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Ripples of unrest in Colombia reach Florida, home to a third of U.S. diaspora

Said a mother of two in Town N’ Country, “Hopefully, a way out can be found without the need for more deaths.”
Laura Bohorquez, a mother of two living in Town N' Country, has tried to draw attention in the Tampa area to what she sees as police brutality against protesters in her native Colombia.
Laura Bohorquez, a mother of two living in Town N' Country, has tried to draw attention in the Tampa area to what she sees as police brutality against protesters in her native Colombia. [ Courtesy of Laura Bohorquez ]
Published May 27
Updated May 27

TAMPA — Tax protests have spiraled into wide-ranging demonstrations and harsh government crackdowns in Colombia, frustrating immigrants in Tampa Bay who were seeing signs of hope for improvement in their troubled nation.

Many have turned their anger toward the government of President Ivan Duque over the deaths of dozens of protesters, the injury of thousands more, the disappearance of countless Colombians and reports of sexual assaults against women in police custody.

“As a Colombian, I feel powerless seeing so much injustice in so many cities,” said Laura Bohorquez, 32, of Town ‘N Country, a mother of two from the state of Tolima who fled drug violence in Colombia. “The least we can do from here is offer a show of union to raise our voice.”

A demonstrator throws a tear gas canister toward riot police officers during a protest against the government May 10 in Cali, Colombia.
A demonstrator throws a tear gas canister toward riot police officers during a protest against the government May 10 in Cali, Colombia. [ LUIS ROBAYO/AFP | AFP ]

Colombia seemed to be moving beyond decades of devastation from the drug trade and rebel uprisings, even agreeing last month to grant legal status to 1 million refugees fleeing their own social disintegration in neighboring Venezuela.

But then Duque’s government moved to raise taxes to fill a $6.3 billion gap brought on in part by the coronavirus. That touched off protests in late April that have expanded into broader demands centered on the plight of the most vulnerable Colombians — including indigenous and Afro Latino people.

Protesters also see a link to demonstrations of November 2019 on a host of issues: earlier tax increases, the murder of social leaders, official corruption, and a peace agreement that led to the 2016 demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC.

The government places the number of deaths during the new round of protests at 42 with more than 2,000 injuries. Activists say the casualties are far higher.

Colombia’s troubles resonate across Florida, home to about a third of the nearly 1 million Hispanics of Colombian origin living in the United States, according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey.

“Hopefully, a way out can be found without the need for more deaths,” Bohorquez said.

No progress can be made toward the larger goals of the protest without an end to clashes between young protesters and the national anti-riot squad known as ESMAD, said Fernando Falquez, 80, from Barranquilla, who lives in Oldsmar and is president of the nonprofit Colombian Volunteer Ladies of Tampa Bay.

“Mistakes have been made at the government level for a long time,” said Falquez, whose organization supports charities in Colombia. “All this is perhaps a consequence of problems we have dragged along from the past.”

Michelle McIlrath, 36, of Brooksville, finds it especially frustrating that a country as rich in natural resources as Colombia faces such strife. Colombia has the third or fourth-largest economy in Latin America. The same incongruity confronts oil-rich Venezuela.

Duque is wasting those resources with reforms that help wealthy interests within the country and internationally, said McIlrath, originally from Cauca state in southwest Colombia. Meantime, the poor face a new round of oppression.

“It hurts me immensely the violations of human rights perpetrated by ESMAD and the police,” McIlrath said. “Many of us had to flee out of fear because of constant threats. We have to end this from the root.”

More than 42 percent of Colombians live below the poverty line, up from 36 percent just two years ago, according to the country’s National Administrative Department of Statistics.

Colombia is falling victim to widespread corruption and mismanagement of public funds, said Juan José Posada, 40, a Colombian journalist who has lived in Tampa since 2016. The country needs to pull back, he said, from socialist leanings inspired by former leaders Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

Juan José Posada said the demands in Colombia include broad social changes and police reform. Colombia's police has been using excessive force with protesters during the last three weeks.
Juan José Posada said the demands in Colombia include broad social changes and police reform. Colombia's police has been using excessive force with protesters during the last three weeks. [ Cortesía Juan José Posada ]

“Young people are the ones who will surely shape the destiny of Colombia,” said Posada, who was a press adviser to former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe.

“They are the ones who will decide whether to continue strengthening the ‘Castro-Chavismo’ discourse, or to unite all the parties to move on a path of democracy.”