Colombians hold eighth day of protests after overnight violence

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BOGOTA, May 5 (Reuters) – Colombians staged mass marches around the country on Wednesday to mark an eighth day of anti-government protests with a laundry list of demands, after violence worsened overnight in the capital Bogota.

The protests, originally called in opposition to a now-canceled tax reform plan, are now demanding the government take action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in the health and education systems.

Demonstrations and lawmaker opposition led to the tax reform’s withdrawal and the resignation of the finance minister. International organizations have warned against police violence, which is so far linked to just under half of 24 confirmed deaths, mainly of protesters.

Bogota psychologist Benjamin Paba Al-Faro, 53, said he was demonstrating for better education and to ensure continuity of the peace process with the now-demobilized FARC rebels, among other reasons.

“This isn’t about defeating just one law,” he said.

Growing poverty, which rose to 42.5% of the population last year amid coronavirus lockdowns, has aggravated long-standing inequalities and reversed some recent development gains.

The number of Colombians living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people in 2020.

President Ivan Duque has said the government will create space to listen to citizens and develop concrete proposals, similar to overtures offered to protesters following demonstrations in 2019. Many groups – including major unions – say he has failed to deliver.

In a video on Wednesday, Duque repeated government allegations that drug trafficking mafias are behind vandalism and looting and said more than 550 arrests had been made.

“There will be no truce with those who commit these crimes – all of society will take them to justice,” Duque said.

During a seventh night of protests on Tuesday, 30 civilians and 16 police officers were injured in Bogota, the mayor’s office said in a statement.

A crowd tried to “burn alive” a group of 10 police officers by setting fire to a station in one neighborhood, it added.

“The level of destruction, of violence, of attacks against citizens, against public property and against the police, is unbelievable,” Mayor Claudia Lopez said.

Protests nationwide have resulted in 24 deaths, according to the human rights ombudsman, 15 of them in the western city of Cali.

The national police or the ESMAD riot squad were listed by the ombudsman as the entity “presumed responsible” for 11 of the deaths, including that of a boy under 18 years old. Eleven others had a “unknown” perpetrator.

A local human rights observatory said the death toll was more than 30. (Reporting by Oliver Griffin with additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Julia Symmes Cobb Writing by Oliver Griffin and Julia Symmes Cobb Editing by Mark Heinrich)