Death toll in Colombia's mass protests reportedly rises to 26

AFP reports at least 26 people have died amid ongoing clashes between protesters and police in Colombia. International organizations and celebrities have condemned the excessive use of force by authorities, calling on officials to protect human rights. CBS News social media producer Christopher Brito joined "CBSN AM" with the latest.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: All right, we're going to take you to Colombia now, where mass protests there continue through the night as the government cracks down on demonstrations. AFP reports that at least 26 people have died amid ongoing clashes between protesters and police. International organizations and celebrities have condemned the excessive use of force by law enforcement, calling on officials to protect human rights. It's a story you may not know about.

Christopher Brito, a CBS News social media producer, is following this story for us, though, and is here to break it down. Thank you so much for joining us, because I don't think this story is getting a lot of attention. It's getting more attention now. So let's start at the beginning. Just remind us how these protests started and how they evolved, because they're being fueled by multiple grievances, but there was something in particular that really kicked people off and sent them out into the streets.

CHRISTOPHER BRITO: Hi, Anne-Marie. So thanks for having me. So the protests began last month in response to Colombian president Ivan Duque's tax reform proposal. And so this proposal was meant to mitigate the economic crisis caused by-- exacerbated by the pandemic. And so it was meant to help pay for social services, but it would also increase taxes on essential goods like, you know, eggs and milk and public utilities, but it would really hurt the middle and working class. So while the plan has been shelved for now, the protests have morphed into a larger movement focused on police brutality, inequality, and poverty. So the people are angry at their government. They're upset over how they've handled their right to peacefully protest. And there's also a national strike going on right now, as well.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So, you know, like you mentioned, the Colombian government pulled that tax hike off the table. That wasn't enough. Colombia's government invited protest leaders to talks in an attempt to calm the tensions. What do we know about that, and what has the government said about the violence?

CHRISTOPHER BRITO: So there's a tentative date for May 10th where the government will talk to-- hear concerns from local leaders and political parties. But this has done very little to calm the protests. The government has defended the actions of police, and really blamed it on left-wing rebels and organized crime. But you know, even some officials have described it as terrorism, vandalism, when in reality the protests have been mostly peaceful.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Hm. And what is the-- I guess the hope? What do they hope to accomplish when they do meet with some of the leaders of these protests?

CHRISTOPHER BRITO: So that's the huge question, Anne-Marie. And ever since Duque became president, there have been protests against his policies that have been deemed unfavorable against the middle and working class. So he's done this before with meager results, and so there's not much optimism. And you know, there's an election next year. And so the moves after he makes-- the moves he makes after this meeting could be defining for his legacy as a president, since he can't run again in 2022.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So the heavy-handed reaction from police is, I think, what got a lot of the world's attention. How have world leaders responded to these protests?

CHRISTOPHER BRITO: So the US, the UN, the EU have all expressed some level of concern over the police violence against protesters in Colombia, but I think the UN probably had the strongest statement out there. You know, they went as far as to remind authorities of their responsibility to protect human rights. You know, and they even described one of the case where, like, police have opened fire on demonstrators in Cali. And then even locally, there have been protests in New York City. And it's captured the attention of the likes of, you know, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And as you mentioned earlier in [INAUDIBLE], you know, celebrities have also-- like Justin Bieber, J. Balvin, Maluma, and Shakira-- have also spoken out about the crisis. So all of this has raised the profile of what's going on in Colombia.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: When I saw the protests in the streets, I couldn't help but to sort of think about the protests that we saw over the past summer and the role of the pandemic, because we've seen how this coronavirus has kind of exacerbated the differences between the haves and have nots. Any sort of fissures in a systems, you know, start to sort of crack and open. So can you talk about the role that the coronavirus crisis has played in, you know, people and-- just how upset they are?

CHRISTOPHER BRITO: Sure. So the pandemic has killed more than 76,000 people in Colombia. The unemployment has risen to 16%. And it's the worst economic crisis that we've seen in Colombia in decades. It's only widening the gap between the rich and the poor, and that's, in part, what's fueling the protests. One more note, though. You know, Colombia doesn't have the unique problem of having an economic crisis because of the pandemic. Many countries in Latin America are not only dealing with the coronavirus, they're dealing with instability, they're dealing with poverty, and even lack of access to vaccines.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Yeah. Christopher Brito, thank you so much.

CHRISTOPHER BRITO: Thanks for having me.