Cali emerges as epicentre of unrest in ongoing Colombia protests

On Sunday night, armed civilians attacked protesters who have blockaded main roads around the Colombian city.

A demonstrator sits on a barricade amid protests against the government of President Ivan Duque, in Cali, Colombia, on May 8 [Luis Robayo/AFP]

Bogota, Colombia – The southwestern Colombian city of Cali, the nation’s third-largest, has become the focal point of anti-government demonstrations amid an uptick in violence between protesters, security forces and armed civilians.

Nationwide protests have been continuing since April 28 after an unpopular tax reform sparked anger. The proposal was withdrawn and the finance minister stepped down, but demonstrators have expanded their list of demands from the right-wing government of President Ivan Duque.

While many now want a healthcare reform set to further privatise Colombia’s health services to be rescinded, others continue to pour out into the streets to denounce widespread violence and killings engulfing the Andean nation.

Tension escalated in Cali on Sunday evening as demonstrators were attacked by weapons-wielding civilians demanding an end to the protest blockades. Protesters have blockaded major highways, disrupting the arrival of food and fuel supplies to the city.

More than a dozen people were injured, mostly Indigenous people who had arrived in the city to join in the demonstrations and stage a traditional protest known as a “minga”.

Duque, who made a brief visit to Cali early on Monday to address the violence, said additional security forces would be sent to remove the blockades. The president also called for Indigenous people to return to their territories to “avoid violent confrontations with citizens”.

Police violence

Cali also was at the centre of the anti-government protests last week, when police opened fire on protesters, resulting in several deaths and bringing international attention to the unrest.

Governments, politicians and human rights organisations have urged the Colombian government to rein in the security forces, who were widely criticised for using excessive force against the protesters.

“At first, Duque said he didn’t need to go to Cali, which did not go over very well with everyone including his supporters,” said Gimena Sanchez, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank.

“He finally went under pressure, but again what has he done to guarantee accountability for the abuse committed against so many protesters?” Sanchez told Al Jazeera.

“I think his inept and arrogant response to the protests coupled with his ruling party’s pressure on him to use all force necessary to stop the protests will only anger protesters further and prolong the protests.”

A burned car is seen on a street after clashes between Indigenous people, police and civilians in the Ciudad Jardin neighbourhood in Cali on May 9 [Juan B Diaz/Reuters]

Death toll 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 toll at 47. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman says 26 people have been killed, most at the hands of police.

The Colombian National Police, which reports directly to the Ministry of Defence, has faced continued scrutiny for excessive force. A reform of the police force has been hotly debated for years, and it has been added to protesters’ demands now.

“Duque needs to address the majority of the citizens’ concerns, address the abuse and guarantee a reform of the security forces whereby protesting Colombians are not seen and treated as the internal enemy,” Sanchez said.

The government has continually blamed dissident rebels and armed groups for infiltrating the protests and causing violence. Duque also met young demonstrators and strike leaders on Monday as part of a national dialogue that he has proposed to end the protests.

Colombian police officers have been accused of using excessive force in response to the protests [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Political analyst Sergio Guzman said one of the key issues the government will face is a lack of trust from citizens, however.

“[This is] not just because of its past track record when it comes to establishing broad dialogues with communities who may oppose the government, but also the fact that there’s not enough time for Duque to actually implement any of the stuff that the dialogue results in, unless they stick to very concise, doable action points,” he said.

Duque only has 15 months left in government and a lot of the demands that are being made would have to go through Congress, Guzman explained.

National strike

Meanwhile, another national strike day is being planned for Wednesday, in what will mark the third week of ongoing protests.

“It’s clear we are very far from a resolution and very far from a real dialogue about some of the issues the protesters would like to be on the table,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“Instead, I think what you see is that the government has continued to treat the situation like a law enforcement problem,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera, adding that a lack of government recognition of the protesters’ demands is a political crisis.

“However, it will become a security crisis the longer it drags on, so there’s a real urgency to this situation,” she said.

A man holds a Colombian flag as police officers on motorcycles are seen after violence broke out between Indigenous people, police and civilians in Cali [Juan B Diaz/Reuters]

Guzman said protesters understand that the blockades are causing a lot of distress within the citizenry, which he believes is damaging their legitimacy.

“Hopefully, the protesters will also acknowledge that this is a time for them to realise that the government has, in fact, listened to them and to make steps to propose a way out and propose solutions,” he said.

For Dickinson, there needs to be more organisation for discussions to move forward. “I think the one setback is the lack of leadership, both at the local and the national level, to bring these dialogues and discussions to a productive end,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera