On 28 April 2021, nationwide protests began in Colombia, with epicenters in big cities such as Bogotá and Cali.
The protests came in the wake of tax reform proposed by the government led by President Iván Duque. The original tax reform proposed to raise almost 43 trillion pesos (11.6 billion USD) for an economy hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic. The price tag was then lowered to raise between 18-20 trillion pesos ($4.84 billion to $5.38 billion). However, the methods of raising this money were quickly scrutinized—the bill would change income taxes, reduce sales tax exemptions, eliminate many deductions, and increase duties on individuals and businesses, according to Reuters.
Invariably, these types of reforms would hit the middle and lower classes the hardest. Galvanized by a conviction that the government was proposing an unjust bill, protestors have been demonstrating in streets all around Colombia in what has come to be known as the paro nacional. On 9 May, Indepaz & Temblores ONG—civil society organizations—reported that 47 people had died, and Colombian state actors had killed 39 of them.
Acá les presentamos (@TembloresOng y @Indepaz) los 47 nombres de las víctimas que han sido asesinadas en el marco del #ParoNacional, entre ellas, 39 a manos de la fuerza pública. #SOSColombiaDDH pic.twitter.com/JmvwQNpqmt
— ? ? ? ? ? ? ?? (@Indepaz) May 10, 2021
What is the story behind the protests? It begins with the controversial tax reform bill that served as the movement’s impetus.
The story begins in late 2019, when the Colombian legislature passed and began implementing the 2010 Law of 2019, which would make adjustments to the tax code. Key among the provisions in the law, Article 137 proposed the founding of the Research Commission on Tax Benefits. According to the article’s text, the commission would, “study the existing tax benefits in the national tax code, with the aim of evaluating its appropriateness and proposing a reform…”
The commission’s report on the aforementioned research would have to be submitted to the Ministry of Finance upon 18 months of the law’s implementation. Around the same time, some of the country’s largest protests it had witnessed in decades were transpiring.
The first round of protests were a response to a general discontent with the government, especially on the topics of education funding and implementation of the 2016 peace accords. According to Joe Parkin Daniels for The Guardian, the third round of protests were mounted in early December to pile pressure on President Iván Duque and “his proposed tax reform,” most likely alluding to the 2010 Law of 2019.
The Research Commission on Tax Benefits would release its report in early 2021, which would inform the now-controversial tax reform bill. On 1 March 2021, Ernst & Young—a multinational financial consulting firm—published an article about the bill. In particular, they mention the arrival of the Commission’s report, which would scaffold the tax reform that set off the paro nacional. The Commission’s report (which can be read here) called for an fundamental overhaul of the tax code, saying:
“‘The traditional Colombian focus for the introduction of fragmented reforms will not generate sufficient revenue to finance the government’s budget deficit. A fundamental reform is required, and the current crisis should be used as a call to better the design of the national tax code.’”
As stated, then, the commission’s report became a clarion call for the government to push fundamental and sweeping tax reform.
Energy around the ensuing tax reform came to a critical threshold in April. Calls for protests came as early as mid April, when the country’s largest trade unions and leftist organizations forming the political opposition called for a national strike day on 28 April.
Local governments granted organizers permits to protest, despite calls of the problematic nature of the protests due to covid-19. These calls came to a turning point when Nelly Villamizar, judge in the Superior Court of Cundinamarca, ordered a halt to the protests, citing concerns over the pandemic. Nevertheless, protests took off on 28 April, and by 29 April began receiving notable attention around the world.
On 2 May, after days of protests, Iván Duque officially withdrew the tax reform bill. He announced that withdrawal will not be the end game, but rather that finding a solution via consensus will be.
