Rights advocates raise concerns about escalating violence in southwestern city as mayor says 13 people died on Friday.
Thousands of Colombians took to the streets again on Wednesday amid a deadlock in talks between the government and leaders of anti-government protests that are stretching into their second month.
Mass demonstrations were sparked at the end of April against a now-withdrawn tax reform proposed by President Ivan Duque‘s government, but they have continued with protesters now demanding a basic income, opportunities for young people, and an end to police violence.
An umbrella national strike committee made up of unions, student groups and other civil society organisations is currently in discussions with the government.
Last week, the two sides reached a so-called pre-agreement, the details of which have not yet been released. But the committee later accused the government of backtracking and talks on Tuesday ended without further advances.
The government said protest leaders need to condemn roadblocks that have caused shortages around the country and hit exports of coffee, coal and other products, adding the point was non-negotiable. The committee has said it does not have sway over all the protesters.
Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT), who sits on the committee, accused the government of delaying the signing of the pre-agreement, which includes guarantees the committee says are needed to protect protesters’ rights.
“All these actions are to pressure the government into starting negotiations,” Maltes told the Reuters news agency. “The government lacks the political will to seek an agreement. We are waiting for the government to sign the pre-agreement for guarantees.”
While protesters count the withdrawal of tax and health reforms and the resignation of the former finance minister among their victories, they plan to keep marching to force more concessions from the government.
“We’ll keep fighting until the government is conscious of the poverty, inequality, and injustice, and of the groups calling for change,” Andrea Sandino, a 40-year-old teacher, told Reuters.
Security forces have gradually lifted some blockades, but 38 remain, according to the defence minister.
The death toll related to the protests remains unclear.
The attorney general’s office says 20 deaths linked directly to demonstrations have been reported to date, while Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman said at least 42 people have been killed in the protests. Rights groups say dozens have been killed by security forces.
The national police have said it will investigate police who stood by as people in civilian clothes fired on protesters in the city of Cali late last week.
The situation prompted Duque to visit the city of two million – the country’s third-largest – and send 1,100 soldiers over the weekend to restore order and guard roads leading into Cali that have been blocked by protesters.
On Sunday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for those who committed crimes to be held accountable.
“These events are all the more concerning given the progress that had been made to resolve, through dialogue, the social unrest that erupted a month ago following the start of a nationwide strike against several social and economic policies,” Bachelet said.