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Anti-Government Protests Continue In Colombia

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Colombia, what started as a protest over a government attempt at tax reform has turned into eight days of anti-government demonstrations. The protesters' demands have expanded - an end to police violence, fixes for poverty and inequality, improvements in health and education. At least 24 people are believed to have died. Reporter John Otis is in Bogota this morning. Hi, John.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Hi. Nice to be here.

KING: I'd love to get some context for what's going on there. The government withdrew the tax reform bill, and yet that was not enough. Why?

OTIS: Well, there are a lot of factors here at play. The government did back down on raising taxes. They sacked the economy minister who proposed them. But by then, there had been so much violence in the police response to the initial protests that now people are marching again, basically to demand police reforms and an end to government violence. To give you an idea, there are at least 24 people dead, and 80 to 90 people may be missing, according to human rights groups. The police even harassed a U.N. human rights team that had gone to the city of Cali, which is one of the hardest-hit places. So this botched response by the government is why these demonstrations have snowballed. People are also just a lot more desperate. The pandemic has pushed millions of Colombians into poverty, so they're out on the streets to demand things like guaranteed basic income and better health care.

KING: We've been hearing a lot about guaranteed basic income in this country as well. I want to draw some distinctions about the violence because we hear about protesters clashing with police. You say 24 people dead, 80 to 90 missing. Are all of those people civilians? And is it people clashing with police, or is it people gathering peacefully and then police attacking?

OTIS: Well, it's kind of a mix of things. And yes, a number of demonstrators have resorted to violence. It isn't just all violence on the police side. There's been a lot of burning and looting by protesters. Bus stations have been destroyed. One police officer was knifed to death, and about 600 have been injured. In one case, protesters set fire to a police station and nearly burned alive the three officers who were inside. Now, the government claims that the protests have been infiltrated by criminal gangs and narcos and guerrillas. And there is some evidence of that, but the vast majority of the protesters have actually been rather peaceful. However, it's always, you know, the violent ones, the people throwing the Molotov cocktails, things like that, who really grab most of the attention.

KING: Of course. Has the government offered anything to answer the protesters' demands? I mean, these are big issues - poverty, inequality, police violence, not things that we would think a government could fix overnight. But is the government offering any concessions?

OTIS: Well, that's one of the problems. Besides backing down on tax hikes, the government hasn't really offered very much. We're 10 days into this national strike - today's going to be the 11th day - and the government has yet to meet with the protesters to hear, you know, what they're so angry about. President Ivan Duque, he's met with government ministers. He's met with the heads of the police and army, but he's not actually met with the people who are out there doing the protesting.

KING: Is this a leaderless protest?

OTIS: It's - you know, it's led by just a wide range of people, and that's one of the reasons why it's so hard to bring this to an end. There's so many different demands out there.

KING: OK. Reporter John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Thank you, John.

OTIS: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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