By Irene Escudero and Ernesto Guzman
Bogota/Cali, Apr 28 (EFE).- Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Colombia’s cities on April 28, 2021, for what turned out to be the start of a weeks-long mobilization against proposed tax increases that would have fallen heaviest on workers and the poor.
But events Thursday to mark the anniversary were not expected to draw many participants.
Colombia, one of the world’s most unequal countries, was already polarized before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic disruptions accompanying lockdowns worsened poverty and left thousands of young adults without employment or the means to pursue higher education.
While an almost-festive atmosphere prevailed at protests during daylight hours, nightfall brought confrontations between police and demonstrators, especially in Cali, Colombia’s third city.
The movement produced more than 14,000 gatherings, marches, and road-blocking actions, according to the Colombian Defense Minister, and 83 people died, more than half of them killed by police.
Nearly 100 others suffered eye damage due to the actions of cops, who were also blamed for 35 sexual assaults.
“There is an open wound because we had had great outbreaks of violence in protests, but we had never had scenes of so much police repression and so prolonged,” said Alejandro Rodriguez, coordinator of GRITA, an initiative of social justice organization Temblores to document abuses by the security forces
A few police officers have been charged in the deaths of protesters, but none has been convicted.
“Impunity is what has reigned in this time and meanwhile there has been an entire series of mass prosecutions of young people who were part of the front lines,” Rodriguez told Efe, referring to the hooded youths with homemade shields who placed their bodies between police and demonstrators.
Prosecutors have charged more than 200 protest front-liners with terrorism and Temblores says that around four dozen of those defendants have been subjected to rigged judicial proceedings.
On June 6, 2021, right-wing President Ivan Duque announced what Rodriguez described as “cosmetic” reforms to Colombia’s militarized National Police.
At the start of this year, however, the head of state enacted a new public safety law that restricted the right to protest, increased penalties for offenses against officers, and increased the discretionary powers of cops and prosecutors.
“Things have remained as they were and even worsened in some situations,” researcher Sofia Forero said in looking on the year since the eruption of discontent.
Colombians will go to the polls at the end of next month to choose Duque’s successor.
Polls show a close race between right-winger Federico “Fico” Gutierrez and leftist Sen. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who, in Forero’s view, is regarded by many as the best hope to “make progress on the agenda related to the structural causes of the protests.” EFE