Ongoing violence related to protests and roadblocks in Colombia’s countryside has left 4 dead and 50 injured, as well as resulting in the temporary detention of 27 police officers, according to reports from the area.
In the rural zone of Mojarras, in Cauca department, violence erupted on Thursday morning after anti-riot police (ESMAD) tried to forcibly remove a roadblock on the stretch of the Panamericana highway connecting the cities of Pasto and Popayan.
The roadblock had been setup on August 27th as part of the agrarian strike, which began on August 19th. In the Mojarras area there were between 5,000 and 10,000 protesters.
The details surrounding the violence are still coming out, and only one of the deaths has been officially confirmed. Victor Alfonso Ortega, a farmer from Levya, Nariño department, close to Mojarras, died from bullet wounds.
Security forces moved into the area in the early hours of the morning, reportedly surprising the protesters by arriving not from the highway, but from the hills.
“The army fired flares from the early morning, they used helicopters to intimidate us,” said Saul Mejia, one of the protesters. “Then the police arrived at around 7am and knocked down any one who stood in their way.”
The police have accused the protesters of initiating the violence.
“We began the operation at 7:15am and we were attacked with explosives, which resulted in injuries to several men, but nothing too serious,” said the Chief of Police for Cauca. He specified that the protesters were using “explosive tubes filled with shrapnel.”
According to newspaper El Colombiano, the police managed to disperse the protesters using tear gas, before covering the holes in the road – caused by explosives – with metal sheets and ushering through the cars that had been stuck there since the week before.
Then dozens of protesters allegedly emerged from the hills and faced up to the police.
“It was a ferocious encounter,” said Edward Alarcon, the ombudsman of nearby Patia. “It was a real battle and we had to ask for help from the municipalities of Balboa, Patia and Bolivar; they sent ambulances for the wounded.”
“There were firearms, wounds from grenades – 50 people have been injured,” he said, before claiming that – apart from Ortega – 3 people had died, including a 6-year-old boy. Alarcon said the boy died from asphyxiation as a result of the gas fired by the police.
“What happened here was nothing other than a massacre,” said the ombudsman.
The health secretary for Cauca, Duvan Eli Quintero, said the reports of deaths were false.
“I spoke with the ombudsman from El Bordo and he said that the information was false,” the official said.
On Friday morning, radio Santa Fe reported a total of 46 injured: 36 civilians and 10 policemen. A commission – headed by Cauca government official Milena Cabezas – has been sent to the area to verify the number and also to look into the alleged deaths reported by Alarcon.
The National Federation of Ombudsman (FENALPER), of which Alarcon is a member, has called on the national government to do something about the “serious situation” in the south of the country. They also called on international aid organization Red Cross to enter the area.
Earlier in the week violence erupted in neighboring department Huila after a hooded gang, purportedly acting on behalf of the protesters, tried to blow up a bridge. They are also accused of setting fire to an armored van and a public bus.
Colombia’s top police commander General Rodolfo Palomino said protesters in the central Colombian department of Meta detained 28 policemen on Thursday morning, releasing one soon after.
The most recent negotiations in Huila between the government and the leaders of the strike have been a failure. In the middle of the talks the two ministers heading the government’s negotiation team, Fernando Carrillo (Interior) and Francisco Estupiñan (Agriculture), were apparently asked to resign by President Santos.
Santos announced on Thursday that he had replaced five ministers and his chief of staff in an apparent reaction to the ongoing agricultural crisis and a record drop in his approval ratings.
Not all the protests in the south have ended in violence. On Tuesday, 18,000 protesters, made up of farmers and members of indigenous communities, marched peacefully through the city of Popayan in Cauca.
The police described the march as “a great example to communities throughout the country that it is not necessary to cause roadblocks to protest.”
According to figures reported by the Committee for People and Agricultural Issues, by last week the number of people injured in the strikes had reached 303, with 11 of those injuries due to firearms, along with 247 arbitrary arrests and nine deaths.
- Batalla campal entre campesinos y policías deja 4 muertos y 46 heridos en el Cauca (Radio Santa Fe)
- Despeje de vía entre Cauca y Nariño dejó 4 muertos y 46 heridos (El Colombiano)
- Organismos intentan verificar si hubo muertos en desbloqueo en Cauca (El Tiempo)
- Reported Deaths Ruled Out From Protests in Colombian Cauca (Prensa Latina)
- No hay muertos en protestas en la vía Panamericana: secretario de Salud del Cauca (Caracol Radio)