BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A teenager shot to death after kicking a police officer. A young man bleeding out on the street as protesters shout for help. Police firing on unarmed demonstrators. Helicopters swarming overhead, tanks rolling through neighborhoods, explosions echoing in the streets. A mother crying for her son.
“We are destroyed,” said Milena Meneses, 39, whose only son Santiago, 19, was killed in a protest over the weekend.
Colombians demonstrating over the past week against the poverty and inequality that have worsened the lives of millions since the Covid-19 pandemic began have been met with a powerful crackdown by their government, which has responded to the protests with the same militarized police force it often uses against rebel fighters and organized crime.
This explosion of frustration in Colombia, experts say, could presage unrest across Latin America, where several countries face the same combustible mix of an unrelenting pandemic, growing hardship and plummeting government revenue.
“We are all connected,” said León Valencia, a political analyst, noting that past protests in Latin America have been contagious, jumping from country to country. “This could spread across the region.”
On Wednesday, after seven days of marches and clashes that turned parts of Colombian cities into battlefields, demonstrators breached protective barriers around the nation’s Congress, attacking the building before being repelled by police.
Several people in the political party of President Iván Duque are asking him to declare a state of siege, which would grant him broad new powers.
The clashes have left at least 24 people dead, most of them demonstrators, and at least 87 missing, and they have exacerbated the anger with officials in the capital, Bogotá, who many protesters say are increasingly out of touch with people’s everyday lives.
On Wednesday, Helena Osorio, 24, a nurse, stood at the edge of a rally in Bogotá.
“I am in pain for Colombia, I am in pain for my country,” she said. “All that we can do to make ourselves heard is to protest,” she went on, “and for that they are killing us.”
The marches began last week after Mr. Duque proposed a tax overhaul meant to close a pandemic-related economic shortfall. By Sunday, amid demonstrations across the country, he rescinded the plan.
But the unrest has not abated. Instead, fueled by outrage at the government’s response, the crowds have only grown.
Demonstrators now include teachers, doctors, students, members of major unions, longtime activists and Colombians who have never before taken to the streets.
Truckers are blocking major highways. And on Tuesday, demonstrators in the capital burned buses and lit over a dozen police stations on fire, singing the national anthem, yelling “assassins!” and sending officers running for their lives.
“This is not just about the tax reform,” said Mayra Lemus, 28, a schoolteacher standing not far from the nurse on Wednesday. “This is about corruption, inequality and poverty. And all of us young people are tired of it.”
Each country’s protest was different. But in all of them, people voiced their grievances over limited opportunity, widespread corruption and officials who appeared to be working against them.
Then came the pandemic. Latin America was one of the regions hardest hit by the virus in 2020, with cemeteries filling past capacity, the sick dying while waiting for care in hospital hallways, and family members spending the night in lines to buy medical oxygen in an attempt to keep loved ones alive.
The region’s economies shrank by an average of 7 percent. In many places, unemployment, particularly among the young, spiked.
Then, in Colombia, Mr. Duque announced his tax reform, one of the first attempts in the region to try to deal with the economic shortfall exacerbated by the pandemic. While the measure would have kept in place a critical pandemic-era cash subsidy, it would have also raised prices on many everyday goods and services.
Soon, long-brewing resentment spilled over into the streets.
On Tuesday, Mr. Duque said he would open a national dialogue to find solution to fiscal problems and other challenges.
“It is vital to have all the institutions, parties, the private sector, governors, mayors and leaders of civil society” in conversation he said. “The results of this space will be translated into initiatives we can act upon quickly.”
But the call for national dialogue was similar to one he made in 2019, and many civil society groups have said that discussion produced few results.
Mr. Duque, a conservative, has lost significant popularity since the beginning of the pandemic, according to polling from the firm Invamer. And analysts say he is at his…