What is Happening in Colombia? Protests Against Iván Duque Márquez Explained

At least 19 people have died and hundreds more have been injured in protests in Colombia against right-wing President Iván Duque Márquez's tax overhaul, which was intended to aid economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although Duque said the objective of the reforms—aimed at raising the equivalent of 1.4 percent of GDP, or $4.1 billion— were to stabilize the country's economy, the plan has been criticized for favoring the wealthy and placing more strain on the working and middle classes.

Many are frustrated by new or expanded taxes on citizens and business owners and the elimination of many tax exemptions, such as those on certain sales of everyday goods.

The protests have drawn tens of thousands of people to the street, and the marches across the country have evolved into protests against economic inequality and rising poverty in the Latin American country.

The protests began last Wednesday after a national strike drew larger crowds than expected. By Monday, at least 18 civilians and one police officer had died, according to the office of Colombia's human rights ombudsman.

Some NGOs have accused the police of firing at civilians. Most of the violence has occurred in the country's third largest city Cali, in western Colombia, where at least four deaths were recorded, according to Human Rights Watch. The police officer was killed in Soacha, a town on the edge of the capital Bogota, according to the rights ombudsman.

Duque has criticized the protesters for demonstrating during Colombia's second wave of COVID-19. On Monday, the country reported 11,599 new cases and 687 deaths, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University.

At least 540 police officers have been hurt during the protests, according to national police, who also identified nearly 17,000 people who have not been complying with COVID public health measures, by not wearing masks for example.

Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla, the architect of the controversial tax reforms, tendered his resignation on Monday evening, after spending most of the day in meetings with Duque. The Colombian peso fell the most among the major currencies following the move.

In a bid to quell the unrest, on Sunday, Duque ordered the proposal to be withdrawn from congress where it was being debated. He said his government would present an alternative draft law soon. But Duque's right-wing Democratic Center party has less than 20 percent of the seats in congress and may struggle to pass a new law.

In an address to the nation, Duque urged congress to quickly put together a new plan "and thus avoid financial uncertainty."

"The reform is not a whim. The reform is a must," he said.

Defense Minister Diego Molano blamed the violence on leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing militia.

The FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016 ending more than a half century of conflict, leaving the ELN as the last recognized guerrilla group in the country.

Unlike many other Latin American countries, Colombia has a relatively stable economy, and hasn't defaulted on its debt since the 1930s.

Taxi drivers protest tax reforms in Bogota
Taxi drivers protest against a tax reform bill launched by President Ivan Duque, in Bogota on May 3, 2021. At least 19 people have died and hundreds more have been injured in protests in Colombia against Duque’s tax overhaul. Juan Barreto/Getty