According to reports from organizers and government forces, protests during the first five days of Colombia’s coordinated national strikes produced two deaths, 175 arrests and countless injuries to person and property.
No deal has been reached on the national level between protest leaders and government officials as formal negotiations have yet to commence, and there are as many as 42 major roads across the country still on total shutdown.
Given the widespread nature of the protests, which have been concentrated primarily in rural areas, and the shifting parties involved, no reliable estimates on the number of participants have been made available. Protesters claim over a million Colombians have taken part nationwide, while the Colombian media has been reporting government estimates of between 200 and 300,000 people.
Indications are that most of the country has remained relatively peaceful, but intense violent conflicts between government forces, particularly the anti-riot police force (ESMAD), and protesters have characterized demonstrations in many of the more heavily agricultural departments of the country, and there have been growing reports of human rights abuses and aggression toward journalists in places such as Boyaca and Nariño.
Government officials continue to claim that protest movements have been infiltrated by the FARC and other extremist factions, as they have been since long before the protests started, and protesters in various strategic parts of Colombia’s infrastructure network have been engaging in roadblocks the government has labeled violations of the basic rights of other Colombians.
After a week of protests, food prices in Bogota are beginning to spike dramatically, and there is reason to expect an acute food shortage could settle in unless Colombian authorities manage to clear at least some of the major roadways leading into the nation’s capital. What’s more, the combination of the ongoing national truckers strike, which the union claims includes 450,000 workers and 270,000 trucks, and the ongoing agricultural strike, in which, according to organizers, some 300,000 peasant farmers and their families are participating, presents the possibility that food and gas prices could skyrocket throughout the entire country, as they have already in the areas most effected by the protests.
No estimates have been made regarding the hit the strikes have already had on the Colombian economy, but if the paralysis facing various local economies becomes more widespread, the impact on the country and its economic growth could be devastating.
With the announcement that two more major sectors are joining the strikes, no substantive dialogues under way and increasing frustration with what protesters claim across the board is a brutal and unlawful show of force by the government, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Negotiations Thursday between potato and dairy farmers and the ministers of agriculture and the interior broke down before any sort of agreement could end what has been the most volatile region in Colombia since the start of Monday’s national strike.
All major roadways in and out of Boyaca have been dealing with intermitan shutdowns and the capital city of Tunja is completely closed off to land travel, as the government claims that several hundred cars have been attacked by protesters or damaged in roadblocks.
Protester organizers are reporting that at least 54 people have been arrested, and numerous human rights allegations have been made so far against ESMAD forces, including multiple instances of unlawful breaking and entering, deliberate damage of property, theft, extreme force, attacks on unarmed, non-protesting civilians, excessive use of tear gas and sound grenades with disregard for children and the elderly, unwarranted assault and the illegal use of deadly force and death threats.
The local economy has been completely frozen, especially in places like Ventaquemada, where the fighting has been thickest, and all transit routes connecting Bogota to northeast Colombia and Venezuela have been rendered unusable.
Because of its remote location, Nariño has received less attention than Boyaca, but the situation is similar.
Roadways in Narino and neighboring Putumayo connecting Colombia to Ecuador and Peru have been closed by protests, cutting off an important trade and supply route to the country and particularly the city of Cali.
Local leaders have estimated the department has already lost $25 million due to the first week of protests and road closures, as the flow of food, gas and goods in and out of the department has ground to a near halt.
From the start of protests Monday, allegations of unlawful detainment have been made against local police forces by protesters traveling to Cali and other larger gatherings.
In at least one case later in the week, farmers not participating in the protests say members of the military stole food cargo from their trucks, claiming it was FARC property, and therefore needed to be confiscated.
Meta, which has been a consistently heated area of conflict over the course of the week, drew attention earlier in the week when protesters captured six members of the Colombian military, who they claimed had infiltrated a large gathering, attempting to provoke violence and sabotage the protest.
A deal was negotiated Tuesday and the soldiers, one of whom was allegedly armed, were exchanged for members of the protests who had been arrested by the police.
Since then, some 40 civilians have been arrested, many of whom allegedly had no direct involvement in the protest, and roads remain problematic or closed in much of the department.
According to alternative media sources, major highways remain blocked in Cauca at four crucial points.
Violence has been heavy in the department throughout the week, and protests were featured in a human rights report claiming that a combination of ESMAD, army and military police forces attacked civilians and protesters alike with tear gas cans, injuring several children and seniors. When a medical mission attempted to treat victims, the authorities allegedly attacked again, breaking into two houses where injured protesters went for refuge and burning clothing and appliances in the street.
