When a tax increase that would penalise people struggling to get by was announced in Colombia, a wave of protests arose highlighting structural issues of poverty, inequality and violence. Protests, initially led by workers’ unions, students and other social movements, were met with brutal force, but rather than quell protests, this violent response encouraged a wider circle of people to join them. While the tax plan was soon withdrawn and replaced by a more moderate proposal, the government’s promises of reform ring hollow to many protesters, who have experienced repeated failures to deliver on pledges made following previous waves of protest. Colombia’s experience may serve as a cautionary tale for other Latin American governments tempted to follow similar policy prescriptions.

On 28 April, protesters took to the streets of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, and other cities including Cali and Medellín. Led by student and teacher organisations, workers’ unions and other social organisations, the nationwide 24-hour strike was held under the motto ‘down with the tax reform’.

The protest took place in defiance of a communiqué issued by the Colombian Medical Association, which cited health reasons and advised against mass gatherings, and an order issued by a judge of the metropolitan region, seeking to prevent both the 28 April protests and those that would customarily follow on 1 May, International Workers’ Day.

The court order was a warning whose meaning was easily decoded by experienced protesters: it would give security forces a free hand to arrest and repress them. No sooner said than done: the state response to the widespread wave of protests that began that day was extremely violent, resulting, according to local civil society estimates, in close to 90 deaths.

Protests, with young people on the frontline, took place against a backdrop of growing inequality and violence, exacerbated by the government’s failure to implement the 2016 peace agreement and further deepened by the pandemic. Right after the protests began, Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics reported that monetary poverty had risen to 42.5 per cent in 2020, up 6.8 percentage points from 2019.

Tax proposal compounds wider discontent

The proposal that triggered the protests included the removal of tax exemptions for those in need of support, such as unemployed people, decreases in the minimum salary threshold for taxation, increased taxes on businesses and the removal of credit lines. Characteristically tone deaf, the government promoted this package of tax increases during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic on the grounds that the response to the pandemic had been too costly for the public budget.

From the perspective of workers’ unions, student organisations and broader civil society, this was a reflection of an unaccountable government that, having failed to challenge corruption, based its plan for recovery on further extraction from the people made worse off by the pandemic, rather than on making the very rich pay the little more they could surely afford.

Very quickly, on 2 May, President Iván Duque withdrew his tax reform bill, but protests continued. The bill opened the floodgates of popular discontent, and its reversal would not close them.

People demanded action on a range of unresolved issues. They called out widespread poverty and inequality, an inefficient and underfunded public health system unable to cope with the pandemic, a public education system in shambles and the lack of employment prospects for a whole young generation. They protested over the government’s choice to do little to implement its peace deal with the FARC guerrilla movement and the ongoing violence on the ground, routinely costing hundreds of social leaders and activists their lives. They demanded their government ratify the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights, cease the promotion of predatory extractive projects and end the lethal attacks on environmental, land and Indigenous rights defenders, and the impunity that almost always prevails.

Events in Colombia followed a pattern seen around Latin America in recent years, in which policies that increase economic hardships for those already struggling can lead to explosive protests. This happened in Chile when 2019/2020 protests over a rise in transportation fares triggered demands for extensive change that led to a constitutional reform process that was decades overdue – see our story.

It was seen again in 2020 in Costa Rica, when an International Monetary Fund loan agreement that included a range of tax rises led to widespread protests and deep polarisation that is likely to linger. It happened too in Guatemala in 2020, when attempts to slash education and healthcare funding brought to the surface long-running anger at corruption and the self-serving nature of the political elite; while the cuts were quickly reversed, protests continued to demand fundamental political changes. When are governments going to learn that they can’t keep expecting people who have the least to pay for their policy failures?


CIVICUS spoke with a young social and human rights activist who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons. She explained the causes of the protests.


Basically, motives are the same as those of the 2019 and 2020 protests. In the 2019 protests, the crisis of unemployment and hunger weighed more heavily, while in the 2020 protests, the issue of repression, not wanting to continue to be humiliated and killed, became more important. Those that broke out in April 2021 combined the motives of the two previous waves, because not only had neither of the two problems been tackled at the root, but not even palliatives had been offered; on the contrary, the economic crisis worsened and political repression continued.

