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Illustration by Security Management

Protests in Colombia Continue

Although Colombian President Ivan Duque rescinded an unpopular tax reform plan, massive protests across the country’s cities continue into a second week, with a death toll of 24 and an estimated 89 people listed as missing.

Colombia's revenue has declined significantly as the pandemic ravaged the economy. Colombia has an increasing foreign debt, and is largely dependent on exports, which have been hit especially hard by the worldwide pandemic. As a result, Duque had proposed tax increases on everyday goods.

Thousands of protesters—including union members, activists, teachers, students, doctors, and even citizens new to protesting, according to The New York Times—claimed the plan would further disenfranchise middle- and working-class groups.  

The country’s lockdowns in response to the pandemic further depressed its labor market and “more than 3.6 million Colombians fell back into poverty during the pandemic,” CNN reported. Duque’s proposal to hike taxes on items, such as food, was a breaking point for many who could no longer afford to eat three meals a day. It didn’t help that Colombia was also experiencing a third wave of the coronavirus.

According to Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), by the end of 2020, the country’s population living in poverty had increased from 35.7 percent to 42.5 percent over the course of a year.

The Times also noted that the protests “are, in part, a continuation of a movement that swept Latin America in late 2019 as people took to the streets in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.” The common thread connecting the protests throughout the region was frustration over limited growth opportunities, corruption, and officials who appeared to be working against the public.

Among these countries, Duque was the first leader to propose a tax reform as the coronavirus pandemic continued to hammer the local economy. The protests, which were reignited on 28 April, were not only in response to the proposed tax increase, but also borne of frustrations over Colombia’s coronavirus response and a significant increase in unemployment since 2020.

Duque rescinded the proposal on Sunday and his finance minister resigned on 3 May. Duque and his administration are still left with the task of finding a solution to repair not only Colombia’s finances, but also the sense of inequality and disparity further feeding the people’s frustration.

Like other instances of civil unrest, violence has been waged against the protesters and the police. Several incidents of police using extreme force have been captured and shared via the Internet and social media—including use of tear gas and batons, according to CNN. The BBC estimated that more than 800 people have been injured in confrontations between protesters and the authorities. Of the 24 deaths, “the police were believed to be responsible for at least 11.” Demonstrators are also calling for police reform and an end to police brutality.

Another 89 people are reported as “disappeared” between 28 April and 3 May. Rights organizations and foreign entities, such as the United Nations, have raised concerns over authorities' actions against demonstrators, and called on security forces to to cease the use of firearms, according to the BBC.

The police have also been the target of frustration and attacks, with one police officer killed during the protests. Other violent actors have burned public busses and set fire to roughly 25 smaller police stations, also known as immediate response police commando posts.

On 5 May, protesters also breached barriers posted around the country’s Congress and attacked the facility until they were pushed back by police.

Government officials have defended police actions, and instead accused rioters and organized crime of being responsible for the violence. However, Duque has not yet bowed to his party and imposed a state of emergency or siege, which would give him broader powers.

Experts and political analysts noted that demonstrations in one Latin American country have a history of spreading to others in the region.