Colombia’s national government on Monday said it will not talk to farmers in the northeast of the country until they end roadblocks and hostility towards police. According to local reports, the government also failed to talk before the protests turned violent.
“Once the security and public order are guaranteed,… a high-level commission will go to the region to talk with the farmer communities and not to actors who have nothing to do with the communities’ claims,” Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo said at a press conference after meeting with the mayors of the affected Catatumbo region and the governor of the Norte de Santander department where the social unrest has escalated and rioters had attacked local authorities’ offices and are blocking roads entering the region.
The refusal to attend the situation because of the violence followed a failure to attend the situation while the farmers were demonstrating peacefully, said Juan Carlos Castañeda, a journalist for local newspaper La Opinion who has been following the crisis in his department.
“The farmers felt they were simply being ignored and had no other option but to resort to violence,” said the reporter.
The Catatumbo farmers are demanding the government define the area as a semi-autonomous rural reserve zone, and temporarily stop the eradication of coca crops as the protesters claim that those growing coca have not been offered alternatives to provide for their families.
To demand attention for their demands, the approximately 6,000 protesters in Tibu and Ocaña have blocked the roads to Cucuta, the department capital, and have clashed with riot police sent to Norte de Santander to control the protests, but effectively ended up increasing the levels of violence.
The government has claimed the protests have been infiltrated and partly carried out by members of rebel group FARC that has a strong presence in the region.
This claim was supported on Monday by Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora who said that officials from his office have seen protesters use home-made mortars similar to those used by the FARC. Moreover, the human rights officials said the two men that were killed in clashes with police Friday might not have been killed by bullets but by projectiles fired by either protesters or guerrillas.
Castañeda downplayed the importance of FARC infiltration. “The protesters have their own agenda, different than that of the FARC,” the journalist told Colombia Reports.
According to the reporter, the violence towards the authorities was not instigated by illegal armed groups but was caused by the frustration of the farmer whose peaceful protests had been ignored for so long.
“They have put up billboards and banners, they have held peaceful protests, but nobody paid any attention,” said Castañeda, explaining that there was no government response whatsoever until after the situation had escalated.
According to Castañeda, some 18 people have been injured in the riots that followed, almost half of them policemen. Investigators are still investigating whether the two dead farmers were killed by police bullets or projectiles meant to be used against the police.
The situation in Catatumbo is similar to that in other parts of the country during strikes carried out by coffee farmers earlier this year. Also then, coffee farmers resorted to road blocks and clashed with police. And also then, Carrillo said the FARC had instigated the violence and that there would be no talks until the farmers resorted to non-violent means. When the protesters refused, the government was forced to compromise.
Location of the unrest
- Interview with Juan Carlos Castañeda of La Opinion
- Press conference Minister Fernando Carrillo