The tax reform was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it added to a host of problems. In the assemblies in which we participated, hundreds of demands, and demands of all kinds, were collected, from filling holes in neighbourhood streets to overthrowing the government led by President Duque and seeking justice for the so-called ‘false positives’, that is, cases of civilians killed by the military and presented as casualties of the armed conflict. What young people are experiencing is a feeling of wanting to change everything, of not wanting to continue living as before.

Despite the diversity of demands, there are some that unite young people from the lower classes the most. In economic matters, young people from the lower classes are demanding employment and opportunities to get ahead, and in political matters these young people, particularly those who were on the protest frontlines, are demanding dignity, to not be humiliated anymore. Nothing unites these young people more than their deep hatred of the police, as the main representative of the outrages and humiliations they experience on a daily basis. They feel like outcasts with no economic future, with no hope of getting a job beyond the daily grind to survive, rejected by society and persecuted like criminals by the police just because they are young and poor.

Students were a significant force in the protests, and tended to emphasise demands against political repression and human rights violations, the issue of the ‘false positives’, the assassinations of social leaders and the criminalisation of protest.


This is an edited extract of our interview. Read the full interview here.

A lethal response

The government refused to take these bigger demands for change seriously, and chose to treat protests as a law-and-order problem rather than a political issue. Heavy repression ensued. The government deployed the military alongside the police, and they both turned on protesters the repressive tactics they have honed in fighting organised crime and guerrilla forces.

In the first week of protests alone, monitoring organisations documented hundreds of human rights violations. On 3 May, Colombia’s Ombudsperson confirmed that 19 people had been killed since the beginning of the protests; many more deaths would follow. According to Defender la Libertad (Defend Freedom), a civil society group, around 300 people were injured and almost a thousand detained. Another civil society group, Temblores, documented nine cases of sexual violence by the security forces and 56 disappearances. The Foundation for the Freedom of the Press documented 70 attacks against the media.

Not even the presence of external observers deterred the use of violence. The United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that while on a verification mission in the city of Cali on 3 May, UN staff witnessed police opening fire on protesters, reportedly killing and injuring several people. Local human rights groups accompanying the mission were targeted, threatened and attacked by the police.

Rather than acknowledging the repression, in early May the Defence Minister blamed the violence on ‘criminal organisations’ he claimed had infiltrated the ranks of protesters – although international human rights law is clear that even when protests have some violent participants, this does not justify the use of excessive force. The majority of the protests were peaceful, but several acts of vandalism, incidents of looting and arson attacks on police stations took place, which the security forces took as a prompt for escalating violence.

And this was just the beginning, because the protests – and their repression – continued for months. Cali, located in one of the regions hit hardest by Colombia’s armed conflict, became the epicentre of the most serious repression of young protesters by both the security forces and armed civilian groups. Protesters set up roadblocks that led to fuel shortages and caused concern about medical supplies, which provoked violent counter-protests in which armed civilian groups shot at protesters, while the security forces refused to intervene. In a city whose youthful population live amidst deep inequality, the spectacle was one of wealthier people arming themselves to defend their economic privilege with the tacit approval of the authorities.

Serious human rights violations during protests included killings and disappearances, the use of firearms and inappropriate and indiscriminate use of non-lethal weapons, arbitrary and violent detentions and sexual abuse of detainees. This heavy-handed approach was enabled by the systematic stigmatisation of protesters, who were repeatedly portrayed as ‘vandals’ with links to ‘criminal organisations’ by national and local government officials. Stigmatisation enabled criminalisation, with some young social leaders charged with terrorism.

Journalists were targeted: instances were documented in which they were attacked precisely because they identified themselves as media workers. This seemed a clear attempt to prevent the free circulation of information.

But the violent response had the opposite of the desired effect: it encouraged more people, citizens of all ages, to join the protests, standing up to defend the right to protest that was clearly under attack. Protests continued for months.


CIVICUS spoke with a group of members of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation and the Defend Freedom: Everyone’s Business Campaign, who responded collectively to our questions.


The National Police have responded with a violent, disproportionate and often unlawful reaction against protesters. According to data collected by the Defend Freedom Campaign, between 28 April and 21 July this violence resulted in 87 deaths of civilians in the context of protests, 28 of them attributable to the security forces, seven to unidentified civilians and 46 to unidentified perpetrators. During this time, 1,905 people were injured as a result of the disproportionate actions of the National Police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squads and unidentified civilians. In addition, 326 human rights defenders were attacked in the context of their work accompanying social protests, 106 were victims of gender-based violence and 3,365 people were detained, many of them arbitrarily, resulting in 1,603 complaints of abuse of power and police violence.