He solicitado al Congreso el retiro del proyecto presentado por @MinHacienda, y tramitar, de manera urgente, una nueva iniciativa fruto de consensos, y con la cual evitemos incertidumbre financiera. La verdadera discusión es poder garantizar continuidad de programas sociales. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/kaxzjESqCo
— Iván Duque ?? (@IvanDuque) May 2, 2021
Additionally, early information came out that the then-Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla & his Deputy Juan Alberto Londoño would hand in their resignations on 3 May. Furthermore, the whole economic team that worked on the reform would quit. According to Bloomberg, market indicators fell at the time of these early announcements. Finally, José Manuel Restrepo became the Finance Minister on 3 May.
Since then, official communications from Duque’s twitter account have highlighted unity and government institutions, all the while condemning violence. For example, in the following Twitter video, Iván Duque announces the creation of a “space to hear the population…and to create solutions.” He does not mention the protests, but it seems that he alludes to them at certain points.
Queremos anunciarles que instalaremos un espacio para escuchar a la ciudadanía, sin ideologías, pero sí con patriotismo, con toda la institucionalidad, los partidos, sector privado, mandatarios y líderes de la sociedad civil, para, entre todos, construir soluciones para el país. pic.twitter.com/4vvTDaNWFV
— Iván Duque ?? (@IvanDuque) May 4, 2021
What Duque does mention, however, is a condemnation for violence. He quickly acts upon this condemnation when in 5 May he announces the establishment of a national hotline to report “agents who catalyze violence:”
“We should all reject those who espouse violence. Criminal organizations hide within legitimate protest. As such we are offering $10 million in pay, and we activate hotline 3232729668 for tips and the Special Group Against Vandalism and Crime to get on the trail of agents who catalyze violence.”
Notably, he blames violence on narcotrafficking groups, and at the same time does not condemn violence committed against protestors.
On 10 May, Duque announced the deployment of the fuerza pública, a national law enforcement force, to Cali. At the behest of the Minister of Defense, the fuerza pública forms a third branch of the national policing forces, the others being the national military and the national police.
According to a tweet by the president, Duque says that he, “…gave instructions to the Minister of Defense, Minister of the interior, and the government in Cali, with support of local law enforcement, to guarantee the major deployment of the fuerza pública in order to bring peace to the citizenship.” Since then, Cali has become the epicenter of violent repression of the protests, especially against indigenous protestors.
Since the inception of the paro nacional, the government has responded to mostly peaceful protests with violence. Notably, the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) has borne a large share of accusations of violence, including accusations of sexual violence. The following video shows ESMAD forces chasing protestors down with tear gas in Bogotá:
#Colombia ? Brutal represión esta tarde en Bogotá, cientos de manifestantes son gaseados con bombas lacrimógenas y perseguidos por el ESMAD.
Durante la jornada de hoy se realizó un Paro Nacional donde se realizaron masivas manifestaciones en Cali, Bogotá y Medellín. pic.twitter.com/lqpmv9ROwD
— Capucha Informativa (@capucha_informa) May 1, 2021
Founded in 1999 and further institutionalized since then, ESMAD has consistently been blamed for dubious practices that have led to extrajudicial killings. According to the League Against Silence, ESMAD agents have killed 43 people between 1999 and June 2019. In part, youth have been victims of ESMAD violence.
During the late 2019 protests, ESMAD agents fired at eighteen year old Dilan Cruz with a bean bag-type munition, hitting him in the head and resulting in serious injuries. He died in a hospital days later. A report by the National Institute for Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences classified Cruz’s death as “violent” and a “homicide.” All in all, youth have borne a large share of ESMAD and other state agent’s indiscriminate violence.
As much as youth have taken a keen interest in participating in the protests, so have indigenous people. They too have borne a large share of violence, and especially in Cali, Valle del Cauca. A testimony by John Jairo Hoyos, representative in the national legislature for Valle del Cauca, has been making rounds on social media where he states the following:
“It was 1pm on 8 May. I was at the bridge of La Viga, above Avenue Cañas Gordas, which leads to the cities of Cali and Jamundí. There were about 20 people dressed in white with high-end cars. They invited us to all cut off the indigenous people [from a protest happening beyond the bridge].”
