17 killed, 800 wounded in Colombia protests

BOGOTA, Colombia (AFP) — At least 17 people died and more than 800 were wounded in clashes that broke out in Colombia during five days of protests against a proposed government tax reform, authorities said yesterday.

The Office of the Colombian Ombudsman said 16 civilians and one police officer died in violence during the protests that began throughout the country on April 28, while 846 people, including 306 civilians, were injured.

Authorities have detained 431 people while the Government deployed the military in the worst affected cities.

Some NGOs accused the police of firing at civilians.

Defence Minister Diego Molano claimed the violence was “premeditated, organised, financed by FARC dissidents” and members of the ELN.

FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – leftist rebels signed a peace deal with the Government in 2016 ending more than a half-century of conflict, leaving the ELN – National Liberation Army – as the last recognised guerrilla group in the country.

Faced with the unrest, the Government of President Ivan Duque on Sunday ordered the proposal be withdrawn from Congress where it was being debated.

Despite that, dozens of people were out yesterday in the capital Bogota protesting and blocking roads.

The tax reform had been heavily criticised for punishing the middle classes at a time of economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government introduced the Bill on April 15 as a means of financing public spending.

The aim was to generate US$6.3 billion between 2022 and 2031 to reignite the fourth-largest economy in Latin America.

Hit by coronavirus restrictions, Colombia’s economy shrank by 6.8 per cent in 2020, its worst performance in half a century.

Unemployment had reached 16.8 per cent in March while 42.5 per cent of the 50-million population now live in poverty.

Most of the protests began peacefully but descended into clashes between demonstrators and public forces.

On Sunday, Duque said he would draft a new Bill without the most contentious points: a rise in VAT on goods and services, and an expansion of the taxpayer base.

The Temblores NGO said it had recorded 940 cases of police violence against civilians and was investigating the deaths of eight protesters allegedly attacked by police.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said one person was killed by police in Cali, one of the cities worst affected by street violence.

The deployment of the military to the streets has caused alarm in Colombia.

In September 2020, 13 youths died in clashes during a demonstration against police violence.

Another 75 people were injured by projectiles, allegedly launched by police.

The protesters had been angered by the death of 43-year-old Javier Odronez while being subjected to a brutal beating by an officer.

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