Riot police fired tear gas at protesters in Bogota on Wednesday during an eighth day of nationwide anti-government demonstrations after crowds attacked police stations in the capital at night.
The protests were originally intended to oppose a now-canceled tax reform plan, but protesters have broadened their demands to include government measures to address poverty, police violence and inequalities in health and education systems.
Demonstrations and opposition from the legislature led to the repeal of the tax reform and the resignation of the Treasury Secretary. International organizations have warned of police brutality, which so far is linked to just under half of the 24 confirmed deaths, mostly among protesters.
Many protesters are calling for the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police, but some said they did not blame individual agents.
“They are receiving orders from the state, which they must follow,” said student James Romero, 18, who joined a chanting crowd in Bogota’s central Bolivar Plaza.
Romero said he was hit in the back several times by a stick-wielding ESMAD officer while on the run from clashes on Saturday.
“I felt fear – so much fear.”
Minutes later, police fired tear gas to dissuade some protesters from entering the Colombian Congress.
Previous meetings further north were peaceful.
53-year-old psychologist Benjamin Paba Al-Faro from Bogota said he demonstrated for better education and to ensure continuity of the peace process with the now demobilized FARC rebels, adding:
“This is not about defeating just one law.”
Poverty, which rose to 42.5% of the population last year amid the coronavirus blockades, has exacerbated long-standing inequalities and undid some recent development gains.
The number of Colombians living in extreme poverty will increase by 2.8 million people in 2020.
The protests and attendant roadblocks – which have stunted the transports of the best agricultural export coffee – could affect the economy, the central bank’s technical director said Wednesday.
“They are temporary effects, but they can affect monetary policy depending on the duration and range,” said Hernando Vargas during a presentation.
Police station burned
President Ivan Duque has said the government will create space to listen to citizens and develop concrete proposals, similar to advances offered to protesters following demonstrations in 2019. Many groups – including major trade unions – say he failed to perform.
In a video on Wednesday, Duque echoed government allegations that the drug trafficking mafia were behind vandalism and looting, saying 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.
During a seventh night of protests on Tuesday, 30 civilians and 16 police officers were injured in Bogota, the mayor’s office said in a statement.
More than two dozen police stations in Bogota were damaged overnight and three were destroyed, the mayor’s office said.
In one attack, a mob attempted to “burn alive” a group of 10 police officers by setting fire to a station, he said.
When asked about the attack, a police officer in Bolivar Plaza told Reuters he was “disappointed as a human being.”
Mayor Claudia Lopez called the destruction and violence in the city from one day to the next ‘unbelievable’.
National protests have resulted in 24 deaths, 15 in the western city of Cali, according to the human rights ombudsman.
The national police or the ESMAD riot police were listed by the Ombudsman as the entity “deemed responsible” for 11 of the deaths, including that of a boy under the age of 18. A local human rights observatory said the death toll was over 30.