BOGOTA – Colombian President Iván Duque ordered a curfew in the nation’s capital Friday amid continuing unrest following a massive march a day before that brought tens of thousands to the streets in a strong message of rejection against his conservative government.
The president said he was invoking the rarely used measure to contain ongoing clashes between police and demonstrators in the city of 7 million, shortly after officers pushed back thick crowds of protesters banging pots and pans in the storied Plaza Bolivar.
“They kicked us out with tear gas,” said Rogelio Martinez, 38, a construction worker. “They didn’t want the people to show their discontent.”
The curfew comes one day after an estimated 250,000 people took to the streets in one of the nation’s biggest marches in recent history. While the protest started out peaceful, it ended with scattered skirmishes between protesters and police. Three people were killed in what authorities described as violent looting incidents overnight.
“One thing is a peaceful expression through protest,” Duque said. “Another very different thing is to take advantage of the protest to sow chaos.”
The upheaval takes place as Latin America is experiencing a tide of discontent, with large demonstrations in countries including Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador where citizens frustrated with their political leaders are taking to the streets.
The protests defy easy categorization and it remains unclear if Colombia’s will persist.
In an attempt to quell the anger, Duque also announced that he will open a “national conversation” throughout the country next week aimed at finding medium and long-term solutions to deeply entrenched issues like inequality and corruption.
“The space for dialogue exists,” he said.
Colombia is grappling with long-simmering tensions over issues like corruption and inequality while also struggling to combat ongoing violence between illegal armed groups and to significantly reduce record levels of coca crops.
Duque was elected last year on a platform promising to change key aspects of a landmark 2016 peace accord with leftist rebels that polarized the country and which protesters are demanding he implement more forcefully.
In the first 15 months of his administration, Duque has watched his approval rating plummet to 26 percent and endured a series of embarrassing setbacks.
“Colombia is facing a set of complex problems that are as difficult as any in its recent history,” said Cynthia Arnson, a Colombia expert and director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “I think any political leader faced with this array of problems would have a difficult time.”
Defense Minister Guillermo Botero resigned in early November following revelations that at least eight minors had been killed in a bombing that targeted a small band of dissidents. Duque himself drew criticism after holding up photos at the U.N. General Assembly that he said were proof that the socialist government in neighboring Venezuela harbors Colombian rebels – only to find out later that at least one of the images was taken in Colombia.
Colombia’s economy has been growing at a faster rate this year, but the nation still has one of the highest levels of inequality in South America. Nearly 11% of Colombians are out of work – a figure that jumps to 17.5% for young adults.
Protest organizers had called on Duque Friday to establish a dialogue with indigenous, student and labor leaders to discuss labor and pension reform, among the wide range of other issues that protesters are bringing to the table.
At least one union leader said he welcomed the opening of a national conversation, though there was no immediate response from key organizers.
“We think it’s very good,” said Jorge Bedoya, president of an agricultural workers union. “Now it depends on those who have been convoked to define a trajectory for the things worrying all Colombians.”
According to authorities, 146 people have been detained in during the two days of unrest, at least 151 police and military officers injured, as well as 122 civilians, most of whom suffered minor injuries and tear gas inhalation.
Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said two individuals were killed in the port city of Buenaventura after police were attacked while responding to looting at a mall. A third died in Candelaria after police said a group looting a supermarket shot at officers.
The names and cause of death of those killed were not released.
Yann Basset, a professor at Bogota’s Rosario University, said whether Duque’s call for dialogue is a success will depend on whether it leads to genuine citizen participation, instead of becoming a mere complaint box for the frustrated.
“The question is whether these measures come in time to calm the people,” he said.