Bogota, Colombia – Thousands of Colombians took to the streets for the seventh-consecutive day on Wednesday amid anger over economic reforms, to push for an end to corruption, better implementation of a crucial peace deal, and with many demanding the resignation of President Ivan Duque.
The protests were also a tribute to Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester who died from brain damage on Sunday two days after a projectile fired by riot police hit his head. Many students and teachers attended Wednesday’s march holding posters with Cruz’s face.
“It could have been any of us,” said Benjamin Calderon, a 20-year-old medical student who was at the spot in Bogota‘s city centre where Cruz was hit at the time of the incident.
“Nothing has changed since protests began,” Calderon continued as he banged a pot with a wooden spoon in a traditional Latin American protest called a “cacerolazo” and chanted anti-government slogans. “The strike must go on until we are heard and our demands are met.”
Peaceful protests took place in Bogota’s main square, Plaza Bolivar and in various other locations around the city.
Labour groups, pensioners, students, and ethnic groups are just some of those taking part in the longest-running marches Colombia has seen in decades. The first two days saw violent clashes between protesters and police, but authorities have softened their stance in recent days after harsh criticism from human rights groups about the brutality of the police response.
Police presence was higher on Wednesday than previous days, with riot police seen on the perimeter of Plaza Bolivar.
Tension has been simmering for months amid discontent over inequality, education and Duque’s slow implementation of a 2016 peace deal, which was signed between the previous government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and brought an end to 50 years of fighting.
More than 750 indigenous leaders and human rights activists have been killed in Colombia over the past two years, according to local think-tank INDEPAZ.
Marcela Tobon Yagari, 35, marching with an indigenous organisation, has taken part in all seven days of protest.
“We are completely against the backward steps this government has made in terms of social, ethnic and peace policies,” she said holding a banner with a photo of Cristina Bautista, an indigenous leader killed on October 31.
“192 indigenous leaders have been killed in two years. We are going to keep protesting until something is done. The people of Colombia are tired, but they’re waking up.”
President Duque, a right-wing leader known for his strong ties to scandal-hit former President Alvaro Uribe who has been in power for 15 months, has promised national dialogue with “all social sectors” until March 15 to address economic inequality, corruption, education, the environment, and many other issues.
He met strike organisers on Tuesday, but there was no breakthrough and they called on people to take part in Wednesday’s continued strike.
“The government has a narrative depending on the audience,” said political analyst Sergio Guzman. “When Duque met with the protesters yesterday, he was willing to negotiate some things that even meant the possibility of making some changes to his cabinet, but in the evening when he met with ranchers, he basically stood fast to his discourse from the beginning of the protest.”
“It’s hard to get a sense of where Duque is. Especially since it’s very possible that the government is stalling, in hopes that the protests will stop over the Christmas period … hoping that this withers away.”
One of the demands of protesters is the elimination of the riot police, known locally as ESMAD.
“This is a really difficult demand for the government to meet,” Guzman said. “It would be a major concession for a government that’s very focused on security, something it considers one of its strongest assets.”
With no concessions from the government, protesters seen set on continuing demonstrations.
“We’re here today for Dilan,” said student Sebastian Osorio, 19, holding a banner with Cruz’s face on it and blowing a horn with the colours of the Colombian flag.
“We’re living a huge change. It’s been a long time since Colombia has protested so many days in a row. Colombians saying ‘enough is enough’, and we’re going to keep going.”