BOGOTÁ, Colombia – A teenager was shot dead after kicking a police officer. A young man bleeds in the street as protesters call for help. Police shoot unarmed demonstrators. Helicopters swarm over us, tanks roll through neighborhoods, explosions echoed in the streets. A mother crying for her son.
“We are destroyed,” said Milena Meneses, 39, whose only son Santiago, 19, was killed in a protest over the weekend.
Colombians who demonstrated last week against the poverty and inequality that have made the lives of millions of people worse since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic were welcomed by their government, which responded to the protests with the same militarized police as many times, severely dejected use against rebel fighters and organized crime.
This explosion of frustration in Colombia could lead to unrest across Latin America, experts say, where several countries are facing the same flammable mix of relentless pandemic, growing hardship and falling government revenues.
“We are all interconnected,” said León Valencia, a political analyst, noting that past protests in Latin America have been contagious and varied from country to country. “This could spread across the region.”
On Wednesday, after seven days of marches and clashes that turned parts of Colombian cities into battlefields, protesters broke protective barriers around the National Congress and attacked the building before being repulsed by police.
Several members of President Iván Duque’s political party have asked him to declare a state of siege that would give him far-reaching new powers.
At least 24 people were killed in the clashes, most of them protesters, and at least 87 were missing. They have exacerbated anger against officials in the capital, Bogotá, many of whom protesters say are increasingly out of touch with people’s everyday lives.
On Wednesday, the 24-year-old nurse Helena Osorio stood on the sidelines of a rally in Bogotá.
“I am in pain for Colombia, I am in pain for my country,” she said. “All we can do to be heard is to protest,” she continued, “and for that they will kill us.”
The marches began last week after Mr Duque proposed a tax overhaul to fill a pandemic-induced economic void. He canceled the plan by Sunday, amid demonstrations across the country.
But the unrest has not subsided. Instead, the crowd has only grown, fueled by outrage over the government’s response.
Protesters now include teachers, doctors, students, members of large trade unions, longtime activists and Colombians who have never taken to the streets before.
Truckers block major highways. And on Tuesday demonstrators burned down buses in the capital, set fire to over a dozen police stations, sang the national anthem and shouted “Assassins!” And sent officers to run for their lives.
“This is not just about tax reform,” said Mayra Lemus, 28, a school teacher who was not far from the nurse on Wednesday. “This is about corruption, inequality and poverty. And we all young people are fed up with it. “
The demonstrations are in part a continuation of a movement that conquered Latin America in late 2019 when people took to the streets in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and elsewhere.
May 5, 2021, 10:31 p.m. ET
Each country’s protest was different. But in all of them, people voiced their complaints about limited opportunities, widespread corruption, and officials who appeared to be working against them.
Then came the pandemic. Latin America was one of the regions hardest hit by the virus in 2020. Cemeteries filled the capacities of the past, the sick died while waiting for care in hospital corridors, and family members queued the night to buy medical oxygen to keep loved ones alive.
The region’s economies shrank by an average of 7 percent. Unemployment rose sharply in many places, especially among young people.
Then Mr Duque announced his tax reform in Colombia, one of the first attempts in the region to address the economic deficit exacerbated by the pandemic. While the measure would have maintained a critical cash subsidy from the pandemic era, it would also have increased the prices of many everyday goods and services.
Long-brewing resentment soon spread to the streets.
On Tuesday, Mr Duque said he would open a national dialogue to find a solution to fiscal problems and other challenges.
“It is important to have all institutions, parties, the private sector, governors, mayors and civil society leaders involved,” he said. “The results of this area are translated into initiatives to which we can react quickly.”
However, the call for a national dialogue was similar to 2019, and many civil society groups said the discussion produced few results.
Mr Duque, a Conservative, has fallen significantly in popularity since the pandemic began, according to surveys by Invamer. And analysts say he’s at his weakest point since taking office in 2018.
The police and military response has made a national compromise conversation extremely difficult, said Sandra Borda, political analyst and columnist for El Tiempo newspaper.
“He has no political capital,” she said. “People cannot enter into dialogue with a government that kills people at night who protest and holds out a hand in conversation during the day.”
“I think there will be a lot of upheaval,” she continued. “And I think the next year and a half is going to be horrific for the government, horrific for Colombian society, and with very few long-term solutions.”
Colombia will hold presidential elections in 2022. The country has elected conservative leaders for decades. But Gustavo Petro, a left-wing former mayor of Bogotá and a former member of a demobilized guerrilla group, is now leading the polls. Mr Duque, who is limited by law to one term, cannot stand for re-election.
The government’s response to the recent protests could be a major factor in next year’s vote.
This week the United Nations Human Rights Department said it was “deeply alarmed” by the situation and had documented at least one case “in which police opened fire on demonstrators”.
On Saturday night, 19-year-old Santiago Murillo, a senior high school student, returned to the house he shares with his parents in the medium-sized town of Ibagué and passed through a crowded protest.
Two blocks away from home, his mother was loudly shot and fell to the ground. A witness can be heard screaming in a video.
“Is he alright?” the witness says. “Can he breathe? To breathe! To breathe! To breathe!”
A delivery man passing by put Mr. Murillo on his motorcycle and took him to a clinic. There, his mother’s tortured screams were recorded on tape. “Son, take me with you! Son i want to be with you! “
The doctors were unable to resuscitate him and the Ibagué resident held a protest vigil on his behalf the next day.
“I asked you to protest civilly,” said his mother, “in peace.”