Daily demonstrations have taken place throughout Colombia since the end of April as thousands of people protest government corruption, widespread inequality and poverty, and police brutality.
Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have warned of targeted violence against protesters, including numerous cases of sexual abuse commited by the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad of Colombia (ESMAD). ESMAD officers have also been accused of using excessive force, shooting into a crowd of protesters, and being involved in the disappearance of at least 135 people, according to the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons (UPBD).
Despite Colombia’s COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, which impose a nightly curfew depending on the ICU occupancies in different cities, social unrest across the country is expected to continue, causing worries of increased human rights violations and police abuse.
Why Are Protests Taking Place Across Colombia?
The series of ongoing demonstrations began on April 28, when Colombia’s largest labor unions called for a national strike against a controversial tax reform proposed (and later withdrawn) by President Iván Duque Márquez, according to Reuters. The reform would have increased taxes on lower-income people and businesses, as well as on food and other essentials, while eliminating current tax exemptions.
President Duque defended the proposed tax reform by pointing to Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP), which dropped by 6.8% last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and caused the country’s worst recession in almost 50 years. But critics said that the reform unfairly targeted Colombia’s working class by taxing them at higher rates, especially when the country is still experiencing high unemployment, according to the BBC.
The national strike drew thousands of supporters and resulted in mass demonstrations in Colombia’s largest cities, including Bogotá and Cali, which have reported the most incidents of violence. After four days of demonstrations, Duque withdrew the proposal on May 2, saying that his government would seek alternative routes to improve the country’s economy.
But the protests began to take on new meaning as trade unionists, students, Indigenous groups, and low-income and middle-class workers continued demonstrating, frustrated by the country’s response to COVID-19, poverty, and reports of police brutality.
Despite marches starting peacefully, at least 37 people have been killed and hundreds injured, according to local NGO Temblores. Many of these deaths have been attributed to Colombia’s police force and ESMAD, with human rights groups releasing videos of police officers using excessive force at the protests.
The government has responded to the demonstrations by deploying security forces and the Colombian military to densely populated urban areas. Duque also signed an order on May 1 that allows mayors to request military presence in their areas, according to the AP, claiming that rebel groups and drug-traffickers have infiltrated the protests to encourage aggression.
Officials said the protests have led to food and fuel shortages and have blocked vaccine deliveries in some areas, warning that as the demonstrations take place with protesters forgoing masks and social distancing, thousands of people are at risk of contracting COVID-19.
How Has COVID-19 Impacted Poverty Levels in Colombia?
Colombia had experienced stable economic growth since 2000 and cut its poverty rate in half over the past 10 years, according to the World Bank. But the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the country’s progress and exploited structural barriers that widened the inequality gap and resulted in mass poverty.
In March of last year, the Colombian government enforced a strict pandemic lockdown that was expected to last a few weeks, but ended up being enforced for six months, affecting the unemployment rate and the country’s economic growth. The number of people living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million in 2020, exacerbating Colombia’s health crisis as low-income people who lacked sufficient access to food and health care were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
As a result, millions of Colombians are facing food insecurity. In the city of Cartagena, only 40.5% of households report that they can afford three meals a day, down from 81.6% before the pandemic. Other urban areas in Colombia are reporting declines in food security as well, revealing the wide impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods.
How Can Global Citizens Support Colombia?
Activists have taken to social media to spread reports and video evidence about the protests in Colombia, compiling information into shareable infographics and using the hashtag #sosColombia to share resources with protesters and supporters.
Several musicians and celebrities have also used their platforms to inform followers about the protests.
Singer Becky G took to Instagram on May 4 to share background on the protests and asked followers to learn about the situation in solidarity with the people of Colombia.
Colombian singer and Global Citizen Advocate Shakira condemned the human rights violations taking place during the protests on Twitter, referencing the people who have been killed.
“It is unacceptable for a mother to lose her only child to brutality. And that 18 other people have their lives taken from them in a peaceful protest,” she wrote in Spanish in a May 4 tweet. “I ask the government of my country to take urgent measures, STOP NOW the violation of human rights and restore the value of human life above any political interest.”
Pido al gobierno de mi país que tome medidas urgentes, PARE YA la violación a los derechos humanos y restituya el valor de la vida humana por encima de cualquier interés político. (3/3)— Shakira (@shakira) May 4, 2021
Colombian singer Maluma also posted on Instagram about the protests, calling for peace and tolerance to counter the violence.
“No more deaths, no more aggressions,” Maluma wrote.
By learning from and sharing factual information about the protests, Global Citizens can make sure the international community does not turn a blind eye to the violence.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement on May 4 about the violence, calling for law enforcement to abide by “legality, precaution, necessity, and proportionality when policing demonstrations.”
“Given the extremely tense situation, with soldiers as well as police officers deployed to police the protest, we call for calm,” a spokesperson said. “We remind the State authorities of their responsibility to protect human rights, including the right to life and security of person, and to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”