Colombia unions to hold mass marches, violence worse overnight in Bogota

Police officers are seen at a vandalized police station following a protest against poverty and police violence in Bogota, Colombia, May 5, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian unions were set to hold mass marches around the country on Wednesday to mark an eighth day of ongoing anti-government protests, after violence worsened overnight in capital Bogota.

The protests, originally called in opposition to a now-canceled tax reform plan, have morphed into a demand for action to tackle poverty, police violence reported by demonstrators and other issues.

Demonstrations and lawmaker opposition led to the reform's withdrawal and the resignation of the finance minister, as well as international warnings about police violence.

Wednesday's demonstrators are demanding universal basic income, the retraction of a health reform plan and the disbanding of the ESMAD riot police.

Growing poverty, which rose to 42.5% last year amid coronavirus lockdowns, has aggravated long-standing inequalities and toppled some recent development gains in Colombia.

The population living in extreme poverty grew by 2.8 million people in 2020.

President Ivan Duque on Tuesday said the government will create space to listen to citizens, similar to overtures offered to protesters following demonstrations in 2019. Many groups - including major unions - say he has failed to deliver.

During a seventh night of protests on Tuesday 30 civilians and 16 police officers were injured in Bogota, the mayor's office said in a statement.

A crowd tried to "burn alive" a group of 10 police officers by setting fire to a station in one neighborhood, it added.

"The level of destruction, of violence, of attacks against citizens, against public property and against the police, is unbelievable," Mayor Claudia Lopez said.

Protests nationwide have resulted in more than 20 deaths.

Colombia's human rights ombudsman confirmed the deaths of 18 protesters and one police officer as of Monday, the majority in the western city of Cali.

The ombudsman has not updated the death toll since.

However, Cali's security secretary reported a further five deaths occurred Monday night, taking the national total above 20. Human rights groups say the number is higher.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Alistair Bell)

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