BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Among the dead are a ninth grader who came out to protest with his brother; an artist was shot in the head as the cameras rolled; and a teenager whose mother anguished cries of grief – “son, I want to be with you!” – have been shared thousands of times online.
At least 19 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in days of protests across Colombia, in which tens of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against a tax overhaul intended to close a hole budget linked to the pandemic.
Sunday, President Iván Duque ad that he would withdraw the current proposal and instead seek a new plan, this time based on consensus. “Reform is not a whim,” he said, “reform is a necessity.”
On Monday, the country’s finance minister announced he would resign.
But the decisions did little to quell public anger, and the protests turned into a nationwide outcry over rising poverty, unemployment and inequality triggered by the arrival of the coronavirus. last year.
Latin America, and South America in particular, has been hit particularly hard by the virus, and many countries in the region face dire fiscal conditions if reforms are not made.
Mr Duque was among the first to attempt to solve his country’s economic problems, and the public response here does not bode well for other regional leaders, said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consulting firm.
“This is one of those times when a major disruption in society occurs,” he said. “And people have had enough and are waking up to the power of the streets.”
The protests continued, in part because of anger over what several human rights groups called an authoritarian state response trying to control them.
Several instances of police abuse have been captured on video in recent days, including one in which a young protester is seen kicking a policeman on a motorcycle. Video shows the officer responding by shooting the protester as he flees.
The protester was 17-year-old Marcelo Agredo, the ninth leveler who went out for a walk with his brother. He died soon after, according to his father, Armando Agredo. The death was confirmed by the country’s ombudsman, a government agency that investigates human rights violations.
“You don’t take a person’s life for a kick,” said Mr. Agredo, 62, a retired taxi driver. “We want justice.”
Amid this anger, the country’s former president Álvaro Uribe took to Twitter to say that Colombians should support “the right of soldiers and police to use their weapons in defense” against “terrorism” .
The social networking site deleted the post shortly after, say he broke the rules “Regarding the glorification of violence.”
Mr. Duque, a political mentee of Mr. Uribe, soon deployed more military forces on the streets to quell the unrest.
The protests began on Wednesday and Monday, at least 18 civilians and a policeman, Jesús Solano, had died, according to the country’s mediator. Among the dead was Jesús Flórez, 86, who died “apparently from gas inhalation”.
At least 540 police officers were injured during the protests, according to the national police, while more than 100 buses were vandalized or set on fire. Police said they also identified nearly 17,000 people who did not comply with public health measures such as wearing masks.
The protests come as the country goes through the deadliest moment in the pandemic, according to a New York Times database that tracks deaths and infections.
Mr. Guzmán, from Risk Analysis Colombia, said there was broad agreement that tax reform was needed to keep the country afloat. but that the government had waited too long to reverse the unpopular tax proposal, allowing the anger, frustration and resentment that had simmered for a year to boil over.
“Now it’s a lot more about how the government has run the country for the past two and a half years, it’s about lockdowns, it’s about popular discontent,” he said.
The Colombian economy shrank by 7% last year, while poverty fell from around 36% to almost 43% of the population, according to figures released last week.
The tax proposal would have increased tariffs on some everyday goods, while keeping in place pandemic-era cash grants to help those in need.
Ultimately, however, many on the streets said they saw only tax hikes – and a government they felt was out of touch with their needs.
“They made us go hungry,” said Natalia Arévalo, 29, a protester in Bogotá. Ms Arévalo, who sells clothing, said last week that a new lockdown intended to curb the spread of the virus had significantly reduced sales. “Now they want to take what little we have left.”
Some of the biggest protests took place in Cali, Colombia’s third largest city. On Sunday, Nicolás Guerrero, a young artist, was among the hundreds gathered in a northern part of the city. Suddenly gunshots rang out.
Grainy video, broadcast live and watched by many, shows screaming and confusion.
Juan Gómez, a 27-year-old lawyer, was there and saw Mr. Guerrero bleeding at his feet.
“It was horrible,” Gómez said. “I have never seen anyone die in front of my eyes.”
“There is no proportionality,” he said of the force used in the streets. “That does not make sense.”
He spoke by phone on Monday. He was angry enough, he said, that he was planning to return to the streets later in the day.
Sofía Villamil contributed reporting.