Colombians march in second national strike as week of protest rolls on
By Julia Symmes Cobb and Carlos Vargas
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian unions and student groups held their second national strike in less than a week on Wednesday to honor a dead demonstrator and protest rumored government economic plans, corruption and police violence.
The series of protests began last week with a 250,000-person march and an initial nationwide strike.
Demonstrators are rallying against economic plans - such as a rise in the pension age and a cut to the minimum wage for young people - that President Ivan Duque denies supporting, as well what they say is a lack of government action to stop corruption and the murder of hundreds of human rights activists.
Thousands marched peacefully to Bogota's central Bolivar Plaza and to other points in the city throughout the day, joined in the evening by others attempting to get home amid closures of roads and public transport.
Largely peaceful demonstrators were marred last Thursday and Friday by the destruction of transit stations, the use of tear gas, curfews in Cali and Bogota and the deaths of three people in connection with alleged looting.
Saturday's marches took a dark turn when 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz was fatally injured by a tear gas canister fired by the ESMAD riot police.
Cruz died on Monday and has become a symbol for protesters, who allege the ESMAD uses excessive force. His private memorial service was held on Wednesday morning and his family has called for nonviolence.
"I'm marching so we 21-year-olds can have the chance of a good job," said Jean Carlo Hernandez, who was selling water in Bolivar Plaza while wearing a placard that read "Don't kill me! I also have dreams and goals!"
"Dilan could have been me. We're facing a government that doesn't want to help young people move ahead even though we're the future," Hernandez said.
Bogota's mayor, Enrique Penalosa, said the ESMAD would not be deployed unless there were disturbances. Some of the force could be seen around the city on Wednesday, but did not actively participate in policing protesters.
The National Strike Committee, comprised of major unions and student organizations, is demanding the government dissolve the force.
Talks between the committee and the government have stalled amid union demands Duque meet with them without the presence of business leaders or other groups.
Restricting debate to just one sector of the population would "isolate perhaps the most important conversation the country has," Duque said in a statement on Wednesday evening.
The committee also is demanding a rejection of the government's tax reform proposal, which includes a cut in business duties.
Duque announced several changes to the proposal this week at the cost of some $930 million, but experts say the modifications are unlikely to quell discontent.
Duque's promise to hold a social issues-focused national dialogue through March has sparked derision among marchers and opposition politicians, who see it as a tepid response to growing discontent.
Colombia's government has the support of the United States as it manages the protests, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Duque in a phone call, according to the State Department.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Carlos Vargas; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bill Berkrot and Gerry Doyle)