One million people took part in the first day of anti-government protests on Monday, according to strike organizers who expect an even bigger turnout on Tuesday when teachers and health workers join the country-wide protests. The high number is disputed by authorities.
The protest organizations’ estimate is in stark contrast to that of the government, whose Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo told press that 60,000 people had taken to the streets and that the situation in the country is “under control.”
The real number of protesters is impossible to define, as the initial protests took part mostly in the rural areas of Colombia and alongside highways.
However, it is relatively safe to assume that hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets, making Monday’s protest the biggest public demonstration since 2008 when millions took to the street to protest the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, and the largest anti-government protest since 1977.
While farmers in the northeastern region of Catatumbo and miners have been on strike for months and weeks respectively, they were joined on Monday by truckers and farmers from the coffee, rice, sugarcane and potato sectors.
The strikes began with roadblocks, violence and arrests in 28 of Colombia’s 32 departments. Seven of Colombia’s main highways were blocked, 22 protesters were arrested and at least seven people — six of them policemen — were allegedly injured.
MORE: Colombia’s strike wave begins with violence and roadblocks
Government and protesters find each other opposed not only in their demands and estimations of the turnout, but also in mutual accusations of inciting violence.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, Jose Fernando Ramirez of the Marcha Patriotica asserted that armed forces met protesters with excessive force.
“Throughout the day we recorded nine people arrested in Boyaca, with some others in Valle del Cauca.”
“We also recorded abuse against demonstrators in different parts of the country, and an excessive use of force by the authorities, which only achieved to radicalize the protests and encourage violence,” added Ramirez.
According to Ramirez, police is trying to infiltrate the protests to incite violence necessary for the security forces to intervene.
“We have information that police are infiltrating demonstrations, where they try to incite violence and make the situation get out of control.”
“Within the institution they find people without any moral or ethical objection to citizens and peaceful demonstrations,” Ramirez said.
Additionally, Ramirez’ movement in the morning accused police in the south of Colombia of preventing buses from reaching locations of protests.
MORE: Police In Southern Colombia Are Trying To Impede Protests: Strike Organizers
The government on the other hand has ongoingly insinuated that the protests are infiltrated by the FARC, which is currently involved in peace talks with the Colombian government.
The FARC’s lead negotiator Ivan Marquez criticized the government’s accusations and denied his organization had anything to do with the protests..
“The government should stop criminalizing social protest in Colombia. Anyone in Colombia who doesn’t agree with governmental policies is identified as member of the FARC to legitimate the violent repression carried out by the national government,” said Marquez from Havana where the talks are held.
The government has called the strikes unjustified and irresponsible, but protesters across sectors are unanimous in insisting that their attempts at civil dialogue with government officials have gone unheard or unanswered. To curb the growing social unrest, more than 16,000 policemen were deployed to prevent protesters from blocking economically important roads.
MORE: Santos Government Flexes Muscle Ahead Of Monday’s Protests
The interior minister claimed that the government has established contact with each striking sector, which — with the exception of miners, Catatumbo-based farmers and coffee growers — late last week was denied by each of the sectors consulted by Colombia Reports.
In the apparent absence of diplomacy, the government is apparently counting on a show of force to deal with the spreading protests and strikes that have been announced for over a month and have proven impossible for the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos to dissolve.
The strikes are set to expand on Tuesday, with health workers and teachers set to join the protests in Colombian cities like Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla and Bucaramanga.
- Interview with Jose Fernando Ramirez (Marcha Patriotica)
- Phonecalls to strike leaders
- Press statement Interior Ministry
- Phonecalls to locals in rural areas