Bogota Colombia – The city of Cali in southwest Colombia, the third largest in the country, has become the focal point anti-government protests amid an upsurge in violence between protesters, security forces and armed civilians.
Protests across the country have continued since April 28 after an unpopular tax reform sparked anger. the the proposal has been withdrawn and the finance minister resigned, but the protesters expanded their list of requests of the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque.
While many now want a health care reform aimed at further privatizing Colombian health services to be overturned, others continue to take to the streets to denounce widespread violence and murder engulfing the Andean nation.
Tensions escalated in Cali on Sunday evening as protesters were attacked by armed civilians demanding an end to the protest blockades. Protesters blocked major highways, disrupting the flow of food and fuel to the city.
More than a dozen people were injured, most of them indigenous people who arrived in the city to join the protests and organize a traditional protest known as the “minga”.
Duque, who made a brief visit to Cali early Monday to tackle violence, said additional security forces would be sent to remove the blockades. The president also called on indigenous peoples to return to their territories to “avoid violent confrontations with citizens”.
Cali was also at the center of anti-government protests last week, when police opened fire on protesters, killing several and resulting in international attention to unrest.
Governments, politicians and human rights organizations have urged the Colombian government to restrain the security forces, which have been widely criticized for using excessive force against protesters.
“At first Duque said he didn’t need to go to Cali, which didn’t work out very well with everyone, including his supporters,” said Gimena Sanchez, director of the Andes at Washington think tank on Latin America.
“He finally came under pressure, but again, what did he do to ensure accountability for the abuses committed against so many protesters?” Sanchez told Al Jazeera.
“I think his inept and arrogant response to the protests, coupled with his ruling party’s pressure on him to use all the force necessary to stop the protests, will only anger the protesters and prolong the protests.”
The death toll is still unclear
The number of deaths linked to the protests remains widely disputed.
Human Rights Watch said it confirmed 38 deaths, while local NGOs Indepaz and Temblores put the toll at 47. Colombia’s human rights ombudsperson said 26 people were killed, most at the hands of the police.
The Colombian National Police, which reports directly to the Ministry of Defense, has been under constant surveillance due to excessive force. Police reform has been hotly debated for years, and it comes on top of protesters’ demands.
“Duque must address the majority of citizens’ concerns, fight against abuses and ensure a reform of the security forces in which Colombians who protest are not seen and treated as the enemy within,” Sanchez said.
The government has continually blamed dissident rebels and armed groups for infiltrating protests and provoking violence. Duque also met with young protesters and strike leaders on Monday as part of a national dialogue he proposed to end the protests.
Political analyst Sergio Guzman said that one of the main problems the government will face is the lack of confidence of the citizens.
“[This is] not only because of his track record of establishing broad dialogues with communities that might oppose the government, but also because there is not enough time for Duque to implement the elements that result from dialogue, unless they stick to it. to very concise and achievable action points, ”he said.
Duque has only 15 months left in government and many of the demands that are made would have to go through Congress, Guzman said.
Meanwhile, another day of nationwide strike action is scheduled for Wednesday, which will mark the third week of ongoing protests.
“It is clear that we are a long way from a resolution and a long way from a real dialogue on some of the issues the protesters would like to put on the table,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“Instead, I think what you are seeing is that the government has continued to treat the situation as a law enforcement problem,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera, adding that the lack of recognition by the government protesters’ claims is a political crisis.
“However, it will become a security crisis over time, so there is a real urgency in this situation,” she said.
Guzman said the protesters understood that the blockades caused a lot of distress among citizens, which he said undermined their legitimacy.
“Hopefully the protesters will also recognize that the time has come for them to realize that the government has, in fact, listened to them and take action to come up with a way out and come up with solutions,” he said.
For Dickinson, more organization is needed to move the discussions forward. “I think the only setback is the lack of leadership, both locally and nationally, to bring these dialogues and discussions to a productive end,” she said.