BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Hundreds of protesters had gathered in the southwestern Colombian city of Cali late Monday, pushing for economic justice on the sixth day of anti-government demonstrations. Then, Ana Maria Burgos said, police suddenly opened fire, moving in on the crowd with riot shields and batons.

The 43-year-old teacher said she saw blood pouring from the heads of protesters.

“The gunfire was indiscriminate,” said Burgos, who had volunteered as a human rights observer during the protests. “They beat us and threw people to the ground. I heard bullets being fired wherever I went.”

The protests erupted on April 28 in response to a tax proposal by the government of President Iván Duque and turned markedly more violent on Monday, with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denouncing the national police for “opening fire” on demonstrators in Colombia’s third-biggest city.

Colombia’s human rights ombudsman has identified 18 civilians and one police officer killed and 87 missing in the first five days of protests but has yet to release figures from Monday’s rash of violence, which some in Colombia are describing as a “massacre.” Human Rights Watch said it had confirmed seven deaths since the protests began April 28 and is in the midst of verifying 18 others, including five in Cali on Monday night.

The protests underscore the destabilizing effect of the coronavirus pandemic, which is wreaking havoc on national coffers and leaving countries, including Colombia, with gaping deficits. The Duque administration’s attempt to fill those holes with new taxes that protesters view as largely shielding the rich and hitting the working classes has tapped into a broader vein of anger over the country’s massive income and wealth disparity, which the pandemic has only worsened.

Data released by the national statistical agency last week showed a pandemic-spurred surge in Colombia’s poverty rate in 2020, a jump of 6.8 percentage points to 42.5 percent from a year earlier. Meanwhile, the nation is facing a brutal third wave of the coronavirus, with Colombia posting one of the world’s highest infection and death rates.

Analysts fear the kind of protests being witnessed in Colombia could erupt in other countries facing a similarly toxic mix of frustrated citizens and governments that overextended themselves to fight the pandemic. Duque withdrew the tax proposal on Sunday and accepted the resignation of his finance minister on Monday evening. But demonstrators have responded by redoubling their demands, calling for the withdrawal of a health bill, a guaranteed basic income for all Colombians and major police-related measures.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said on May 2 he would withdraw a proposed tax reform after deadly protests and widespread lawmaker opposition. (Reuters)

A mobilization by Colombian unions is expected Wednesday, with the demonstrations carrying echoes of the 2019 protests in Chile, which began in response to a transit hike but evolved into a sustained national movement for social and economic justice.

“It’s going to be an ugly year,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “These governments have to cope with deficits and come up with money now … We’re talking about some of the most unequal countries in the world in Latin America, and when people see others still living well in wealthy areas, it’s just not going to sit well with them when they get squeezed by new taxes.”

The scope of the ongoing protests is difficult to gauge. If they receive the kind of broad-based, middle-class support seen in September — when the police slaying of a taxi driver spurred nationwide protests and a debate over police violence — analysts say the demonstrations could continue for days, weeks or longer.

Hundreds of videos with accounts of police misconduct are flooding Colombian social media. One appears to show a young man being shot at close range. Another shows bystanders being rounded up into police trucks. A video recorded in the western city of Manizales purports to show police gassing a bus filled with people.

The videos could not be independently verified by The Washington Post. But the situation was grave enough to stoke alarm among U.S., European and U.N. officials, who called on the Colombian government to exercise restraint.

“I’m extremely concerned by the brutal … response to protests in Colombia,” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Iván Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable.”

Colombian riot police, known as ESMAD, have long been accused of human rights abuses and are largely being blamed for the alleged abuses during the ongoing protests.

In a news conference Tuesday, Defense Minister Diego Molano suggested most protesters had demonstrated peacefully. But he defended the use of force, claiming that armed groups and vandals had infiltrated the protests and forced the hand of police.

“In recent days we have seen those who peacefully expressed their discontent, those who express their optimism and desire to get ahead,” Duque said in an address to the nation on Tuesday, in which he called for a national dialogue. “We have also seen a few who have looked to terrorism, to vandalism.”

Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s national police, said there had been no standing order for police to shoot, adding that 23 internal investigations had been opened against officers deployed to contain the protests.

Episodes of looting and disorder have accompanied the protests. The mayor of Bogota, Claudia López, has blamed vandals for 25 percent of the capital’s mass transit system being out of service.

Peaceful protesters, however, have sought to distance themselves from those committing crimes and have accused police of excesses.

Seven, reached by phone, spoke of an evening of violence in Cali on Monday. They said police began confronting protesters at 8 p.m., opening fire in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

“They were even firing shots from helicopters,” said Stiven Soñador, a 27-year-old human rights lawyer who took part in the protests. “Police started to fire shots and people ran to their neighborhoods, but inside the neighborhoods, there were more [police] waiting.”

On Tuesday, hundreds gathered at places where protesters had been shot a day earlier, lighting candles and placing photos of the dead.

“People are going hungry. It’s not just the tax reform, it’s about the health services and the policies of the government,” Burgos said. “That’s the problem. People are tired, and they’re saying ‘no more.’ ”

Faiola reported from Miami. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas contributed to this report.

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