Colombian President Ivan Duque has deployed military troops to the western province of Valle del Cauca and its capital, Cali, after four people died in protests that marked a month of anti-government demonstrations.
The four died in and around Cali on Friday as tens of thousands marched across the country in the latest of demonstrations that started on April 28 to oppose a tax reform but have since expanded to include wide-ranging demands.
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Talks between the government and the protest leaders, including union leaders who have formed a national strike committee, have stalled.
The new toll brings to 49 the deaths officially reported to date, but the Human Rights Watch puts the tally at 63.
Amid the unrest, Duque chaired a security meeting in the city of Cali and addressed the public in a televised message.
“From tonight begins the maximum deployment of military assistance to the national police in Cali and the province of Valle,” he said, describing the decision as one that was made to stop “vandalism, unrest” and to protect the “people’s peace”, as well as to protect “strategic assets” in Colombia.
He added that more than 7,000 personnel will be sent to lift road blockades, including members of the navy, but did not give any more specifics.
Clara Luz Roldan, governor of Valle del Cauca, earlier declared a curfew would start in the province from 7:00 pm (00:00 GMT).
In Cali, which has become an epicentre of the nationwide protests, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa said two of Friday’s deaths occurred when an agent of the attorney general’s investigative unit opened fire on civilians.
The agent, who was not on duty at the time, was also then killed.
Video footage showed a man lying in a pool of blood and another nearby wielding a gun, who was then attacked by a group of people.
Local media said the fourth death occurred on the road between Cali and the town of Candelaria.
‘Insane situation of death and pain’
Cali Mayor Jorge Ospina said he regretted what he described as an “insane situation of death and pain”.
Calling for dialogue between those “calling for strikes, the national government, and the whole of society”, Ospina added: “We cannot allow these circumstances to keep happening in Cali. We must not fall into the temptation of violence and death.”
The protests began last month after Duque’s right-wing government introduced a tax reform that critics said would disproportionately harm the working and middle classes, already hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The demonstrations pressured the government and legislators into shelving the tax plan and also prompted the resignation of former finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla. Protester demands now include a basic income, opportunities for young people and an end to police violence.
Although demonstrations outside Valle del Cauca on Friday were mostly peaceful, clashes between police and protesters were reported in some areas, such as the municipality of Madrid, near Bogota, as were incidents of violence in the city of Popayan.
Amid singing and music in the capital Bogota, protesters said they would keep marching.
“Until the government listens to us, we have to stay in the streets,” Alejandro Franco, 23, told the Reuters news agency. Close to graduating, he said he was marching for better education and health, among other reasons.
“If the people don’t have peace then neither will the government,” he added.
Some said the long-running protests are putting them under financial pressure.
“I have to close my shop every time there are protests,” Laudice Ramirez, 62, said in the south of the city. “I’m going bankrupt, but the youth don’t have any other options for opportunities.”
The Colombian police’s clampdown on protesters has, meanwhile, provoked international condemnation.
In a meeting with Colombia’s Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez in Washington on Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “expressed his concern and condolences for the loss of life during recent protests in Colombia and reiterated the unquestionable right of citizens to protest peacefully,” according to a spokesman.
Blinken also welcomed the national dialogue convened by Duque “as an opportunity for the Colombian people to work together to construct a peaceful, prosperous future”, the spokesman added.
However, two weeks of negotiations to end the unrest have yet to bear fruit.
The government and protest leaders reached a “pre-agreement” for ending demonstrations earlier this week, but strike organisers on Thursday said the government had not signed the deal and accused it of stalling.
“We have already reached the agreement, the only thing missing is the president’s signature to start the negotiations,” Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT), said on Friday, accusing the government of delaying talks.
The government said it had not signed the deal because some protest leaders would not condemn roadblocks, calling the issue non-negotiable, and adding that talks will resume on Sunday.
Colombia’s finance ministry estimated protests and roadblocks have cost the country $2.68bn, with the roadblocks leading to shortages of food and other supplies, boosting prices, and disrupting operations in the country’s main seaport, as well as for hundreds of companies.