of protesters.

Despite retracting the tax hike, Duque has repeatedly sought to label protesters as ‘terrorists’ and has tried to link them to dissident rebel groups, further angering those demonstrating on the streets.

On Wednesday, thousands of protesters marched through Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, despite awful weather conditions and the threat of further police retaliation. Many then gathered in the historic Plaza Bolivar, facing the Capitol Building, before being dispersed by riot police with tear gas.

Colombia has long been beset by rising inequality and this has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The number of Colombians living in extreme poverty has surged by 2.8 million in the last twelve months alone. An austerity package that unfairly hit Colombia’s poorest was enough to drive many to take to the streets.

The protests have been fueled by the opposition to the police’s brutal response to the protests. Officers have repeatedly launched tear gas and fired on protesters, often with live ammunition. Indeed, a recent report from Amnesty International confirmed that the Colombian police force have used lethal
weapons, including semi-automatic firearms, against protesters. The western city of Cali has experienced much of the violence, with eleven protesters killed and hundreds injured.

Protesters in Colombia are now demanding an end to police violence and urgent improvements to pension provisions, the health service and the education system, as well as calling for Duque’s resignation.

This is a unique opportunity for Colombians to reverse the tide of inequality and force radical change. They must continue to build momentum and make their movement as broad as possible if they are to seize this moment.

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