These figures are evidence of the unwillingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue and of the way in which the right to social protest is being violated in Colombia. Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk.

The mobilisation was sustained thanks to new and creative forms of organisation that helped distribute roles in the midst of intense days of police repression, with some people in charge of holding up defensive barriers with improvised or relatively elaborate shields, others in charge of returning teargas canisters and mitigating deterrence tools used by the police, others in charge of providing medical, psychosocial, emotional and legal first aid to those who needed it, and others playing care roles, providing food and hydration to protesters.

The result was the emergence of spaces such as ‘Puerto Resistencia’ (Resistance Port) in Cali and ‘Espacio Humanitario al Calor de la Olla’ (Humanitarian Space at the Heat of the Pot) in Bogotá, which were replicated at other resistance hotspots around the country. These spaces bring together inter-organisational and inter-generational networks which, through dialogue and assembly meetings, build consensus and prioritise actions adaptable to each territory’s context.

It is to be expected that the protests will continue, given that they have not only arisen from historic centres of protests, such as workers’ confederations and teachers’ unions, but there are also now multiple protest hubs in cities and highways around the country where people mobilise a diverse range of organised, organising and unorganised citizens with different motivations and people take to the streets due to a variety of situations.


This is an edited extract of our interview with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation and the Defend Freedom Campaign. Read the full interview here.

On 1 July, two civil society groups, Temblores and Indepaz, along with a unit of the Andes University, submitted a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), highlighting systematic violations of the rights guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights. On 7 July, the IACHR published its observations and recommendations from a visit held in early June, during which it heard 302 individual and collective testimonies from over 500 people. It announced the launch of a Special Monitoring Mechanism for Human Rights in Colombia and called for dialogue, protection for journalists and medical personnel, and due diligence investigations to provide reparations for victims and punishment for those responsible for human rights violations.

On 30 July, an Amnesty International report described in detail the human rights violations that had occurred in Cali, highlighting police repression, the illegal detention and torture of protesters and the actions of the civilian paramilitary forces operating alongside law enforcement. An exhaustive digital verification of audiovisual material confirmed that the anti-riot squad used excessive and disproportionate force, and that the documented incidents were systematic, rather than isolated or sporadic.

What next?

On 15 June, after almost 50 days of protests, the National Strike Committee announced a temporary suspension of actions. Smaller protests took place in the meantime, and new mass protests were announced for 20 July, Independence Day. Ahead of this, some sub-national administrations introduced protest restrictions, including curfews. In the department of Valle del Cauca, home to Cali, a curfew and restrictions on entry of vehicles were imposed. People travelling to participate in a National Popular Assembly meeting in Cali reported experiencing harassment and intimidation. Nevertheless, many protests took place on 20 July and over the following weeks, condemning violence and demanding police reform and greater pandemic recovery support.

In July, the government submitted a new tax reform bill to Congress, now focused on increasing the taxes paid by big business. Protesters however continue to view with scepticism the promise, contained in the new bill, to improve opportunities for young people through a 25 per cent minimum wage subsidy for companies hiring 18-to-28-year-olds, as well as the timid police ‘reforms’ proposed, which go little further than some new uniforms and the provision of human rights training.

Protesters remain alert to the real possibility of impunity prevailing, as evidenced by the ambiguity of statements by senior security force commanders who, while claiming to be conducting investigations into rights violations committed during the protests, continue frequently to refer to reports of violations as ‘fake news’.

Protesters also remain wary of repeated calls for dialogue coming from the government, because these have followed previous protest waves, and they have never led to anything, not least because they are hard to take seriously when security force violence continues.

For all these reasons, as of August 2021 the protests continue, and it can be guaranteed that Colombia will see further waves of protest rising each time a new accumulation of grievances piles up on top of longstanding unsolved problems. Alas there is no indication that the Colombian government is heeding its latest wake-up call.


  • The Colombian government must respect the freedom of peaceful assembly and investigate every instance of excessive use of force by its security forces against protesters, and bring those responsible to account.
  • The Colombian government should commit to a genuine and open multi-stakeholder dialogue, backed by a commitment to real reforms, on challenging inequality, providing livelihood opportunities for young people and ending corruption.
  • International civil society should support Colombian civil society and give more visibility to its struggles on an ongoing basis, rather than just in peak moments of repression.