Amid the acts that have already killed 19 people in Colombia, the country’s public defender published on Tuesday (4) a list with the names of 87 people whose whereabouts are not known. The list, which includes two minors —Brayan Londoño and Leonard López — has been sent to the Missing Persons Commission and the Ministry of Justice and covers the period since the protests began on April 28.
The tension in Colombia also sparked protests by the UN, the European Union, the United States and human rights NGOs, which on Tuesday denounced the disproportionate use of force by police to control protests. In addition to the nearly two dozen dead, 846 people were injured, including civilians and police, according to a report from the Public Defender’s Office and the Defense Ministry.
In acts that have lasted for seven days, the main demand is the reversal of a tax reform proposed by President Iván Duque. In view of the strength of the protests, the Colombian leader took a step back and asked Congress to remove the draft from the agenda, promising to send in the future a new version of the text without the points that displease population. However, the protests have not subsided.
According to Duque, the reformulated bill will exclude both the increase in the tax on goods and services and the broadening of the taxpayer base, the most controversial points of the law. The reform is necessary to “give fiscal stability to the country, protect the social programs of the most vulnerable and generate the conditions for growth after the effects caused by the pandemic”, defended the president, who has a low popularity, around 33% .
Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern about the situation in the town of Cali, where police opened fire on protesters on Monday evening, killing five people and injuring 33 people.
The accusations contrast with the statements of Defense Minister Diego Molano, who, at a press conference in Bogotá, denied the abuses or excesses of the police and said that the actions of the security forces respected the rights of the man.
“Our law enforcement mission is to protect citizens who move in social marches, but they must be relentless with those who use vandalism and terrorism to destroy cities and affect stability in certain regions,” Molano said. According to him, the alleged vandals mainly targeted police and toll points, and more than 100 buses were set on fire.
Also according to the Minister of Defense, there were a total of 218 acts across the country, and in 15 of them acts of vandalism were recorded with the intervention of Esmad, acronym of Esquadro Móvil Antidistúrbios, a dreaded detachment reported by NGOs as responsible for abuses in the repression of demonstrations.
In a case that went viral on social media, a police officer responded with a bullet in the back to a kick launched by a protester. The victim, Marcelo Agredo, 17, died instantly. The death of an elderly man, Jesús Flórez, 86, who also did not participate in the protests, was also suffocated by gas bombs dropped by officers. According to the Minister of Defense, 23 reports of abuse are being investigated during the protests, which in total gathered 71,000 people and took place in the main cities of the country, such as Bogotá, Medellín, Barranquilla and Cali.
Duque, in addition to promising a new reform proposal, on Monday sacked Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, who drafted the project and who will be replaced by economist José Manuel Restrepo, the current head of Commerce. The president, however, sees demand for more layoffs gathering momentum on the streets. Protesters also want Molano and Generals Luis Fernando Navarro, commander of the armed forces, to leave, and Jorge Luis Vargas, director of police.
On Monday evening, as food and essentials ran out, residents of Cali returned to demonstrate to call for an end to the blockades. On Tuesday afternoon, some of them were evacuated and the airport was reopened. Actions are expected to continue in the coming days, now also against repression.
Former President Álvaro Uribe, Duque’s political godfather, posted a social media post this weekend stating that “soldiers and police have the right to use weapons in self-defense.” The post, which drew sharp criticism from the opposition and protesters, was deleted by the internet platform on the grounds that it glorified violence.
The protests come amid a dire moment in Colombia’s coronavirus pandemic, during which epidemiologists say the country is already going through a third wave. In total, there are more than 2.9 million cases and 75,164 deaths. The economic situation is also bad. Colombia’s GDP fell 6.8% last year, unemployment rose to 16.8% in March, and poverty fell from 36% to 43%.