Intensification of Anti-Government Protests in Colombia

Beginning April 28th, several protests were held across Colombia because of the tax reform set forth by the country’s government, in the hope of addressing their ongoing economic crisis. Although the tax reform was dismissed, large scale protests persisted with the situation becoming progressively worse due to the role of the riot police and ignorance of government officials.

Outrage of the Colombians was triggered by the right-wing government of President Iván Duque Márquez, who wanted to minimize the detrimental effects of COVID-19 on their economy, especially since unemployment rates were alarming high. In 2020, it was reported that Colombia’s GDP dropped by a total of 6.8%, which was the deepest crash they have faced in the last 50 years. The government advertised the tax reform as a policy targeted towards helping those suffering because of the pandemic, as approximately 3.5 million people fell into poverty due to COVID-19. Economically, the most amount of harm would be inflicted on workers from the informal sector, who account for half of the labour force. From this, it is easy to see how the tax proposal was set to inflict more harm than good.

Colombia’s population greatly opposed to the tax reform, given its unfair nature which disadvantaged low-income households, negatively affecting everyone with a monthly income of $656 or more. Additionally, the reform would have drastically increased the prices of items for daily sustenance such as eggs, milk, and meat. The government’s complete disregard and lack of interest in protecting its people became obvious. Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla defended the reform, yet through more discussions his obliviousness became evident, seeing as he had no clue as to how much basic staples cost. Contrastingly, the reform benefitted the private sector and specific economic groups, while implementing several tax exemptions. Despite his strong beliefs that the reform would help the country, President Duque Márquez withdrew the proposal. However, protests continued to take place, with crowds become more and more aggressive in the hopes of being heard.

As an attempt to respond to the massive spike of COVID-19 cases, the government established a court order ruling against protests and marches yet protests continued in full swing, organized by trade unions and the National Strike Committee. Tens of thousands of people marched in Bogotá with demonstrations taking place in smaller cities as well. It has become evident that the marches aren’t exclusively held against the reform, but also come as a continuation of the anti-government protests which began November 2019. These protests are a major contribution to the larger movement, especially in terms of objecting to police brutality. The police have consistently held immense power in the past but happen to be exceptionally hostile given the current political climate. Riot police are aggressive to the point where even the United Nations Human Rights office accused Colombia’s security officials of using excessive force. Cruel response mechanisms, including tear gas and live ammunition, are used to rapidly disperse big crowds. Their brutal and barbaric mode of operation has taken the lives of many people while leaving hundreds of people tending to horrific injuries. As of May 11th, the death toll has risen to 42 people, all of which were civilians killed in protests. Additionally, numerous women have been sexually assaulted by the police and almost 380 people have gone missing.

Police violence around the nation is not new. In 2020, a man was tasered to death by the police in Bogotá, triggering protests which in turn took the lives of seven more people. In 2019, tens of thousands marched in honor of Dilan Cruz who also died at the hands of the riot police. Instead of being sympathetic or formulating action to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring, the Defense Ministers blamed protestors, claiming they consist of left-wing rebel groups hyper focused on breaking the law through looting and vandalism.

Instead of listening to the people and looking at the larger context of the riots, the government has consistently resorted to flipping the narrative, painting themselves as innocent leaders and labelling protestors as people trying to disturb the country’s peace. Leaders are wasting time generating ludicrous conspiracy theories and brainwashing people into thinking the police are correct with their use of force. It is high time the government realizes the absurd amount of power given to the police and the abuse of that power, rather than remaining complicit in the murder of innocent Colombians. If things continue as they are, the country could fall victim to massive conflict, which would result in more people dying. This current period is critical since the government still has enough power to make things right before the breakdown of their established order.

The most immediate response should consist of the instant disbandment of the riot police. By doing this, Colombians will finally feel heard by their government, which would help its leaders in cleaning up their damaged image worldwide. The disbandment would reduce the number of possible future protests, effectively reducing person to person contact, which would help tremendously in reducing the spread of COVID-19.