CNN  — 

Tensions have hardly dissipated in Colombia after President Ivan Duque withdrew a controversial fiscal reform proposal this weekend. More than a week of violent protests have seen at least 24 people killed, the country’s Ombudsman Office reported Wednesday, and the demonstrations have evolved into a broader popular show of anger.

Thousands of people are still taking to the streets to protest against police brutality and the economic cost of the pandemic amid Colombia’s extreme inequality. And with both issues common across South America – and exacerbated by the pandemic – many international observers are watching Colombia’s cycle of protest closely for signs of deeper regional effects.

An economic cautionary tale

Duque was the first president in the region to launch a tax overhaul to help his country’s pandemic-ravaged economy get back in shape. But rigid opposition from Colombia’s workers’ unions and social movements is a cautionary tale for any other president who plans to follow a similar route.

While both the European Union and the United States have pursued enormous investment plans to rebuild their economies post-pandemic, many countries like Colombia, where the economy is dependent on exports and already burdened by a ballooning foreign debt, do not have the capacity to undertake a similar expansion plan.

Such countries need to increase revenues through taxes in order to be able to spend – and even to maintain vital social programs like cash support for the unemployed and credit lines to businesses struggling with the pandemic.

Before he withdrew his tax reform plan, Duque stressed it was of pivotal importance for the state to increase its fiscal revenues. “The reform is not a whim, it’s a necessity to keep the social programs going,” he said.

But critics argued the tax hikes – like a proposed VAT increase on everyday goods – would disproportionally impact middle and working classes and escalate inequality even more.

Their concerns took root in an economy already decimated by Covid-19, where frustration has been mounting as record increases in cases and deaths prompt authorities to impose new lockdowns, stifling the country’s vast informal labor market. More than 3.6 million Colombians fell back into poverty during the pandemic according to recent figures released by the country’s statistics authority, while the number of families that cannot afford to eat three times a day tripled in the same period of time.

But the now-withdrawn tax hike will leave a big hole in the state finances, and Duque’s government will have to look for alternatives to try and pass reforms to repair the very inequality that currently fuels much discontent.

Human rights concerns

Colombia’s ongoing protests have also prompted fear and outrage at law enforcement’s handling of demonstrators – a concern echoed by rights organizations and foreign observers.

“We’re here because it may seem a paradox, but in the middle of a pandemic our government is literally attacking our lives,” Joana Ivanazca Salgado, a 43-year-old artist who took part in Bogota’s protests last week, told CNN.

Ivanazca was referring to the spiraling death toll that the protests have left behind: according to Colombia’s ombudsman on Monday, at least 19 people – including a policeman – have been killed since the start of the protests and at least 89 people have disappeared.

Videos of anti-riot policemen using teargas and batons against protesters have gone viral on social media, spreading beyond big cities and across the country. Far from curbing the protests, alleged police brutality has become a focal point for the demonstrators, who, after putting the fiscal reform plan to rest, are now calling for a thorough inquiry into the deaths.

Human rights NGOs say the real death toll could be much higher and have called for the president to restrain police from using any excessive use of force.

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest in Cali on April 29.

But the Colombian government has so far defended the actions of the police and blamed the violence on groups of rioters and organized crime. In particular, the military has been deployed to the city of Cali, which has seen the worst of the violence so far and where a team of the UN Human Rights Committee said they encountered police fire, although they did not believe they were directly targeted. The Cali police department says they are investigating claims of excessive force.

Multilateral organizations, foreign ambassadors and even Colombian pop star Shakira have issued statements of concern over law enforcement’s response – on Tuesday, the US State Department publicly urged “the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life.”

In the early hours of Wednesday, Bogota’s mayor, Claudia Lopez, made a tearful plea to all sides t