Date first published: 11/05/2021
Key sectors: all
Key risks: looting; arson attacks; violent clashes; civil unrest; instability
Colombia’s latest wave of violent unrest was triggered by union-led protests against a tax reform proposal which quickly escalated into widespread anger over inequality, poverty and police brutality. At least 26 people have been killed, over 800 injured and hundreds arrested since the protests erupted on 28 April. Despite the government’s readiness to negotiate with the National Strike Committee (CNP), the risk of further deadly violence and major disruption will remain high at least over the coming weeks and most likely until the end of President Ivan Duque’s term in August 2022.
Why it matters
Looting, arson attacks, nationwide road blockades and violent clashes between protesters and the security forces have resulted in significant economic and business losses. Right-wing President Ivan Duque, whose three years in office have been marked by bouts of deadly unrest, has so far been unable to quell the violence even after shelving the controversial tax reform proposal and ordering the military to restore order. Instability risks have continued to mount as have reports of police violence, killings and disappearances of protesters, increasing the likelihood of a left-wing win in the May 2022 presidential elections.
On 28 April tens of thousands demonstrated across the country amid a national strike called by the National Strike Committee (CNP) demanding the tax reform to be scrapped. In Cali, the epicentre of the violence, the military was deployed after several buses were set on fire and businesses looted. At least seven people were killed by 30 April, with violent clashes, looting and arson attacks also reported in Bogota, Medellin, Bucaramanga amongst other cities. On 2 May Duque announced the proposal’s withdrawal. Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, who was behind the controversial reform, resigned the following day.
The transport, food, fuel and banking sectors have been particularly affected. As of 5 May, the damage to Cali’s public transport system was estimated at COP45bln (US$12m) with 15 buses, three terminals and nine stations destroyed. The banking sector has reported that 259 bank offices and 274 ATMs were vandalised or destroyed nationwide. Road blockades have caused massive losses and widespread fuel and food shortages across the country. On 6 May Gasnova, Colombia’s main liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) distributor, reported that around 40 per cent of LPG deliveries had been cut off, while on the same day Corabastos, Bogota’s main wholesale food supplier, reported a 50 per cent drop in food products entering the capital.
Protesters and the security forces have exchanged blame for the escalating violence. The United Nations (UN) and other international organisations have demanded the security forces respect human rights. While Duque’s administration has promised investigations into the abuses, it has also blamed protesters for overt violence adding that illegal armed groups have infiltrated the protests.
The intensity and persistence of the unrest risks pushing the government into grating further concessions, which could negatively affect fiscal consolidation efforts seen as crucial for the country to maintain its investment grade credit risk rating. The government’s recently announced readiness to sit down and negotiate with the CNP is a step in this direction. The outcome of the process to address the crisis will likely be the most relevant feature of Duque’s legacy. Unless tangible, meaningful results are achieved through dialogue, left-wing candidates will have a historic opportunity to seize the presidency.