Colombia’s central Boyaca department is “poised for a human rights crisis” due to a lack in progress in talks between the national government and striking farmers, said a leader of the local agriculture movement Tuesday.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, Luz Dary Molina, president of one of the main organizing teams in Boyaca, explained that the combination of a lack of good faith negotiating on the part of the government and the growing military presence in the department have set the stage for a bloody clash between protesters and government forces.
Leaders of the Boyaca agricultural strikes agreed to lift extensive roadblocks on main roads throughout the department last Friday as a pre-condition for the establishment of a dialogue table with the national government. Up until that point, Boyaca had been the focal point of national agriculture protests, as its deeply entrenched protests and strategic location as an access point to Bogota brought attention from both government officials and national media outlets.
After nearly two weeks of economic paralysis and violent clashes with protesters, negotiations with the government seemed like a promising end to the strikes, and President Juan Manuel Santos and the government celebrated the lifting of roadblocks over the past weekend as the end of the regional agricultural conflict.
But Boyaca, said Molina, was only ever a part of the larger agricultural movement, and the government’s unwillingness to actually negotiate the issues presented in the national platform have created a situation in Boyaca more potentially dangerous than the one that existed prior to the local dialogues.
“The government wanted to pretend that the whole agricultural strike was taking place in Boyaca. Even still, it wants the [local] negotiating table to be the national one. And that’s just not how things are. We have said from the beginning that we are aligned with the national negotiating body. We have our own considerations, and were willing to talk about them with the government. But we have always said we want a national dialogue to solve the national issues facing Colombia’s farmers.”
As roadblocks remain heavy in departments like Huila, Caqueta, Putamayo and Cauca and protests continue across the country, she said, “the government tells everyone that everything is fine here [in Boyaca], everything’s calm, and that’s not true at all.”
Protesters lifted roadblocks in good faith, said Molina, in the hopes of using the local negotiations and the media coverage the Boyaca movement had received as a way of pushing for national negotiations. “But the government,” said Molina, “has never been willing to negotiate. They only care about us because of our strategic location [in relation to Bogota]. They came with a proposal that addressed some of our minor issues. But their proposal was the only thing they were ever willing to consider, and it never even considered the points we had already presented [in formal declarations submitted to the government], points such as free trade, guaranteed prices, problems affecting the entire countryside.
“They are wasting our time in negotiations, trying to dishearten our protests and separate us from the rest of the country. When we block roads, they want to talk. But when we unblock them, we see no progress or will to negotiate. People here are losing their patience.”
According to Molina, organizers are struggling to reign in the more frustrated elements of their movement, who “see that nothing is happening” and want to return to more active protests.
“We are trying to promote the ‘cacerolazo’ [scheduled nationally for this Thursday]. We are working on other peaceful protests, talking constantly with our members and with [other organizers from other departments]. But we don’t know if that will be enough to satisfy everyone. And if it isn’t, and the government is still as inflexible as it has been so far […] I am scared for what might happen.”
Leading up to last Friday, protests in Boyaca were marred by widespread reports of police brutality and human rights violations. ESMAD forces across the department were accused of using excessive, indiscriminate violence in dealing with roadblocks and other protests, allegedly breaking into homes, gassing children and seniors not participating in the protests, destroying or stealing property, issuing death threats to farmers and journalists and preventing medical treatment from reaching protesters after violent encounters.
Now, after a presidential order brought a massive military presence to the department, Molina said she fears that a government crackdown is inevitable if protesters take to the streets again.
“[The government says it] sent 50,000 troops around the country, but looking around, you would think they’re all here in Boyaca. The roads, the public spaces, they are everywhere. And what will they do if the people of Boyaca try and take control of the highways like before? The highways are too important to [the Santos administration] for the army to let that happen.
“They are soldiers, all they know how to do is kill people.”
Molina said the situation is very delicate. Currently, she said, she and other protesters split their time between stagnant negotiations with the government and heated conversations with other protesters.
“Things are very tense,” she said. “We are trying to keep things under control. But it is the government’s job to do that, and everything they have done is making things worse. If nothing changes, the situation is going to intensify. And then, I don’t know what will happen.”
- Interview with Luz Dary Ramirez