The United Nations has condemned the violent repression of protests in Colombia, after clashes between police and demonstrators left at least 18 dead and 87 people missing.
In a week of unrest across the country, riot police have rampaged across the smoke-filled streets, shooting protesters at point-blank range and charging at crowds with their motorcycles.
At least five people died in Cali amid fresh violence on Monday night. The south-western city, which has a large Afro-Colombian population, has been the setting for much for the violence since protests began peacefully with a nationwide general strike last Wednesday.
“We are deeply alarmed at developments in Cali overnight, where police opened fire on demonstrators, and a number of people were killed and injured,” a UN human rights spokesperson said on Tuesday.
Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, faces growing calls to resign, but insisted on Tuesday that police officers’ conduct “fell within the law”.
“Our duty is to protect those who protest – and those who do not – from those who disguise themselves and take advantage of these crowds to terrorize Colombians,” he said.
But witnesses said officers have seemed to exacerbate tensions. “It’s like the police are waiting for night to fall so they can roll up and start shooting indiscriminately,” said one community leader in a poor Cali neighbourhood that has been repeatedly raided by police. “Bodies are going to pile up, the dead on top of the dead.”
The leader said that each night brings a new cacophony: the whirl of police helicopters overhead while sirens, flashbangs and the fizz of teargas dominate the streets. Protesters, seeking to block the entry of riot police into their communities, set up roadblocks made of burning debris.
“The order was to militarize the city, so that’s what happens,” the leader said. “We hope the international community pays attention, because so far nobody else is.”
Cellphone footage circulated via social media showed scenes reminiscent of a war zone. In one, a bloody, apparently lifeless body is surrounded by a distressed crowd. “They shot him, son of a bitch!” onlookers can be heard screaming. In another, a civilian is seen collapsing limp to the ground after an officer on a motorcycle strikes him on the back of the head.
Temblores, a local NGO that monitors police violence, advised protesters in Cali to go home, as there were no guarantees of safety. “Your life comes before everything else and the state is deliberately attacking it,” they tweeted.
Authorities are investigating reports that members of a UN humanitarian mission were threatened and attacked. The city’s airport, from which over 25 flights depart each day, has now been closed. Roadblocks on the edges of the city, and on the road to the nearby Pacific seaport in Buenaventura, have also been reported on Tuesday morning.
Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democratic representative, tweeted: “This [violence] is part of a disturbing pattern of excessive use of force, killings and human rights violations.”
Colombia’s rightwing president, Iván Duque, has faced three major nationwide protests since his term began in 2018, and each has been met with police violence. Last September, anti-police demonstrations broke out after officers in Bogotá killed a man using a Taser electrical weapon.
The current protests began with a general strike over an unpopular tax reform, though many demonstrators are marching against a deeply polarizing government, in defense of threatened human rights leaders, for an increase of the social safety net during the pandemic, and for police reform.
Colombia’s economy has been ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far claimed over 75,000 lives, with daily deaths last week breaking the country’s records.
Duque axed his proposed tax reform on Sunday afternoon, 24 hours before accepting the resignation of Alberto Carrasquilla, his finance minister, but neither move has quelled discontent.
The police violence is dispiriting for those who hoped for a peaceful future for Colombia when the country signed a historic peace deal with the leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), in 2016.
Many hoped that deal, alongside formally ending five decades of civil war that killed 260,000 people and forced more than 7 million to flee their homes, would open new space for the left in Colombia’s political spectrum.
Instead, since Duque took office in 2018, protesters have routinely been accused of acting as frontmen for dissident rebel groups that have not laid down their weapons.
“The government is continuing to criminalize social protest and stigmatize them as being infiltrated by guerrilleros,” said Pedro Piedrahita, a political science professor at the University of Medellín.
“Colombia’s public security organism are still operating under the anachronistic doctrines of anti-communism, of an internal enemy, and as such protesters aren’t seen as citizens but as legitimate military targets that need to be taken out – no matter what.”