Protests kill at least 13 in Cali, president deploys army

Colombian soldiers in the streets of Cali, May 29, 2021. – Ernesto Guzman Jr. / EFE / SIPA

Protests against government policy in Colombia continue to generate extreme violence. The Colombian army, obeying the order of President Ivan Duque, therefore began on Saturday to deploy a thousand soldiers in Cali, a city of 2.2 million inhabitants and epicenter of the protest, where at least thirteen people were killed the day before.

The streets of the country’s third largest city were almost deserted on Saturday, the day after clashes between protesters, police and armed civilians. Of all the dead, at least eight people died from gunfire, police said.

A highly contested tax reform

The violence comes exactly one month after the April 28 uprising against a quickly abandoned tax reform project led by right-wing President Ivan Duque, which aimed to increase VAT and broaden the income tax base. In a month of popular uprising, at least 59 dead, including two police officers, have been recorded in the country, according to an official count. Some 2,300 people were injured and 123 are missing. Human Rights Watch reports up to 63 deaths.

For a month, the scenario has almost always been the same: by day, the demonstrations are peaceful and creative, at night the rebellion turns into riots where fireworks and Molotov cocktails mix with live ammunition. This unprecedented revolt shakes large cities, where barricades are erected and road blockages are causing shortages. The government, despite mediators tasked with negotiating with the National Strike Committee, is unable to deactivate a crisis which, for the moment, does not threaten to overthrow it.

An unequal country

This sudden crisis has above all revealed the muffled anger of a politicized youth, impoverished by the pandemic, who no longer wants to be silent. For half a century, the conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) obscured a reality that has become too glaring: according to the World Bank, Colombia ranks among the most unequal countries in terms of income and has the most informal job in Latin America.

Already in 2019, a year after the election of Ivan Duque, students took to the streets to demand better and free public education, jobs, a more united state and society. The pandemic put an end to the mobilization in 2020 without the 42-year-old head of state making too big concessions. The backlash is therefore all the stronger, with poverty which has accelerated to reach 42.5% of the 50 million inhabitants.

The unpopularity of Ivan Duque, who is due to leave office in 2022, seems for the moment to play in favor of the left, which has never presided over the country. The former mayor of Bogota and ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro is now leading the polls.

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