Union leaders and human rights groups have asked for government protection, as written death threats from the right-wing drug cartel Los Rastrojos have been sent to various organizers and labor leaders in Villavicenio.
Members of human rights watchdog groups observing clashes between protesters and authorities in Huila have denounced the Colombian public forces for aggression and intimidation tactics, claiming they were physically assaulted and prevented from taking pictures or video. Additionally, protest leaders have claimed police is preventing buses carrying protesters to reach the sites where demonstrations are held.
The government, in turn, has told the public that the Huila protests have been overrun by the FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group with a strong presence in the region.
As of Friday afternoon, media reports indicated that 3,000 ranchers and dairy farmers were blocking a major road to Ecuador in Caqueta.
A university press group reports that police forces assaulted its journalists and broek their cameras.
According to the reporters, the police have been detaining travelers on the road to prevent large gatherings.
A bridge in Neiva has been the focal point of the most intense clashes, as 600 protesters reportedly blocking half of the road were attacked with excessive force by the police, who also fired tear gas specifically at non-participant observers and broke into homes.
2,000 farmers fought with police forces on a road to Huila, after 30 cargo bags of produce were allegedly stolen from farmers who were not participating in the strikes.
Alternative media outlets report that an agreement was reached Friday in Medellin between protesters and department authorities after almost a full day of heavy fighting between striking miners from Segovia and public security forces, in which live ammunition was allegedly fired at protesters.
As of late Friday, 600 farmers were occupying a major roadway into Bogota. Conflict with police has left a reported 26 injured and led to 6 arrests.
Videos have been released of violent battles between radical student groups and ESMAD forces at National University in Bogota Thursday. The students, whom the government has said were FARC terrorists, are shown throwing rocks and small explosives at anti-riot tanks.
Meanwhile, the first signs of food shortage have already hit the Colombian capital.
By Friday, less than a third of the usual produce shipments were arriving at the massive Corabastos food market. Onions have doubled in price, and potatoes are selling at two-and-a-half times their normal value.
20 truckers, moreover, have used their trucks to block off the center of the Usme neighborhood.
Road closings were reported Friday in the departments of Caldas, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Risaralda, Cudinamarca, Santander, Norte del Santander Boyaca, Narino, Putumayo, Meta and Tolima, with ongoing clashes in many of those same areas.
The Red Cross made a general plee for both protesters and the government to take measures to stop the harassment and attack of ambulances and aid workers in the country.
The government claims protesters have been attacking ambulances and preventing them from providing services to other patients, declaring a green alert earlier in the week and putting hospitals nationwide on high alert.
Protesters, on the other hand, say the government has been using neutral vehicles to infiltrate protests and get past road blocks. In several cases across the country, there have been claims that public forces prevented ambulances from accessing wounded protesters after conflicts subsided.
Reporters without Borders sent an open letter to President Juan Manuel Santos Thursday calling for increased protection for Colombia’s journalists, who they say have been illegally targeted.
While the letter does not specify who has been targeting the reporters, human rights groups have claimed in varios instances that ESMAD and other government forces have been intimidating journalists and destroying their recording equipment.
In Huila, 73,000 coffee farmers previously staying out of strike activities announced earlier this week they would be taking to the streets, though not, they said, blocking roads, in support of the growing plight of the rest of the agriculture movement.
Friday, the ‘zero hour’ passed for the Santos administration to fulfill its unmet obligations to the education sector, and the entire nationwide teacher and education staff unions, an estimated 300,000 workers, are expected to begin indefinite strike efforts Saturday.
The national oil workers union (USO) announced Friday it, too, would be joining the indefinite strike, after monitoring the situation during the week and forwarding denouncement made by the Marcha Patriotica, one of the key member groups of the national agricultural organizing team, and alternative media sources regarding human rights violations on the part of the federal government.
The government has tried negotiating individually with representatives from some of the departments, but apart from the negotiations in Antioquia between miners and the governor, none of the smaller talks have been successful.
The national agriculture organizing team (MIA), however, has said it will only negotiate as a unified front, and local movements have been echoing the national platform.
According to recent conversations with each of the various national negotiating bodies, only the miners and the coffee workers have received any formal contact from the Santos administration, which continues to say it is unwilling to negotiate as long as road blocks are in effect.
Steven Cohen is an editor at Colombia Reports and contributing writer on the Beacon independent journalism platform. His interests in Colombia pertain mainly to labor, environmental, and human rights issues, though he is also a big fan of coconut rice and Aletico Nacional soccer.