Escalating violence in central Colombia has left several police and workers injured as protests against oil company Pacific Rubiales spiral out of control.
The president of the oil workers union USO, Rodolfo Vecino, told Colombia Reports the police were guilty of a “wild attack against workers” in the town of Puerto Gaitan and accused them of using teargas and bombs filled with screws, bolts and nails.
Trouble began on Sunday night when police tried to break up roadblocks that had shut down transit routes for the company’s Puerto Gaitan site.
Vecino’s claims of police aggression were supported by an engineer on the scene who told Radio Caracol on Tuesday, “they [the police] started to launch bombs when they found 500-600 workers having their breakfast.”
The source said intense fighting continued through the morning, leaving several people injured and the building where the workers were eating destroyed.
On Tuesday, newspaper El Espectador reported that 300 extra members of Colombian riot police have since been sent to the town to restore order.
Media reports state that six police and three civilians have been injured in the clashes, as well as the four injured on Sunday night.
Vecino admitted that protesters had injured several police but said, “the workers always come off worse” and claimed some were left with permanent injuries, including blindness.
“The worker’s protest is peaceful, it doesn’t have any violent ingredients, but it is logical that the workers responded to the [police] aggression,” he said.
Representatives of Pacific Rubiales and the government have blamed workers and the union for the trouble.
The Canadian oil giant’s Vice President Federico Restrepo told Radio Caracol 200-300 protesters had taken over the site, set fire to equipment and damaged the pipeline. He added the police had to intervene to prevent further damage.
The workers, who, like the majority of Pacific Rubiales workforce, are third-party contractors, set up the road blocks on Sunday night to try and force the company to meet the terms of an agreement that ended protests last July, according to the Vecino.
Thousands took to the streets in July to demand better living conditions, more pay and more stable contracting. Since then, “there hasn’t been a single reform nor a single improvement in these conditions,” said Vecino
The living conditions of the workers “continue to be truly humiliating and poverty stricken,“ he added. “They [the workers] don’t have the conditions of a dignified life, they don’t have dignified salaries, they don’t have contracts that genuinely give the workers respectable levels of stability.”
According to Vecino, the company was stalling on returning to the negotiating table with the workers and their representatives, while systematically firing workers affiliated with unions.
He said, “[this is] a clear case of political persecution of unions and the right to freely join unions.”
Federico Restrepo denied the company had broken the agreement, telling Radio Caracol the company had attended to all the material demands of the protesters including food and accommodation. The company had yet to receive an official list of the protesters demands, he said.
On Tuesday morning, Vice Minister of the Interior Aurelio Iragorri Valencia criticized the protests for taking place while negotiations are officially in process.
He told the media, “the government is not giving in, has not given in and will never give in faced with situations like what is happening.”
Earlier in the day, the Senior Advisor for Public Security Francisco Jose Lloreda told RCN radio the community was against the protesters and blamed the USO for encouraging disorder.
He added, “The potential of the oil industry needs foreign investment. Development is working responsibly with workers and with the environment. If we don’t seize this opportunity, we will regret it tomorrow.”
The claim was contested by Vecino, who said, “the oil zones are where the most misery and least opportunities for the inhabitants are … the exploitation of this resource should bring benefits to the communities but it is not and Puerto Gaitan shows this.”