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SITUATION UPDATE 11 May, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Anti-government protests intensify across Colombia

Leanne Self

Colombia Protests

Summary

  • Since 28 April, tens of thousands of people have demonstrated in Colombia's major cities against a proposed tax reform, in defiance of COVID-related curfew orders and restrictions.
  • Protesters have blocked local roads and major highways, resulting in significant travel disruption as well as food and fuel shortages in some areas.
  • Police officers have resorted to utilising crowd dispersal methods, including tear gas and stun grenades. Human rights groups also claim that officers have fired live ammunition at protesters, resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.
  • On 2 May, the government withdrew the unpopular tax reform; however, protests have continued and intensified with protesters issuing new demands.
  • In a bid to end the protests and violence, President Iván Duque held a meeting with leaders of the National Strike Committee on 10 May which ended with little sign of progress.
  • Protest leaders have vowed to continue demonstrating until their demands are met and the National Strike Committee has called for a nationwide strike on 12 May.

Situation

Since 28 April, tens of thousands of people have defied COVID-related lockdown orders and have participated in anti-government demonstrations in several cities across Colombia including Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, Cartagena, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta, and Barranquilla. The initial demonstrations in April were called for by the National Strike Committee (Comité Nacional del Paro), an umbrella organisation which includes labour unions and student associations, to protest against a tax reform proposed by President Iván Duque’s administration on 15 April. The government believes that the proposed reform, which included tax increases on sales, public services, fuel, wages and pensions, was necessary to ensure economic stability, maintain its credit rating and fund social programmes following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Demonstrations have caused significant road disruption and power outages, while some protesters have engaged in looting, vandalism and arson. Police officers have resorted to utilising tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the protesters, and human rights groups also claim that officers have fired live ammunition into the crowds. On Saturday, 1 May, Duque deployed the armed forces to assist local security officers in some cities until “the acts of serious alteration of public order cease.”

After four days of protests, Duque on Sunday, 2 May, announced he would withdraw the proposed bill in the hope that the violence would subside. However, protests have only continued and intensified as reports continue to emerge of police violence, deaths and disappearances, in what the United Nations (UN) has described as “excessive use of force” by security officers. Since protests began on 28 April, more than 800 protesters have sustained injuries, while at least 830 arrests have been made. Dozens of protesters and one police officer are also believed to have been killed, most of which have been reported in Cali, the epicentre of the violence. However, the death toll related to the clashes remains widely disputed between the government and independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The estimated figures range from between 26 and 47 fatalities; however, the actual death toll could be much higher as Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office states that over 548 protesters have been reported missing since 28 April.

Although the proposed tax reform that initially triggered the protests has been withdrawn and the finance minister subsequently stepped down, demonstrators are now demanding a review of the sanitary emergency and health care reform, the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police, demilitarisation of cities and for security officers responsible for killing protesters to be held accountable.

On Monday, 10 April, President Duque and leaders of the National Strike Committee met in Bogotá for a "national dialogue initiative" with the aim of resolving the adverse situation. While all of the attendees agreed that the violence must end, High Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos also stressed the need for road blockades around the country to be lifted. However, the meeting ended with little sign of progress and instead the protesting organisation has called for a new nationwide strike on Wednesday, 12 May.

Analysis

While this year's protests were triggered by the now-suspended tax reform, activists have identified a connection between the current protests and the nationwide anti-government demonstrations in November 2019. Back then, hundreds of thousands of people responded to calls by the National Strike Committee to protest against tax increases, official corruption, inequality and the alleged weak implementation of a peace agreement that led to the 2016 demobilisation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions, Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP) decreased by 6.8 percent in 2020, its worst performance in 50 years, while unemployment rose to 16.8 percent in March 2021. At least 42.5 percent of the country's population is now believed to live in poverty, while the number of Colombians living in extreme poverty has grown by at least 2.8 million since the pandemic began. Therefore, critics have argued that tax increases proposed in the now-withdrawn reform would disproportionally impact middle and working classes further and escalate inequality, a key concern among Colombians.

