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Protesters rally in the Colombian capital Bogotá on May 5, 2021, the eighth day of a national strike that has been brutally repressed by state security forces. (Photo: Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

Protesters rally in the Colombian capital Bogotá on May 5, 2021, the eighth day of a national strike that has been brutally repressed by state security forces. (Photo: Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images) 

'An SOS Has Sounded in Colombia': Rights Groups Blast Deadly Repression of National Strike

"The people of Colombia are being executed at the altar of austerity by a government that has lost its legitimacy in their eyes," said Progressive International. 

Brett Wilkins

As Colombia's nationwide strike against the neoliberal policies of the Iván Duque administration and the government's deadly repression of protesters continued for an eighth straight day Wednesday, a growing chorus of progressive voices condemned the brutal crackdown and called for an end to the state violence.  

"The Colombian people have shown they are not afraid of terror, barbarism, and ignominy."
—Andrés Maíz, 
human rights defender 

Local media report protesters took to the streets of cities across Colombia—including Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Cali—early on Wednesday. Although the demonstrations, which began on April 28, were initially motivated primarily by a now-postponed tax reform plan that opponents said favored the wealthy, protest leaders condemned other policies proposed by the right-wing government. 

"The withdrawal of tax reform is not the only demand," labor leader Javier Bermúdez told El Espectador. "Other reforms including healthcare must also be withdrawn."

"The government must also begin to address the agenda it presented in 2019. This is a continuation of that strike," added Bermúdez, referring to deadly nationwide protests against rumored austerity measures and Duque's neoliberal policies that swept the nation in two waves in 2019 and 2020. 

According to the Colombian human rights group Temblores, 31 people have been killed by police as of Tuesday. The group also reports over 1,400 cases of police brutality and 10 sexual assaults allegedly committed by state security forces. Meanwhile, the government agency tasked with overseeing the protection of civil and human rights said Tuesday that 89 people went missing in just the first three days of the strike. 

In a statement, the worldwide leftist group Progressive International (PI) said Wednesday that "an SOS has sounded in Colombia."  

"Since he took power, Iván Duque's regime has been responsible for the targeted killings of scores of Indigenous, Black, social movement, union, and peasant leaders in hundreds of massacres around the country," the statement said. "Over 50 social leaders have been assassinated in 2021 alone."

"Colombian security forces are meeting peaceful protesters with batons and bullets, tear gas and fists, car rammings and indiscriminate force, massacring dozens and injuring hundreds more," it continued. "Some have reported incidents of torture and sexual abuse at the hands of police."

"The people of Colombia are being executed at the altar of austerity by a government that has lost its legitimacy in their eyes," PI said, yet protesters "remain defiant... taking to the streets in response to the vicious escalation by the state."

"Now, amid gunfire, intimidation, and mass murder, they call on the vigilance and solidarity of the world to support them in their struggle for peace, justice, and dignity," the statement added. "They demand the immediate demobilization and withdrawal of the military, basic economic and social guarantees for a dignified life, and justice for the victims of the Colombian government's flagrant human rights abuses."

In a statement accompanied by a video montage of state security forces brutalizing protesters, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International (AI), said that "the Colombian authorities must promptly, independently, and impartially investigate all allegations of excessive and unnecessary use of force against demonstrators, which has resulted in dozens of people being killed and injured, arbitrary detentions, acts of torture and sexual violence, and reports of people disappearing."

"The population's discontent over economic measures that they perceive as unfair and may put their human rights at risk should not be labeled 'vandalism and terrorism,' as President Iván Duque has done, nor be used as an excuse for violent repression," she added.

The PI and AI statements follow condemnation of Colombia's deadly crackdown by multiple United Nations agencies and the European Union. Maria Hurtado, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on Tuesday expressed her "profound shock" at the killings and "solidarity" with the victims. 

U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said in a statement that her government is "deeply saddened by the loss of life during protests. The statement called for "the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life" but expressed support for the Colombian government's "commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights."

Colombian human rights defenders spoke with far more urgency, with #SOSColombia trending across social media platforms, as activists on the ground and celebrities like Colombian J Balvin—aka the "Prince of Reggaeton"—posted calls for help and images of repression by security forces. 

Colombian human rights defender Andrés Maíz told teleSUR that "the situation is becoming critical."

"I know seven young men who suffered eye injuries from rubber bullets," said Maíz. "One friend also has head trauma and multiple fractures in his body after being brutally beaten by the police." According to Temblores, 21 people have reported eye injuries during the weeklong strike. 

"However," said Maíz, "the Colombian people have shown they are not afraid of terror, barbarism, and ignominy." 

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