He then details how the white-clothed people told indigenous people to turn around, also telling them the phrase “Cali shall be respected.” Eventually, he details the moment that bullets began flying and the ensuing aftermath.
Momento del ataque con armas a los indígenas que ingresaban a Cali. Máxima alerta en la Universidad Del Valle donde se desarrolla Asamblea de Voceros del paro y que queda cerca a este sitio de agresión armada. pic.twitter.com/ms5zio3NC7
— Patricia Villegas Marin (@pvillegas_tlSUR) May 9, 2021
In Cali, indigenous people have been organizing together in what are known as mingas, an indigenous language word which refers to collective work. In the context of the paro nacional, mingas have been organizing to protest. As shown in the previous video, mingas have been targets for agents who aim to suppress legitimate and peaceful protest.
In fact, state actors and anti-protest civilians have claimed that indigenous incite violence, this being a tactic to justify violence against them. In the following video, national senator Feliciano Valencia condemns the claims by Cali police that indigenous mingas were armed. He also calls out that police were protecting civilians who were attacking mingas:
¡La Policía de Cali miente!
Miente porque la Guardia Indígena no está armada, tampoco saqueó casas ni comercios, no somos ladrones ni vándalos.
Fueron civiles armados protegidos por la policía quienes atacaron a la Minga desarmada. pic.twitter.com/eNo7DMykyk
— Feliciano Valencia ? (@FelicianoValen) May 10, 2021
Even in the face of real threats to their safety, marginalized communities continue to show up and voice their concerns within an institutional framework unsuited to filter sentiment from the popular base.
Paro Nacional protest day 12.
Bogotá, Colombia pic.twitter.com/uvoSLVoFjq
— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) May 9, 2021
I really need U.S. twitter to hype up these girls who vogued at an anti-government protest in Bogotá, Colombia yesterday and defied orders from Colombia’s ESMAD riot police, known for their often brutal treatment of protestors. This took serious guts pic.twitter.com/MiALaLe3BG
— Alex Bare (@alexbaretv) April 29, 2021
Clarion calls from the international community have been solicited. In the following release, Black Women in Cali with Asociación Casa Cultural “el Chontaduro,” ask for international solidarity.
Black women in Cali, #Colombia are asking for support and solidarity as they face increasing and severe state repression and police violence. Here is the SOS letter from the Black women's org. Chontaduro. We stand in solidarity with them. #ColombiaSOS #CiteBlackWomen pic.twitter.com/0vv2R1D5w7
— Cite Black Women. (@citeblackwomen) May 7, 2021
And calls have been answered, with protests and shows of support happening all over the world, both in-person and over social media.
As the protests continue, it is important that people around the world continue to show their solidarity with the calls of everyday Colombians—whether in person or over social media. Either way, everyday people can do their part by engaging with the movement, educating themselves, and remembering this pivotal moment.
Live THREAD?of citywide marches in Cali as part of the ongoing national marches. There are four major mobilizations happening today, and a series of informal marches winding their way through the city
Near Portada del Mar, i'm just joining an ongoing march headed to Centeo pic.twitter.com/HeWcUT3N53
— Joshua Collins (@InvisiblesMuros) May 12, 2021
Additionally, we must continue to stay informed about how protestors and state actors continue to respond. As has been made clear by Iván Duque, he is insistent on tax reform. As equally clear, protesting Colombians have voiced that they will not foot the bill. Yet, fiscal reforms are due for many Latin American countries as they face the wake of a destructive virus that has turned reality upside down. How Latin American countries deal with the wake of Covid-19 will mark an important upcoming era in the region’s history, and Colombia is leading the way towards a horizon yet to fully unveil itself.
Alfredo Eladio Moreno was born and raised in Houston, Texas. He considers himself a first generation Mexican living in the United States, or a U.S.-Latino. Alfredo will enter his senior year at Pomona College in Fall 2021, where he is majoring in Latin American Studies. He studies the intersection of history, memory, violence, and healing in the Western Hemisphere.