The aim of the tax reform was to generate at least 6.3 billion USD between 2022 and 2031 to relieve the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, following its withdrawal, Duque's government will now have to look for alternative options to produce these finances while also repairing the inequality that currently fuels the public's discontent.

Duque was the first president in the Latin American region to introduce a tax reform to rebuild the country's economy post-pandemic; however, the firm opposition from Colombia's workers' unions and social movements has set a cautionary precedent for any other leaders in the region who plan to follow a similar course. Many countries like Colombia, where the economy is dependent on exports and are already burdened by foreign debt, do not have the capacity to undertake large post-pandemic investment plans similar to the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), and instead need to increase revenues through taxes in order to be able to spend.

While Duque assumed that withdrawing the tax reform would diminish the violence, the protests have intensified with leaders setting out an array of new demands, many of which are rooted in Colombia's high levels of inequality. In response to violent crackdowns at protests by security forces, one of the protesters' key demands is the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police. Even when protesters were largely peaceful at the end of April they were accompanied by a large police presence, which the government said was necessary in response to defiance of COVID-related curfew orders and other restrictions.

The government has so far defended the actions of police officers and has continually blamed dissident rebels and armed groups for infiltrating the protests and perpetrating violence, looting and vandalism. Duque has even classified the actions as “low-intensity terrorism.” Duque has therefore ruled out the dismantling of the riot police, the protesters key demand, but has instead pledged a thorough investigation into any possible abuses by security forces at protests. Should Duque give in to public pressure and open an independent inquiry into police practices, it could give momentum to protest movement’s demanding police accountability across the region.

Meanwhile, fruitless discussions between President Duque and leaders of the National Strike Committee on 10 May highlights further uncertainty regarding the ongoing violence and adverse security situation in Colombia. While the protest leaders stated that the government had not shown empathy for their demands, the government emphasised the meeting was "exploratory" and wanted to reach an agreement with the demonstrators. Instead of possibly easing strains between the government and protesters, Monday's meeting has likely fuelled tensions. At this stage, a quick resolution seems unlikely as more groups are joining the protest movement and their demands have widened. One of the key issues that the government will face is a lack of trust from the public. Duque only has 15 months left in government; however, a lot of the demands that are being made would have to go through Congress, which highlights that some of the protesters' demands may not be met in time.

Implications

The security situation in Colombia’s main cities, especially Cali, remains volatile and unpredictable as violence and unrest continues. During the protests, demonstrators have blocked local roads and major highways, often without prior notice or estimated reopening times. The blockades have not only caused significant traffic disruption within and between cities, but they have also led to shortages of fuel and food in at least 13 cities. In Bogotá, markets have reported delivery delays impacting up to 50 percent of their merchandise, while severe fuel shortages are occurring in Cali, prompting the authorities to limit refuelling of private vehicles to specific days, times and gas stations.

In addition to this, road blockades have also prevented vaccine deliveries and have obstructed ambulances. In a country that has so far recorded 3,015,301 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 78,342 associated fatalities, vaccine and medical supplies are a vital component in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic in Colombia. In response to the shortages of basic commodities, the country's Ombudsman’s Office stated that 140 humanitarian corridors have been enabled in 26 departments in the country for the entry of food, medical supplies, oxygen, fuel and ambulances.

On Monday, 3 May, Colombia’s civil aviation authority announced the temporary closure of Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport (CLO), located northeast of Cali, due to the civil disturbances in the city. Although the airport has since reopened, the authorities may order the airport's closure with little to no notice should the unrest escalate further. At times, access to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport may be restricted as protesters continue to implement roadblocks along routes leading to the airport.

Protesters have vowed to continue protesting until their new demands are met, which could result in further unrest and violence in the country's major cities, especially Cali. During the upcoming nationwide strike scheduled for 12 May, services in public offices, healthcare facilities and essential businesses may be limited, and further travel disruption should be anticipated. Meanwhile, due to the ongoing violence in Cali, the authorities have ordered the closure of all access routes leading into Valle del Cauca Department until at least 15 May, with the exception of cargo transportation and security personnel.