The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colombia’s police are cracking down on protests. That may be backfiring.

The country’s leadership may not be able to keep the political crisis from deepening

People watch from a balcony as a protest against the government passes by in Medellín, Colombia, on May 12. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)
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For more than two weeks, Colombia has seen a nonstop wave of protests, initially in response to a proposed tax overhaul to address budget shortfalls. Colombian police have responded with violence to the largely peaceful demonstrations, with reports of more than 40 dead, hundreds injured and 548 disappeared, along with more than a dozen cases of sexual violence.

The government quickly withdrew the tax proposal, accepted the resignation of the finance and foreign affairs ministers, and eventually opened a dialogue with protesters — yet the protests continue. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Colombia’s protests aren’t just about tax reform.

Unions and activists called for a national strike against the extensive tax reforms introduced in congress in mid-April. Although the tax package included progressive elements, it also proposed unpopular measures that extended the value-added tax to previously untaxed goods and services, hiked gasoline taxes, and taxed pensioners earning more than $1,800 a month.

While the tax bill sparked the protests, the demonstrations built on previous discontent with how the government handled the 2016 peace agreement with the rebel FARC group, the killing of grass-roots leaders and police violence. The worsening economic and health crises exacerbated all of these grievances.

Colombia has been hit hard by covid-19 — one assessment ranked it the fifth worst performer out of 53 countries measured for their effectiveness in handling the pandemic. To slow the spread of the virus, the national and local governments resorted to shelter-in-place orders, which hampered an already slow economy.

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Over the past year, Colombia’s economy contracted by 6.8 percent and unemployment rose to 16 percent. An estimated 42 percent of the population cannot afford their basic needs, and Colombians want the government to alleviate their situation.

2. The crisis has exposed the leadership’s weaknesses.

Colombian President Iván Duque has proved to be an unskilled leader. Like the handpicked successors of other charismatic leaders, he lacks experience or political capital of his own. Selected by then-President Álvaro Uribe to be his party’s candidate in 2018, Duque has struggled to implement his agenda.

His approval ratings have been systematically low. According to opinion surveys in March, just over a third (36 percent) of Colombians endorsed his presidency.

Duque’s Democratic Center (CD) party hasn’t provided reliable support. The president, however, cannot distance himself from CD, which would like to reverse the 2016 peace agreements. Proposing a legislative agenda closer to the preferences of other parties jeopardizes his relationships with CD and his political mentor, which are key to his presidency’s survival.

Duque’s weakness is exacerbated by the 2022 presidential elections. Unable to run for reelection because of term limits, Duque and his unpopular administration are a liability. Co-partisan and rival politicians don’t want to taint their electoral prospects by supporting him.

3. The government crackdown is exacerbating the situation.

Duque has used Colombia’s security apparatus to curb the protests, despite little public or political support for the tough response. Domestic and international nongovernmental organizations have documented several cases of police brutality, noting security forces shot at least 34 people dead, while other protesters died from tear gas or from being struck by an anti-riot tank.

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Political leaders, human rights NGOs, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have urged restraint — but the government has not acknowledged the police brutality. Although there have been episodes of looting, vandalism and damage to private and public property and attacks on police officers, the demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful.

To date, the government has framed the protests as a criminal phenomenon, responding by militarizing cities like Cali (where protests, repression and other forms of violence have been more intense) and giving the minister of defense a central role in the management of the government response.

And the government’s tough response appears to have aggravated the crisis, enraging protesters, while failing to address concerns about the security sector voiced by earlier demonstrations in 2019 and 2020. The national police, part of the Ministry of National Defense, are highly militarized in their training and organizational structure. Police, similar to the armed forces, are accorded judicial protections. Political science research reveals how militarized policing makes security forces unlikely to curb violence — and prone to commit human rights violations. Colombia’s government has opposed attempts to reform the security sector to date.

4. Colombia faces a crisis of representation.

The 2016 peace agreement that ended over 50 years of conflict changed Colombian politics. It opened political participation to previously sidelined social movements and brought forward issues such as poverty and income inequality that had been obscured by the armed conflict. The political system was unprepared to absorb these issues, however.

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Colombia’s parties are organizationally weak — in fact, they’ve been largely absent in recent waves of protest. Nongovernmental groups remain fragmented, and traditional organizations at the national level, such as labor unions, do not fully represent many of the protesters, many of whom have mobilized over local demands. These traditional organizations are unable to channel and process citizen discontent.

Duque has opened up a “national dialogue,” but it resembles the ineffective talks his government initiated in 2019. The president unilaterally set the agenda, and met with economic elites and political allies. Only after almost two weeks of protests did Duque sit down with the national strike committee leadership. This group doesn’t fully represent those in the streets, and there’s little evidence the government is willing or capable of including broader voices in these talks.

This mismanagement of a deepening national crisis is further complicated by local dynamics. City governments rely on strong channels with community organizations to negotiate local grievances. Without them, some cities have been ineffective in defusing the most obstructive protest maneuvers — such as street barricades — that are blocking food and medicine supplies. This has led to escalating police violence, as well as attacks by armed civilians.

Can national and local leaders resolve the growing unrest? Absent effective mechanisms of political inclusion and representation, Colombia’s tensions will not go anywhere. Given the simmering discontent, widespread demonstrations are likely to become more frequent.

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Juan Albarracín (@JuanAlbarracinD) is an assistant professor of political science at Universidad Icesi in Cali, Colombia, specializing in criminal and political violence and electoral politics.

Laura Gamboa (@l_gamboag) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, specializing in democratic erosion, voting behavior and political parties.

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