Bogota, Colombia – Anti-government protests took place in Colombia on Wednesday for the eighth day in a row, while rights groups continue to show concern excessive violence by the security forces.
Riot police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the capital’s main public square, Bogota, around 3pm on Wednesday, as well as in other parts of the city where people had gathered.
But protesters have said they will continue to take to the streets, despite right-wing President Ivan Duke withdrawing contentious tax reform this prompted them to protest in the first place last week.
“Yes, they have withdrawn the reform, but they have not changed it,” said Olga Cabos, a 48-year-old emerald union worker who took part in the second national strike since April 28 in downtown Bogota.
“We can’t let this Duke government continue to make things harder for the poorest of us,” he told Al Jazeera, waving an anti-government poster.
The protests were sparked by an unpopular tax reform that the government said sought to stabilize an economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. But middle-class, working-class Colombians said the plan favored the rich putting more pressure on them.
Duke withdrew the proposal on Sunday and his the finance minister resigned a day later, but protesters are now demanding the withdrawal of a proposed health care reform and a guaranteed basic income of one million pesos ($ 260) for all Colombians, among other demands.
“While tax reform was the initial spark, the current protests in Colombia reflect a wide range of social, political and economic grievances that the Duque government will not be able to address with existing scripts for national dialogue,” he said. Arlene Tickner, professor of science at Rosario University in Bogotá.
Violence escalated Monday afternoon in the country’s third-largest city, Cali, where protesters said police opened fire to disperse the crowds. Videos of police misconduct in Cali – which Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify – were widely shared on social media on Tuesday.
Sources on the ground said police fired indiscriminately at protesters, even from helicopters.
The number of deaths related to the protests remains widely discussed and widespread among the government and independent NGOs. Colombia’s human rights defender says 24 people have died, while local NGO Temblores, which documents police abuses, estimates 37 have died.
There have been reports of looting and vandalism during some of the protests, and these acts have been condemned by local politicians.
The riots worsened on Tuesday evening in Bogota, with 30 civilians and 16 police officers injured, the mayor said in a statement, adding that a crowd tried to “burn alive” 10 police officers by setting fire to a small police station.
Meanwhile, several officials from the United States, the United Nations and the European Union have reported the national police for opening fire on protesters. Celebrities, including Colombian-born musician Shakira, who is known to have not commented on political issues, have also talked about violence.
“I call on the government of my country to take urgent measures now to stop the violation of human rights and restore the value of human life above any political interest,” the singer sang in Spanish on Tuesday.
But, according to Tickner, “growing international pressure to stop police brutality and respect human rights has had little impact on state-run violence and accountability.”
Hundreds of detainees
On Wednesday, in a video, Duque reiterated government allegations that illegal armed groups were committing acts of vandalism and looting and said more than 550 arrests had been made.
“There will be no truce with those who commit these crimes; the whole of society will bring them to justice,” Duque said.
The president had previously urged a national dialogue “to listen and build solutions” before the marches, similar to that of 2019, when Colombians had taken to the streets for economic inequality, a slowness implementation of the peace process and increased insecurity.
Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst in Colombia for the International Crisis Group, said that while illegal groups may have infiltrated the current protests, “there is no way I can credibly claim that any armed or criminal group is motivating or forcing protesters to take to the streets ”.
What is happening is a “legitimate social movement,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Here in the capital of Bogota, the number of people living in extreme poverty has tripled in just one year, so this is a real time of social crisis across the country and I think the protests could be more lasting than in 2019 “.
Still, Sergio Guzman, a political analyst who runs the firm Colombia Risk Analysis, said many of the protesters’ demands are unrealistic and that the Duque government will not welcome them.
“Requirements like universal basic income are not feasible under any circumstances,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that protesters have not yet established a negotiating position that the government would consider realistic or acceptable.
However, he said the government should start addressing more concerns of protesters, especially police brutality.
Dickinson agreed and also said both sides are deeply rooted in their positions.
“The demands of the protesters are really growing every day,” he said. “It’s a list of very significant changes for the state and for good or evil, which would lead to profound and very significant reforms in the way the state works.”