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What’s happening in Colombia right now and why are people protesting?

By Alma Fabiani

May 6, 2021

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At least 24 people, including a police officer, have died since the protests started in Colombia. The UN has urged the security forces to refrain from using firearms after it was alleged that the police were responsible for at least 11 of those deaths. More than 800 people have been injured in clashes between the police and demonstrators while more than 80 others are reported as missing.

Yesterday, Wednesday 6 May, Bogotá’s city officials said that 25 immediate response police commando posts (known as CAI for the initials in Spanish) had been attacked during the night. “CAI are small police stations which can be found dotted across neighbourhoods and often consist of little more than a room or two,” reports the BBC.

One CAI was set on fire with 15 officers inside, who managed to escape alive. There were also reports of police being shot and being attacked by people with knives. Yesterday, city officials said that the night of violence across Bogotá had left 30 civilians and 16 police officers injured. Incidents were also reported in other cities including Cali, where the clashes have been at their most violent.

Why are people protesting in Colombia?

The demonstrations, which started on 28 April, were initially in opposition to the tax reform that the government said was key to mitigating the country’s economic crisis. Although the country’s biggest trade unions initially organised the rallies, many middle-class people who feared the changes could see them slip into poverty joined them.

According to the BBC, “Almost half of the country’s population now lives in poverty, with inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.” The new proposal would have lowered the threshold at which salaries are taxed, affecting anyone with a monthly income of 2.6 million pesos (which equals £493) or more.

On Sunday 2 May, President Iván Duque announced that he would withdraw the bill. However, that was too late to stop the protests, which have become a broad call for improvements to Colombia’s pension, health and education systems, as well as against what demonstrators say is excessive use of violence by the security forces.

Why is the situation worse in Cali?

Cali, the country’s third-largest city, has seen some of the most violent incidents since the beginning of the protests. Dozens of police, public and private buildings have been attacked. As a result, the commander of the army has been sent to the city to coordinate security efforts. On Monday 3 May, the UN reported that the “police opened fire on demonstrators.”

Kevin Reyes, a community leader, told BBC Mundo that “hooded police and military officers fired using semiautomatic weapons and rifles” during a demonstration. “There were children and mothers,” he added.

But other factors have contributed to the violent unrest in Cali. The city was already one of the most violent places in the country prior to the protests due to its location in a region that was ravaged by paramilitary groups and drug traffickers not so long ago.

What is the Colombian government planning on doing next?

So far, the government has been blaming the violence taking place in the country on the left-wing rebels known as the National Liberation Army (ELN) as well as the dissident factions of the FARC guerrilla group, which have allegedly not accepted the 2016 peace deal.

“The violence was systematic, premeditated and financed by criminal organisations,” Defence Minister Diego Molano said. As for the many accusations of police brutality, police officials say that in most cases, it was their officers who were attacked as they tried to prevent “criminal elements” from looting stores and torching buses.

As protests continue to unfold in the country, it should be noted that whatever the government says, it is not the first time that anti-government unrest has turned deadly in Colombia. Last September, at least seven people were killed in protests triggered by the deadly tasering of a man by police in Bogotá. These protests come at a time of economic despair for many, fueled by the health crisis. As the UN, US, EU and rights bodies all join to call for calm, will the Colombian government be able to stabilise its own country?