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The anger driving the Colombian protest movement isn’t going away anytime soon

Last week, Colombia’s attorney general’s office released a statement accusing police officer Luis Ángel Piedrahita Hernández of aggravated homicide in connection with the murder of Marcelo Agredo Inchima. Officer Piedrahita Hernández claims his innocence and the case will be brought before a criminal court.

The charges were announced the same day that the head of the Colombian National Police, General Jorge Luis Vargas, just four months after taking office, defended the force’s credibility – which has come under heavy criticism for its brutal response. to the protests – while admitting that the police would be the first to admit their faults.

“Any act that a police officer commits against the law is strongly rejected,” General Vargas said, speaking to Spanish newspaper El País last week. “Whoever has individual responsibility, we hope that the full weight of the law falls on him. And we will be the first to ask for forgiveness when it is determined,” he added.

The institution the general oversees has found itself in the midst of a credibility crisis, as reports of human rights violations mount and international humanitarian groups, including the United Nations, voice their concerns. On Saturday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) officially requested access to the country to investigate these allegations of abuse.

At least 42 people have died in the protests according to the Colombian Ombudsman’s office. Rights groups say the death toll could be higher. According to a compilation by human rights organization Temblores, at least 2,387 cases of police violence have been reported.

The shooting of Marcelo Agredo Inchima

Marcelo Agredo Inchima was among the first casualties that led to the protests, on a day when social media videos of the brutal police crackdown would ignite the fury of an already angry nation.

Agredo, 17, and his brother joined a rally against the tax bill on April 28, the first day of protests in Cali, a town in southwest Colombia that will soon become the heart of the movement. They didn’t know it would be the last day he was seen alive.

Dramatic social media footage shot from a balcony in the Mariano Ramos neighborhood shows Agredo kicking a policeman on a motorcycle. Gunshots can be heard as people disperse in panic. Agredo tries to escape on foot, but the policeman grabs his gun and shoots, killing the young man.

A second social media video from another angle shows Agredo running and then falling to the ground. A third shows his body on the sidewalk in a pool of blood, as people frantically try to move it. “They killed him! a woman shouts, terror echoing in her voice.

“No, he’s already dead,” she sobs next to Agredo’s still body.

The next day, the young man’s father spoke on camera with Temblores and confirmed the death of her son.

“My child died there as a result of a shot that a policeman fired at him. My son attacked a policeman with a kick,” Armando Agredo Bustamante said, claiming that the kick was no reason to kill his son when his son was unarmed and “defenseless”.

For many Colombians, what started as protests against the now-withdrawn tax reform that would have hit many families already in economic difficulty, has turned into a cry to end the excessive police force directed against the protesters – something something that they say has plagued the nation for decades.

“The way they’ve decided to take these things is to bring the police and military against their own people. That’s why we’re all here,” Juan Pablo Randazzo, 21, told CNN during a peaceful protest in the capital Bogotá, the brightly colored yellow, blue and red Colombian flag wrapped around his neck like a cape.

“We are not ready to hear the next day that one of our friends, that of our family, that of our brothers is being killed,” added the university student with emotion in his voice.

In an exclusive interview with Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s international news anchor last week, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that 65 investigations had been opened into police abuse, adding that there were “strict protocols” on the issue. use of force in the country.

Duque said his government “has always trusted and defended the fundamental right of our institution for specific protests.”

Nevertheless, government officials also maintain that left-wing activists and illegal armed groups are behind some of the violence.

Last week, Colombia’s defense ministry announced that security forces had arrested a leader of a local cell of the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ministry accused him of trying to interfere with protests in Cali with plans to detonate a hand grenade and blame the security forces, but offered no evidence.

A cascade of discontent

The withdrawal of the tax reform proposal, which the government deemed necessary to dampen the blows of the pandemic, was too late to quell protesters’ fury after months of economic pressure, reinforced by police brutality, which deepened the crisis. feeling of inequality that many Colombians feel.

Protesters torched public buses, police stations, looted shops and blocked roads across the country, further hampering the economy and the flow of goods.

“The Colombian Constitution does not establish the right to block, for violence or vandalism,” Interior Minister Daniel Palacios said on Twitter. “Blockades generate poverty, do not build a country and do not end the economy,” he added.

Negotiations between the Colombian government, indigenous groups and the National Strike Committee are ongoing but have so far not been successful. Even President Duque’s announcement last week to cut tuition fees for low-income students in the second semester of 2021 failed to stem the protests.

Meanwhile, Colombians are sinking deeper into poverty, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and nationwide lockdowns. According to the country’s National Department of Statistics (DANE), the poverty rate fell from 36% in 2019 to 42.5% in 2020.

In protests in Colombia, pandemic pressures collide with existential calculation for police
A DANE study also reports that the number of Colombian families eating less than three meals a day has tripled since the start of the pandemic.

Sociology and history professor Jose Alejandro Cifuentes told CNN that the economic situation Colombia faces is grim and entangled in its history of civil war and inequality.

“We are in a very serious situation with regard to access to higher education, to employment, and we are facing a situation of high informal employment which is the only space left for these young people,” Cifuentes said. about the many young Colombians who take to the streets to express their frustrations and concerns.

But not only has the pandemic hit future generations. It also affected people like Marlon Rincon Peralta, 46, a father of five we met as he greeted the few visitors who walked past his mostly empty tables.

Rincon Peralta was forced to transition from being a business owner to serving as a waiter at a restaurant in the once bustling colonial tourist town of Zipaquirá, north of the capital.

“Never, never have I seen this situation,” Rincon Peralta told CNN as he emotionally shared how the pandemic has only helped make the rich richer and the poor poorer due to inequality that the country has faced and continues to live on.

Financially, it is at its worst.

“I say to my wife, my children, if we continue like this, no, no … what are we going to do?” he said with tears in his eyes.

“The pandemic has a cure,” he said, but not the economy and inequality. “If we do nothing, we will never have a cure.”

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