Antiriot police began assembling Wednesday in front of striking Colombian truckers, who for three days have been causing major traffic jams by setting up roadblocks on this capital city’s main arteries.
The truckers’ strike, which began nearly two weeks ago over deregulation of the industry, involves the majority of some 200,000 Colombian truckers and is proving to be the toughest confrontational challenge yet for the six-month-old administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
The strike is having a growing adverse impact on coffee and other export sectors that rely on the trucking industry to deliver product to shipping ports.
Interior Minister German Vargas said no orders have been given for the antiriot police to confront the truckers and force them to move their big rigs off the road, but added that “this option exists.”
Television footage showed some of the truckers holding large sticks and rocks as they waited to see what the police, standing about 50 feet to 100 feet away, may do next.
“If the government is going to remove us by force, well, they’re not going to succeed,” one unnamed trucker next to his parked 18-wheeler told a local broadcaster. “We’re a peaceful group of people, but we’re not going to move.” What appeared to be some of the truckers’ wives and children stood among the group of truckers.
Bogota road blocks
Coffee traders in Chicago said the truckers’ strike helped send the benchmark arabica contract to a fresh 13½-year intraday high Tuesday in InterContinental Exchange trading. On Wednesday, prices were slightly off Tuesday’s highs. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of mild washed arabica coffee, and the strike is seen exacerbating worries about tightening global supplies.
A strike by Colombian truckers in 2009 also had a serious impact on coffee exports.
The roadblocks, mainly in the south and west parts of Bogotá, began Monday afternoon when hundreds of truckers parked their vehicles in the middle of various roads. The blockades forced thousands of commuters to walk to work or school. Truckers also blocked highways in other parts of the country, including a main road that leads to the port of Buenaventura, where most coffee is exported.
Truckers began the strike Feb. 3 in response to the Santos administration’s decision to eliminate the “table of shipping costs,” a list of minimum freight rates for truckers that’s been in use for many years.
The government says a competitive market for freight pricing is the norm in most countries and said it will improve the local industry. Truckers say it will cause ruin for thousands of small trucking companies and independent truckers and say that with higher fuel prices and Colombian inflation on the rise, now is the worst time to deregulate.
Vice President Angelino Garzón, a former union leader whom many of the truckers said they trusted, met for the first time with the truckers Tuesday night for five hours, but that failed to bring about a resolution.
“We’re not going to move the vehicles and that’s it,” Pedro Aguilar, the head of the Association of Colombian Truckers, or ACC, told RCN Television after the meeting with Mr. Garzón. “The strike continues.”
Mr. Aguilar has said truckers will remove the roadblocks and go back to work only if the government rescinds its decree eliminating the table of shipping costs.
Transportation Minister German Cardona said the removal of the pricing list is irreversible.
Analysts say President Santos, a former defense minister, should remain firm in his decision to end the freight rates list, despite the pressure from the powerful trucking association.
“The government must sustain its ground and not fold as part of the inefficiencies of the logistics of this country is the monopoly this sector has and the leverage they use,” said Andres Jimenez, analyst at Colombian brokerage InterBolsa.
Analysts in Colombia say other key exports beyond coffee, including coal, could also be affected by the strike, but to a lesser extent than coffee. Major coal companies in Colombia such as Alabama-based Drummond Co., Glencore International AG and BHP Billiton Ltd. use their own rail lines to deliver product from open-pit coal mines located relatively close to the coast. But smaller coal companies that mine in the country’s interior rely on trucks to get their product to ports.