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COLOMBIA’S riot police attacked demonstrators who thronged the streets of Bogota on Thursday in a mammoth protest against inequality and state and paramilitary violence.
Police estimated that around 200,000 protesters — among them students, teachers and trade unionists — rallied in cities across the country, while organisers said this is an underestimate.
The government deployed 170,000 officers, closed border crossings and deported 24 Venezuelans, seeking to blame its socialist neighbour for the unrest.
But late in the evening, President Ivan Duque addressed the country on television and said: “Today Colombians spoke — and we are listening.”
At one point, protesters tried to enter the nation’s congress and tore down a part of the cloth protecting a historic building in the Plaza Bolivar. The crowds demanded jobs — unemployment is at 11 per cent and at almost 20 per cent among young people — and an end to corruption. They also denounced proposals from Mr Duque’s government to abolish the minimum wage for young people.
Protesters attacked plans to raise the retirement age and cut pensions, while others highlighted the epidemic of murders of social activists, former Farc guerillas and trade unionists by paramilitaries linked to the army.
Defence minister Guillermo Botero was forced to resign earlier this month over the military’s slaughter of eight children in an attack on a dissident rebel encampment, while Mr Duque has been forced to apologise for showing photographs at the UN which he said were evidence Venezuela was harbouring armed rebel groups. At least one of the photos later turned out to have been taken in Colombia.
Since a peace agreement was signed with the Farc, which became a peaceful political party after a five-decade communist insurgency, at least 137 former guerillas have been killed and 777 social leaders have met the same fate. This week alone, police have conducted 27 raids on trade-union activists’ homes in Bogota, Medellin and Cali.
Left parties and trade unions charged the government with indifference or complicity in the killings. Military chief Nicacio Martinez Espinel has also been linked to the “false positives” outrage, in which thousands of civilians were murdered by soldiers and dressed up as guerillas to boost counter-insurgency bodycounts to win promotions and cash rewards.
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