The reported death toll from nearly two weeks of anti-government protests in Colombia has risen past 40, a day before a planned national strike, while major cities warned of a prolonged peak in COVID-19 cases due to demonstrations.
Violent protests fuelled by outrage at a now-cancelled tax plan began on April 28. Demonstrator demands have expanded to include a basic income, an end to police violence and the withdrawal of a long-debated health reform.
Smaller protests and road blockades have continued daily around the country. Unions and student groups have called for a national strike on Wednesday after a meeting with President Ivan Duque left them at odds with the government.
Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said it had received reports of the deaths of 41 civilians and one police officer. It is verifying if they are directly connected to the protests.
The police and its ESMAD riot squad are presumed responsible for 11 killings, the ombudsman has previously said, while it classed seven deaths as unrelated to the marches themselves.
“We call for all necessary measures to be taken to put an end to the violence that is bleeding Colombia dry,” the ombudsman’s office said on Twitter.
Advocacy group Temblores says 40 protesters have allegedly been killed by police, while Human Rights Watch said it has received 46 credible reports of protest deaths and verified 13.
So far three police officers are facing murder charges connected to demonstrator deaths.
Duque visited the city of Cali – a focal point for protests – for a second day on Tuesday and announced poor and working-class students at public universities and technical schools would pay no tuition next semester.
The three largest cities in Colombia, which has recorded nearly 79,000 COVID-19 deaths, are now bracing for an extended third peak in coronavirus cases and overstretched intensive care units, local authorities said.
A fall in infections would not come until the end of May, Bogota Mayor Claudia Lopez said, adding protests made quarantine restrictions nearly unenforceable.