The international community on Tuesday decried what the UN described as an “excessive use of force” by security officers in Colombia after numerous deaths during days of anti-government protests.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and rights bodies joined a chorus of criticism after official data showed 19 people were killed and 846 injured in running clashes with the security forces.
Colombia’s human rights ombudsman — a state agency independent from the government — said 89 people were listed as “disappeared.”
Tens of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets in demonstrations that began last Wednesday against a proposed tax reform but have since morphed into broader protests against the government of President Ivan Duque.
On Tuesday, protesters blocked roads in several parts of the country, coinciding with fresh demonstrations in the capital Bogota and in Cali in the west of the country.
Cali, Colombia’s third-biggest city and the worst-affected by the ongoing unrest, has had soldiers patrolling its streets since last Friday on government orders.
The Ministry of Defense has deployed 47,500 uniformed personnel countrywide. In Cali alone, 700 soldiers, 500 riot police officers, 1,800 other police and two helicopters have been put into operation.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced “profound shock” on Tuesday at an overnight incident in Cali in which police allegedly “opened fire” on demonstrators, reportedly killing and injuring several.
Cali in the crossfire
“What we can say clearly is that we have received reports, and we have witnesses, (of) excessive use of force by security officers, shooting, live ammunition being used, beatings of demonstrators and as well detentions,” spokeswoman Marta Hurtado told reporters in Geneva.
Colombian ombudsman Carlos Camargo said a member of his office, a representative of the attorney general tasked with probing official wrongdoing, and three human rights activists were attacked by public forces while assisting detainees in Cali on Monday night.
The five “were threatened by national police officers who repeatedly fired shots into the air and floor, threw stun grenades, subjected them to verbal abuse and demanded that they leave,” he said.
A local security official said five people died in Cali overnight and 33 people were injured.
South America’s football governing body, CONMEBOL, meanwhile announced that three games that were to be played this week in Colombia as part of the Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana competitions have been moved to Paraguay as a result of the ongoing unrest.
Call for calm
The UN called for calm ahead of fresh rallies planned for Wednesday, saying security forces should use firearms only as a last resort when facing an imminent threat of death or serious injury.
The European Union also condemned the reported deaths — 18 civilians and a police officer countrywide so far.
Duque’s government has officially acknowledged one civilian and one police death, and blames violence orchestrated by armed groups operating in the country.
“Nothing justifies armed people who, protected by the legitimate desires of citizens to march, go out to shoot defenseless citizens and cruelly attack our police,” said Duque, who on Sunday withdrew the proposed reform that sparked the initial protests.
Three uniformed officers have been shot since the demonstrations began.
Defense Minister Diego Molano said the violence was “systematic, premeditated and financed by criminal organizations.”
“Our public forces must be ruthless towards those who use vandalism,” the minister warned.
EU spokesman Peter Stano said it was a priority to stop the escalation of violence “and to avoid any disproportionate use of force by security forces.”
And US State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter underlined the right of all people to protest peacefully.
“Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life,” she said.
The anti-government protests come at a time of economic despair for many, fueled by the global health crisis.
In its worst performance in half a century, Colombia’s GDP shrank 6.8 percent in 2020, and unemployment stood at 16.8 percent in March.
Almost half the population lives in poverty, according to official figures.