BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians angry with conservative President Iván Duque and hoping to channel Latin America’s wave of discontent took the streets by the tens of thousands Thursday in one of the biggest protests in the nation’s recent history.
Students, teachers and labor unions marched across the country protesting economic inequality, violence against social leaders, among other things, testing an unpopular government as unrest grips the continent.
Police estimated 207,000 people took part in protests across the nation.
"It's about time," said Julio Contreras, 23, a medical student. "No more of the same – lies, corruption. We're here to put up a fight."
The protests were largely peaceful but by early evening turned increasingly violent as demonstrators hurled rocks at riot police, who responded with tear gas. At one point, protesters tried to enter the nation's congress and tore down a part of black cloth protecting a historic building in the iconic Plaza Bolivar.
According to witnesses in Bogotá and Calí, Colombia's third-largest city, peaceful throngs filled the city centers until men concealed by masks attacked police, bringing volleys of tear gas in both cities. Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city, saw massive protests without the provocations.
By nightfall, Colombians began a cacerolazo, banging on pots and pans, in the streets and leaning out their windows. The cacerolazos spread from city to city.
The nationwide protests highlighted discontent with President Iván Duque and his government, believed to be heavily influenced by a former president, Álvaro Uribe.
Analysts were skeptical the marches would generate prolonged unrest, like that seen recently in Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, citing a lack of unifying factors in a divided country that is one of the region's stronger economic performers.
"We're not in a pre-insurrectional climate," said Yann Basset, a professor at Bogota's Rosario University. "I'm not sure there's a general rejection of the political system."
The protest nonetheless sent a resounding message to Duque, whose government deployed 170,000 officers, closed border crossings and deported 24 Venezuelans it accused of entering the country to instigate unrest.
"If the government doesn't make changes next year will be very difficult," said Ariel Ávila, deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.
Duque, who has a lackluster 26% approval rating, went on a charm offensive before the march, seeking to connect with citizens and counter claims on social media that he has proposed raising the retirement age and reducing wages for young workers.
In a late night address after the protest, he praised citizens for exercising their right to protest.
"Today Colombians spoke," he said, "and we are listening."
Still, many Colombians say they have plenty of reasons to be angry.
Despite the previous administration's 2016 peace accord with leftist rebels, much of Colombia is still engulfed in violence as illegal armed groups compete for territory where the state has historically been absent — and could take years to establish a presence. Dozens of indigenous and social leaders have been killed in crimes that remain largely unsolved. The government has made a small dent in reducing coca crops, but fields of the plant used to make cocaine still cover wide swaths of the country.
Duque's government has faced a series of embarrassing setbacks.
Defense Minister Guillermo Botero resigned in early November due to revelations that at least eight children had been killed in a bombing that targeted a small band of dissidents.