Juan Camilo Suárez was standing on a street in the Colombian city of Cali on a recent evening, lighting candles in homage to those killed in the nation’s recent unrest, when he suddenly found himself in the midst of violence.
Riot police descended on the scene, he recalled, firing what he believes were rubber bullets. One struck him in the face, near an eye, leaving him partially blind.
As Colombians fill the streets, Cali has emerged as the epicenter of the nation’s recent bloodshed. Long-simmering social tensions, persistent violence from illegal armed groups and excessive use of force by authorities have fueled citizen angst. Most of the at least 40 people killed in three weeks of protest lost their lives in the city, according to accounts from human rights organizations.
President Iván Duque’s government has initiated talks with protest organizers, but analysts say he faces an uphill battle in trying to stabilize the nation. Negotiations aimed at quelling a previous wave of protests in 2019 ended before reaching a resolution, and skepticism among a frustrated public remains high.
Colombia’s protests began April 28 over a proposed tax increase but quickly morphed into a larger airing of grievances as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s gross domestic product plunged 6.8 percent last year and millions joined the ranks of the poor. ICU occupancy rates have soared as Colombia embarks on a slow and delayed vaccination campaign.