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‘They can’t take it anymore’: the pandemic and poverty cause a violent storm in Colombia | Global development

YIna Reyes, a 39-year-old nurse from the oppressed Siloé neighborhood in the Colombian city of Cali, knows very well what Covid-19 can do to a person and a community. His mother was hospitalized with the disease and almost died.

As a home care nurse, you have seen patients get sick and neighbors die. In the early days of the pandemic, her husband lost his job as a driver, leaving her to support their daughter and her parents, who share their home.

“I have seen this virus face to face, I know what it can do and I know how to protect myself against it,” Reyes said. “But the real terror is the Colombian government.”

Siloé has become the center of a brutal nationwide crackdown on protests against poverty and inequality that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The demonstrations that began with a general strike on April 28 quickly escalated into violence, with images of smoke-filled streets dominating the evening news.

Up to 37 protesters have been killed across the country, according to Temblores, a local watchdog, while hundreds have been injured by police officers who have shown little restraint with their clubs, flashes and tear gas.

“This is the Colombia of the Democratic Center,” said David López, a community leader in Siloé, referring to the ruling party of President Iván Duque. “A country where people are getting poorer and can’t take it anymore.”

Protesters and riot police clash in Cali, Colombia, on April 29.
Protesters and riot police clash in Cali, Colombia, on April 29. Photograph: Paola Mafla / AFP / Getty Images

The protests erupted suddenly, apparently in response to a tax reform plan since abandoned, but they reveal deep social flaws. Similar demonstrations erupted in late 2019 during a wave of unrest in Latin America.

Colombia was an unequal country then and Covid-19, which has claimed more than 75,000 lives and continues to devastate public health, has only widened the gap between rich and poor.

“One of the central dynamics of why these protests are taking hold so strongly is that there is a huge gap between the political establishment and the street,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a researcher at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think tank. “It’s almost like they’re on two different planets and they’re talking to each other.”

Amid one of the longest lockdowns in the world, the number of Colombians living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people last year. Red rags were hung outside the houses, a desperate sign that those inside were hungry. And as people got poorer, they also got sicker, and those in the poorest neighborhoods were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid-19 than those of the richest.

“The level of financial distress is enormous,” Dickinson said. “Like the rest of Latin America, Colombia has been greatly affected by the pandemic and, as a result, we have had to live with a year of intermittent blockades, and who was the face of implementing those blockades? It was the police. “

Colombia’s militarized police fought for decades on the front lines of the country’s war against left-wing rebel groups and have long been accused of human rights violations; Earlier this year, Tremors denounced “structural and systematic” abuses in the force that killed 86 people in 2020.

But relations between the police and the Colombian population deteriorated further during a year in which officers had the power to slap people with heavy fines for not wearing a mask properly or for drinking alcohol in public.

Demonstrations against the police broke out in September after agents in Bogotá killed a lawyer, Javier Ordóñez, with an electric taser after initially arresting him for drinking beer on the street. Police kiosks in the capital were set on fire in the ensuing riots as police killed at least 10 protesters.

But the current protests, now entering their 11th day, have been met with even more brutality. Every morning, Colombians wake up to the news of a new outrage.

A protester holds a flower while marching in the rain in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 5.
A protester holds a flower while marching in the rain in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 5. Photograph: Vizzor Image / Getty Images

On Friday morning, the country learned that a truck carrying violent rioters who attacked protesters belonged to the police. Twenty-four hours earlier, it emerged that Lucas Villa, a young student who had been filmed dancing happily at protests in Pereira, a city in the coffee region, had been sent to an intensive care unit after he was shot during a skirmish.

“How difficult is this fear that we feel at nightfall in Colombia”, tweeted Fernando Posada, political scientist at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá. “Fear of violence, barbarism, pain. And afraid to wake up the next morning and read the horrible reports from the night that passed. This country is heartbreaking. “

Few scenes have been as hellish as those at Siloé, the Kings’ house on the mountainside, where the police have used live bullets, blown up Black Hawks right above houses, and shoot tear gas for nights and nights.

“They spray us like we were insects,” Reyes said. “I have seen people with Covid on ventilators who cannot breathe and seem to be in less pain than children drowning in those gases.”

Reyes has joined with some neighbors to provide first aid to the injured. Two residents have died and some are still missing. The bloodstains, new every day, reveal the sites of the previous night’s battle. “Obviously no one is cleaning the street,” said the nurse.

Riot police officers in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 5.
Riot police officers in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 5. Photograph: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

The violence has been especially daunting for those hoping for a peaceful future for Colombia when the country signed a historic agreement with rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

That agreement ended five decades of civil war that killed 260,000 people and forced more than 7 million to flee their homes, but it also raised hopes that new spaces would eventually open up for the left on Colombia’s political spectrum. Instead, the government has slandered the protesters as “hooligans” and “terrorists” with links to insurgents.

The protesters have been criticized for lifting blockades that have caused food and fuel shortages and cut off the country’s largest sea port, Buenaventura. But those on the streets are convinced that extreme measures are needed.

“To win tomorrow, we have to lose today,” said Steven Ospina, 27, who has lived in Siloé all his life. “This government has been so cruel but we want to lower the tension, that way they cannot paint us all as criminals.”

Reyes argued that the government’s heavy-handed response is counterproductive. “The working classes are the engine of Colombia,” he said, before another torturous night of skirmishes outside his home. “If they kill us all, they will have nothing for them.”

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