Colombian soldiers deployed in Cali after deadly day of protests

Rights advocates raise concerns about escalating violence in southwestern city as mayor says 13 people died on Friday.

Colombian President Ivan Duque announced the 'maximum deployment' of soldiers to Cali and the Valle del Cauca province on Friday, the same day several people were killed in anti-government protests [Juan B Diaz/Reuters]

Colombian soldiers have started their deployment in the southwestern Colombian city of Cali after President Ivan Duque promised to restore order on the heels of deadly violence that erupted amid mass anti-government demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of people marched across Colombia on Friday to mark one month of protests, which were sparked by now-withdrawn tax reform and have since expanded to include a long list of demands.

The streets of Cali, the country’s third-largest city with 2.2 million inhabitants, were calm on Saturday, hours after confrontations between protesters, police and armed civilians killed several people.

Mayor Jorge Ivan Ospina said in a video message that at least 13 people died on Friday, though he specified that it was unclear whether all the deaths “are fully linked and associated with the protests”.

“This fateful day has meant a very significant number of deaths,” Ospina said, adding at least 34 people were also reported injured.

Confirmation of the cause of the deaths is expected to be announced on Sunday, a representative of the attorney general’s office said.

In one case on Friday, a representative from the Cali prosecutor’s office said an off-duty investigator had shot at a crowd, killing a civilian, before being lynched by protesters.

Video footage showed a man lying in a pool of blood and another nearby wielding a gun; that man was then attacked by a group of people.

“In the south of the city, we had a real scene of confrontation and almost an urban war where many people not only lost their lives, but we also had a significant number of injuries,” Cali’s security secretary Carlos Rojas told Caracol radio earlier on Saturday.

Cali emerged earlier this month as the epicentre of the nationwide protest movement, with some demonstrators erecting blockades that have impeded access to fuel and other goods.

Talks between the government and the protest leaders, including union leaders who have formed a national strike committee, have stalled.

People march in support of the demonstrations taking place in Colombia, in Madrid, Spain, on May 29 [Sergio Perez/Reuters]

Violence has broken out during the protests and dozens of people have been killed to date, according to local human rights groups, which have accused the Colombian police of using excessive force.

On Friday, Duque announced he was sending the military to the province of Valle del Cauca and to Cali, its capital, after the uptick in deadly violence.

“From tonight begins the maximum deployment of military assistance to the national police in Cali and the province of Valle,” Duque said in a televised message.

He ordered 7,000 troops to help clear and patrol blockaded roads in 10 departments, while a total of 1,141 soldiers were deployed in Cali.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said on Saturday Duque’s measures to restore order in the province “do not include any explicit reference to prioritising dialogue, avoiding excessive force and respecting human rights”.

“Serious failure that can have irreparable consequences,” he tweeted.

A day earlier, the United Nations’ human rights office in Colombia expressed concern about the deaths, urging “calm and non-violence”.

Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Colombia analyst for the International Crisis Group, also tweeted that “the risk of violent escalation in #Cali is extremely high”.

“There is NO armed or military solution to this crisis. But agendas on all sides are increasingly tempted to look for one,” she wrote on Friday, adding that Colombia was “on the edge of new armed conflict”.

Meanwhile, Colombian protesters have pledged to continue their demonstrations.

“Until the government listens to us, we have to stay in the streets,” 23-year-old protester Alejandro Franco told the Reuters news agency from the capital, Bogota.

Franco said he was marching for better education and health, among other things. “If the people don’t have peace then neither will the government,” he added.

Sandra Borda, an analyst and expert on the protests, told The Associated Press news agency there is a crisis of representation in both the government, which has limited room for maneuver, and the National Strike Committee, which does not represent all the sectors demonstrating.

“We are facing a scenario that I do not think will be resolved soon, because the only thing the government can control with any level of effectiveness are state forces and therefore it continues to try to resolve the situation with a heavy hand,” she said.

“When the state forces are excessive there is more indignation, more anger and more fuel is added to the fire of the demonstrations.”

Luis Felipe Vega, a political scientist at Javeriana University, also likened the military deployment to “putting out a fire with gasoline”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies