Bogota Colombia – The city of Cali, in southwestern Colombia, the third-largest in the country, has become the focal point of anti-government demonstrations amid an increase in violence between protesters, security forces and armed civilians.
Protests across the country have continued since April 28 after an unpopular tax reform sparked ire. The proposal was withdrawn and the finance minister resigned, but the protesters expanded their list of demands from the right-wing government of President Iván Duque.
While many now want a health care reform to be rescinded to further privatize Colombia’s health services, others continue to take to the streets to denounce the widespread violence and killings that plague the Andean nation.
Tension escalated in Cali on Sunday night when protesters were attacked by armed civilians demanding an end to the protest blockades. Protesters have blocked main roads, disrupting the flow of food and fuel to the city.
More than a dozen people were injured, mostly indigenous people who had come to the city to join the demonstrations and hold a traditional protest known as “minga.”
Duque, who made a brief visit to Cali early Monday to address the violence, said additional security forces would be dispatched to remove the blockades. The president also asked that indigenous peoples 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, leading to several deaths and drawing international attention to the unrest.
Governments, politicians and human rights organizations have urged the Colombian government to control the security forces, who were widely criticized for using excessive force against protesters.
“At first, Duque said he didn’t need to go to Cali, which didn’t go very well for everyone, including his followers,” said Gimena Sánchez, Andes director in the Washington Office’s think tank on Latin America.
“He was finally pressured, but again, what has he done to ensure accountability for the abuses committed against so many protesters?” Sánchez told Al Jazeera.
“I think his inept and arrogant response to the protests, coupled with the pressure from his ruling party on him to use all necessary force to stop the protests, will only further enrage the protesters and prolong the protests.”
The great death is still unclear
The number of deaths related to the protests remains widely disputed.
Human Rights Watch said it has confirmed 38 deaths, while local NGOs Indepaz and Temblores put the number of victims at 47. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman says 26 people have died, most at the hands of the police.
Colombia’s National Police, which reports directly to the Defense Ministry, has faced continuous scrutiny for the use of excessive force. A reform of the police force has been hotly debated for years, and has now joined the protesters’ demands.
“Duque must address the majority of citizens’ concerns, address abuses and ensure a reform of the security forces in which protesting Colombians are not seen and treated as the enemy within,” Sánchez said.
The government has continually blamed dissident rebels and armed groups for infiltrating protests and causing violence. Duque also met with young protesters and strike leaders on Monday as part of a national dialogue he has proposed to end the protests.
However, political analyst Sergio Guzmán said that one of the key problems the government will face is a lack of trust from citizens.
“[This is] not only because of his past track record when it comes to establishing broad dialogues with communities that may oppose the government, but also because of the fact that there is not enough time for Duque to actually implement any of the things that dialogue results in, unless they stick to very concise and achievable action points, ”he said.
Duque only has 15 months left in government and many of the demands that are being made would have to go through Congress, Guzmán explained.
Meanwhile, another day of a national strike is planned for Wednesday, in what 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 that the protesters would like to see on the table,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst at International Crisis Group.
“Instead, I think what you see is that the government has continued to treat the situation as a law enforcement problem,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera, adding that the lack of government recognition of the protesters’ demands is a political crisis.
“However, it will turn into a security crisis the longer it goes on, so there is a real urgency in this situation,” he said.
Guzmán said that the protesters understand that the blockades are causing a lot of anguish within the citizenry, which he believes is damaging their legitimacy.
“Hopefully, the protesters will also recognize that this is a time for them to realize that the government has, in fact, listened to them and to take steps to propose a way out and propose solutions,” he said.
For Dickinson, there needs to be more organization for the discussions to move 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,” he said.