In Depth

Colombia erupts into violence amid pandemic tax rise protests

Police crackdown on demonstrations against poverty, unemployment and rising inequality leave 19 dead

At least 19 people have been killed and around 900 injured during several days of protests across Colombia against proposed tax rises.

“Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets” across the country’s biggest cities to voice their opposition to “a tax overhaul meant to fill a pandemic-related fiscal hole”, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

Truckers yesterday joined the protests, “blocking roads and setting fire to tires to prevent the movement of essential goods”, with the National Strike Committee announcing that demonstrations will continue despite “on-going health emergency measures”, the Bogota-based The City Paper adds.

‘Reform is a necessity’

After many days of protests, President Ivan Duque announced on Sunday that he would withdraw the current tax proposal and seek a more consensus-based policy, warning that “the reform is not a whim” and “reform is a necessity”, the NYT adds.

Duque’s finance minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, the architect of the tax reform, resigned to be replaced by commerce minister Jose Manuel Restrepo Abondano. However, “the decisions have done little to quell public anger”, the NYT says.

Colombia has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with 75,000 deaths and nearly three million cases in total, according to Johns Hopkins University. What began as a protest against the tax measures has “morphed into a national outcry over rising poverty, unemployment and inequality set off by the arrival of the coronavirus”, the paper adds.

Protests erupted across Colombia in 2019 in response to the government’s economic approach and a lack of support for the peace treaty that ended the long-running conflict between the state and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerillas.

“The pandemic and the lockdowns put a stop to those protests, but the social discontent did not stop,” Katherin Galindo of Colombia Risk Analysis told NPR. “In fact, it’s rising. The tax bill was the last straw that sent people back into the streets.

“When people go to protest, it’s because they feel the government is not [listening] to them and they feel that the government is even worse than the virus,” she added.

Colombia's gross domestic product fell by 6.8% last year, marking the “deepest crash in half a century”, the BBC reports. Unemployment has also risen and it is against this backdrop that Duque planned to introduce tax reforms that would lower “the threshold at which salaries are taxed, affecting anyone with a monthly income of $656 (£473) or more”, the broadcaster adds.

The proposal also increased “taxes imposed on businesses and the number of goods covered by value added tax”, the broadcaster says, prompting the protests that saw “many middle-class Colombians and members of indigenous groups” take to the streets.

‘Key break in society’

The protests have continued in part due to “what several human rights groups have called a heavy-handed state response in trying to control them”, the NYT reports.

Those killed include Nicolas Guerrero, a 21-year-old aspiring artist from Cali, who died “after being shot during a demonstration in the city of Ibague”, and Marcelo Agredo, 17, who attended a march with his brother, The City Paper adds.

Footage has emerged on social media of “several instances of police abuse”, the NYT reports, including one “in which a young protester is seen kicking a police officer on a motorbike” before the “officer responds by shooting at the protester as he runs away”.

At least 540 police officers have been hurt during the demonstrations, according to the national police, while a police sergeant, Jesus Solano, also died from “multiple stab wounds while confronting a gang of vandals”, The City Paper reports.

Amid rising anger, the country’s former president, Alvaro Uribe, tweeted that Colombians should support “the right of soldiers and police officers to use their weapons to defend themselves” against “terrorism”. Twitter later removed the post, saying it violated its policy “regarding the glorification of violence”.

Cali, a city southwest of the capital, Bogota, has experienced “much of the looting and rioting”, with the National Association of Industrialists warning “that almost half of all trucks moving oxygen tanks for hospitals are stuck” at road blockades, The City Paper reports.

Hospitals across the country are currently at 82% capacity with Bogota reporting that 94% of beds are full, prompting a judge to declare the marches illegal due to the risk to public health and Bogota’s mayor Claudia Lopez to describe it as “a life-and-death situation”.

Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, told the NYT that the protests were “one of those moments where a key break in society is happening”, adding: “People are fed up and waking up to the power of the streets.”

And that warning was echoed in the words of an eyewitness to the death of Guerrero who told the paper that he would go back out on to the streets despite the danger. “It was horrible. I have never seen someone die before my eyes,” Juan Gomez, a 27-year-old lawyer, told the NYT.

“There is no proportionality” to the use of force being deployed by police, he added. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

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