UN calls for independent probe as unrest death toll rises in Colombia

BOGOTA (AFP) – Colombia’s government resumed negotiations with demonstrators to end more than a month of protests on Sunday (May 30), as the United Nations called for an independent investigation after at least 13 people died in clashes in the city of Cali.

President Ivan Duque’s team and some of the demonstration representatives resumed talks in Bogota after nearly a week’s pause. But a resolution seemed far off, as the protesters denounced the Duque administration’s “complicit silence” in the face of “excessive” use of force by law enforcement.

The government responded that an agreement could be reached once the blockades choking up the country’s transport infrastructure are lifted.

In just over a month of unrest, 59 people have died across Colombia according to official data, with more than 2,300 civilians and uniformed personnel injured.

The  non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch says it has “credible reports” of at least 63 deaths nationwide.

The crackdown by the armed forces on the anti-government protests has drawn international condemnation, and on Sunday UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet voiced “deep concern” over the ongoing violence.

Cali deaths

Clashes in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city and one of the major centres of the protests, pitted the police against armed civilians late on Friday, leaving 13 dead, according to officials.

Calling for an investigation, Dr Bachelet’s office said it had received reports that 14 people had been killed, and that 98 people were injured, 54 of them by firearms.

It added it had been told that armed individuals, including an off-duty judicial police officer, had opened fire on demonstrators, journalists covering the protests, and passersby.

The policeman was subsequently beaten to death by a crowd, it said, and in parts of Cali civilians were seen firing shots at demonstrators as the police looked on.

A witness to the troubles in the neighbourhood of Melendez on Friday told AFP a group was marking the one-month anniversary of the protests when “shots rang out”.

“They started massacring people,” said the 22-year-old, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, and claimed that the shots came from five people in civilian clothes “hiding behind the trees”.

“It is essential that all those who are reportedly involved in causing injury or death, including state officials, are subject to prompt, effective, independent, impartial and transparent investigations,” Dr Bachelet said in a statement, calling for those responsible to be held accountable.

The police said in a statement that it would investigate claims that its members were “permissive with the actions of armed civilians”. In Colombia, the police fall under the command of the military.

Dr Bachelet’s office also said it had received information of at least 30 people arrested in Cali since Friday, and highlighted concerns about the whereabouts of some of them.

“The fair trial and due process rights of those detained need to be ensured,” the commissioner said.

‘Dousing fire with gasoline’

On Saturday, Mr Duque was booed by a crowd as he appeared in public in Cali.

The President, who was there from Friday to Sunday and chaired a security meeting, had ordered more than 1,100 soldiers to be deployed to the western city.

Some in Cali’s poorer neighbourhoods told AFP the military deployment to their city made them more fearful, not less.

“If something happens we cannot call the police because they are the ones who are killing,” said 31-year-old Lina Gallegas, a community activist.

Rescue workers carry a corpse on a stretcher in Cali, Colombia on May 28, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

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

Cali Security Secretary Carlos Rojas described scenes in the south of the city as “almost an urban war”.

In Cali, as across the country, poverty, joblessness, inequality and the fallout from the coronavirus epidemic have sparked widespread anger and resentment.

The protests, which began on April 28, were initially against a proposed tax increase Colombians said would leave them poorer even as they struggled with pandemic-related losses of income.

The proposal was quickly withdrawn, but the protests morphed into a wider denunciation of the government and the armed forces.

Blockades burning

Barricades have been kept burning countrywide and blocked dozens of key roads, causing shortages of many products.

According to the authorities, some 87 blockades have been set up throughout the country, mainly in the vicinity of Cali.

Mr Duque has deployed 7,000 troops across the country to help clear and patrol the blockaded roads.

A man holds a Colombian flag during the blockade of a road in Cali, Colombia on May 10, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Over the weekend, white-clad demonstrators took to the streets of Bogota, Medellin and other cities to demand an end to the protests and blockades.

“Today we go out peacefully to demand an end to the strike… all the road closures and blockades are affecting the national economy and are generating more poverty,” 63-year-old lawyer and cattle rancher Bernardo Henao told AFP at one of the gatherings.

Colombia is also struggling to contain the coronavirus situation in the country.

On Saturday, it reported a record daily coronavirus death toll of 540.