(Update 1: adds statement from Supreme Court of Colombia)
Tuluá, Colombia, May 26 (EFE).- A night of violent protests and chaos that rocked the southwestern Colombian city of Tuluá also reduced to rubble its emblematic courthouse, which was the target of an arson attack.
“With profound sadness, I roundly reject the acts of vandalism that (occurred) this Tuesday afternoon and night. Tuluá had been a model of good conduct nationwide during the protests, but now it’s been vandalized,” Tuluá Mayor John Jairo Gomez said in a public statement on Wednesday.
“Regrettably, a group of heartless people with no respect for the city or for others vandalized the city, damaged its transportation infrastructure, including traffic lights and signs, vandalized and destroyed a building as important and beautiful, emblematic and historical, as the Palace of Justice,” he added.
The fire destroyed nearly the entire courthouse of that city located approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Cali, Colombia’s third city and the epicenter of demonstrations against conservative President Ivan Duque’s administration that began on April 28.
Images and footage from the scene of the blaze show extensive damage to the building that the mayor termed “irreparable.”
Those behind that arson attack also are accused of attacking Gomez’s offices and those of the city’s Apiculture Department and Transportation Department, Gomez said.
He also said vandals had damaged property in the city center belonging to job-creating business owners.
Chaotic street scenes and tense clashes between police and groups of demonstrators broke out Tuesday in Tuluá in what was the latest episode in a spate of nationwide protests.
The clashes began Tuesday morning when authorities preventively detained a score of people, including some minors, after clearing blockaded roads on the city’s north and south sides, the mayor said.
“(I feel) great sadness. We’re here to serve society; we’ve provided them with a service. We’ve never done them harm. So I don’t think we deserve to have our place of work devastated. Let’s hope these acts (of vandalism) will be investigated,” Palace of Justice Judge Maria Elizabeth Ramirez told Efe.
“Acts of violence must stop immediately,” said the Supreme Court President Luis Antonio Hernandez Barbosa in a statement Wednesday in which he “categorically rejects” the destruction of the palace, as well as attacks against judicial headquarters in multiple other locations.
“At times as critical as those the country is going through, the seats of justice are the houses of democratic protection of Colombians. The fire that consumes them, as occurred in the criminal attack on the Tuluá Palace of Justice, severely erodes the foundations of the constitutional State and threatens the realization of the rights of all citizens,” he said.
He called on those at the negotiating table, including the government and the National Strike Committee to reject “abuses of all kinds, the destruction of the social fabric and the country’s economy, violent attacks on private property and public goods, as well as the blocking of roads, in order to appease the social alteration that tarnishes the exercise of the rights to free expression and peaceful protest, and to stop, once and for all, the loss of human life.”
The violence in Tuluá occurred on the eve of a new round of nationwide protests, with numerous demonstrations planned for Wednesday in Colombia’s main cities.
The protests kicked off in Bogota with roadblocks set up on the capital’s main avenues and the closure of some TransMilenio bus stations on the city’s south side.
“We’re taking to the streets once again massively and peacefully in different parts of the country. We’re calling once again on the government to negotiate with the different sectors. Colombia needs to be heard, not repressed,” the Colombian Federation of Education Workers said.
Nineteen of 43 deaths reported to authorities in connection with the protests have been confirmed thus far, according to official figures.
The non-governmental organization Temblores, for its part, says police violence is to blame for 43 homicides since the start of the anti-government protests, which initially were launched to protest a tax-hike plan that Duque subsequently scrapped but now are being held to bring attention to a range of social problems exacerbated by the pandemic. EFE