19 dead, 800 injured as Colombia tackles tax reform …

Protesters in Colombia called out for another mass rally on Monday after 19 people were killed and more than 800 injured in clashes over five days of rallies against a proposed government tax reform.

According to the office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights in Colombia, 18 civilians and a police officer were killed in the violence during the protests that began across the country on April 28, while 846 people, including 306 civilians, were injured.

The authorities have detained 431 people and the government has deployed the army in the most affected cities. Some NGOs accused the police of shooting civilians.

Faced with the unrest, President Iván Duque’s government ordered on Sunday to withdraw the tax reform proposal from Congress, where it was discussed.

And on Monday, Colombian Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla resigned, saying in a statement that his continued presence “would make it difficult to quickly and efficiently reach the necessary consensus” for a new reform proposal. He was soon replaced by economist Jose Manuel Restrepo, formerly Secretary of Commerce.

Despite the repeal of the bill, which protesters said would make Colombia poorer amid the coronavirus pandemic, an umbrella group known as the National Strike Committee called for new demonstrations on Wednesday.

“The people on the street are demanding much more than the repeal of the tax reform,” said a statement.

Duque, whose approval rating has dropped to 33 percent, has attacked protesters’ “vandalism” as the country faces a deadly second wave of pandemic.

Despite this, dozens of people were again on the streets on Monday to protest in the capital Bogotá, the northwestern city of Medellín, Cali to the southwest and Barranquilla to the north.

Most of the demonstrations, which began last Wednesday, started peacefully before culminating in clashes between protesters and public forces.

Defense Secretary Diego Molano claimed the violence was “premeditated, organized and funded by FARC dissidents” and members of the ELN.

FARC – Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces – left-wing rebels signed a peace deal with the government in 2016 to end more than half a century of conflict, making the National Liberation Army (ELN) the last operational guerrilla group in the country .

Alarm generated by military deployment

The tax reform had been heavily criticized for punishing the middle class at a time of economic crisis.

The government introduced the bill on April 15 to fund government spending.

The goal was to generate $ 6.3 billion between 2022 and 2031 to revitalize Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.

The Colombian economy was hit by the limitations of the coronavirus and shrank by 6.8 percent in 2020, the worst performance in half a century.

Unemployment reached 16.8 percent in March, while 42.5 percent of the population of 50 million now lives in poverty.

On Sunday, Duque said he would draft a new bill without the most controversial points: an increase in VAT on goods and services and an extension of the tax base.

Meanwhile, the NGO Temblores said it had registered 940 cases of police brutality against civilians during the unrest and was investigating the deaths of eight protesters allegedly attacked by police.

José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director at Human Rights Watch, said one person was murdered by police in Cali, one of the cities worst affected by street violence.

The deployment of the army on the streets has caused alarm in Colombia.

Sixty years of conflict with rural rebels have left authorities ill-equipped to deal with urban military actions such as those taken during the protests.

And the public has not welcomed the mobilization, according to Eduardo Bechara, public policy professor at Externado University, who says the civilians have seen the military deployment as a “repression”.

Previously, 13 youths were killed in clashes during a demonstration against police brutality in September 2020.

Another 75 people were injured by projectiles reportedly launched by the police.

The protesters were outraged by the death of 43-year-old Javier Ordóñez while he was subjected to a brutal beating by an officer.

by Lina Vanegas, AFP

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