Colombia’s ministers of agriculture and the interior joined a diplomatic mission to Tunja, the capital of Boyaca on Thursday, to negotiate with protest leaders and attempt to calm the most pressing situation facing the country since national protests broke out Monday.
In four days of protests that have, so far, seen well over 100 demonstrations nationwide and a reported 98 arrests and 82 injured police officers, the most violent clashes between the government and protesters across the country occurred in the department of Boyaca, where roads in and out have been effectively closed off since late Tuesday.
By Wednesday, the combination of violence and economic paralysis had gotten so bad the governor of Boyaca declared a state of emergency, calling on President Juan Manuel Santos to negotiate with the protesters. But even from the start of Monday’s coordinated national strikes, things have been particularly tense throughout the department.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, Luz Dary, an organizer for the Boyaca agricultural movement, said that well before road blocks were set up in parts of the department, the government was deploying “totally exaggerated” and “inhumane” force to intimidate protesters.
“They chase us, and follow us, even into our houses [...] and they come in, and break glass, break everything, throw gas — to them it doesn’t matter if there are children or seniors. If we take pictures, they take those, too, and break our phones or our cameras. They’ll look through our cars. They destroy those, too: the cars. And if we are in them, they’ll take us out and beat us in the street.”
Dary said having witnessed the police break into homes without cause and set property on fire, beat peaceful protesters for no reason and employ excessive force and tactics banned by human rights laws to deal with roadblocks.
“We are asking for international human rights groups to come here and help protect us, to see what is happening,” said Dary, who claims that despite various calls for its assistance, the government human rights body Defensoria del Pueblo has yet to establish a presence in Boyaca.
Her statements match the picture being painted by other groups, which describe a steady escalation into all-out armed repression of protesters.
According to a Marcha Patriotica human rights report published earlier this week, five buses and several private cars filled with protesters were detained by police forces on their way from Tunja to nearby Bogota, where they were intending on joining Monday’s demonstrations.
12 farmers were injured later that same day protesting along the side of the road from Sogamoso to Tibasosa.
Monday afternoon, members of the alternative Colombian media and human rights watchdog groups observing the protests in Boyaca denounced having received death threats from the Umbita municipal police force. In La Germania, another municipality in Boyaca, farmers injured in nighttime clashes with the police went untreated, as national army troops reportedly prevented ambulances from gaining access to the protesters. Several more farmers were hospitalized late that night, claiming anti-riot police (ESMAD) forced them out of their trucks while they were sleeping on the side of the road, beat them severely, stealing their possessions and later attempting to prevent them from receiving treatment; pictures showing bloodied faces and head contusions were posted on Facebook in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
Since then, the situation has only intensified.
The government’s public response to the situation has been consistent. In what has become a recurring theme across the protest spectrum, local and national authorities have attributed rock-throwing and road blocks to outside militarism, claiming that the Boyaca protests have been “infiltrated by student extremists” who need to be met with appropriate force.
Since even before protests started, however, organizers have almost unanimously rejected this argument, speaking out against what they feel is the government’s attempt to criminalize legitimate protest movements and provide justification for unlawful government aggression. Now, the protesters say they have indeed been infiltrated, only not by the FARC or radical students.
In various parts of the country, protesters have captured and subsequently returned covert military operatives, who they claim infiltrated peaceful protests in the interest of initiating violence.
In Boyaca, organizers allege the police have used neutral organizations to penetrate road blockages and attack protesters.
“The [government forces] use cars from neutral bodies,” said Dary, “ambulances, aid cars and things like that. We let them through, and they come out and attack us. Now we don’t know who to let pass, because we are worried it will be ESMAD in disguise. And if we stop a car, or make people get out of a car, [government officials] blame us for that, too.”
In a radio interview Thursday, protest organizer Cesar Panchon acknowledged that protesters have resorted to road blockages and other methods the government has warned are illegal. He did, however, deny that protesters were involved in the burning of several trucks the government has been using as an example of social terrorism, and called on Colombian media outlets to do a better job representing the protesters’ account of the situation, which he says has been filled with “gross human rights violations”.
President Juan Manuel Santos, said Panchon, “threw gas on the fire” when he told reporters late Monday that the protests did not have “the expected magnitude”. The government, he said, has encouraged violence by authorizing aggressive force, repeatedly refusing to dialogue with protesters in the months leading up to August 19th and leaving previous agreements made after peaceful negotiations unfulfilled.
Panchon, who claims to have been accosted by police, from whom he escaped, on his way to speak in front of the Colombia’s Congress Thursday, rejected the idea that the farmers in Boyaca were acting of anything but their own accord, promising he would not let opposition political leaders from the Polo Democratico –who contacted him before the August 19th strike date — take over the local protest movement, and saying that despite $21 million in unpaid subsidies, Boyaca’s farmers “need agricultural policy [reforms], not money”.
Moreover, the government, said Panchon, “has given [protesting farmers] some vicious beatings. They’ve stabbed peasant farmers, shot them, broke cars, stolen money and cellphones.” Videos of protesters throwing stones, which have been reproduced by major Colombian media outlets and highlighted by the government, “dont show everything”, he said.
“People here aren’t used to these types of abuses, so if we are taking any reprisals, it’s for the treatment we have been given.”
With conflicting accounts from protesters and the government, it’s difficult to determine in retrospect which party is originally responsible for the dark tone the Boyaca protests have taken. But Panchon and Dary’s statements regarding human rights violations match reports from agriculture organizers and alternative media sources covering rural issues.
Marcha Patriotica, an opposition political group that plays an integral role in the national agricultural movement’s negotiating and organizing team (MIA), has been monitoring and recording the human rights situation since the start of the protests, and reports that ESMAD forces began resorting to brutal extra-judicial methods starting as early as Monday afternoon, lending credence to similar reports from alternative media outlet Prensa Rural.
A second human rights report released Wednesday on the Marcha Patriotica website chronicles a series of disturbing incidents, providing names, times and locations of what it portrays as characteristic abuses of power on the part of the government.
According to the the document, ESMAD forces have been invading homes across Boyaca — and across the entire country — destroying or stealing possessions, burning motorcycles and cars, beating unarmed civilians and using tear gas and excessive force on children and the elderly.
In one particularly troubling case, Maria Urbano Cardenas and her two-year-old daughter were reportedly hospitalized, after an ESMAD team broke into her house and attacked her using tear gas. Urbano, who is four-months pregnant, is at severe risk of losing her baby, according to the report.
Colombia Reports has been unable to verify any of the individual incidents mentioned in the Marcha Patriotica document, but the use of excessive force by the government has been corroborated by various news sources covering the Boyaca situation and other similar ones across the country, as well as firsthand testimony.
Congressman Carlos Andres Amaya, for example, one of Boyaca’s representatives in Colombia’s House, told reporters that he was attacked and beaten while attending a legal, lawful protests of his constituents Monday.
“We were all sitting [on the side of the road],” he said, “eating some soup they had prepared that afternoon, when the ESMAD came, and without asking anything nor speaking to any leader, started attacking all of us.”
The voice of another representative, Humphrey Roa Sarmiento, appears on a video taken by protesters of a phone call between him and one of the protest leaders, in which the organizer details a long list of unprovoked violence and human rights violations on the part of the ESMAD and other government forces, including beatings, break-ins, robberies and death threats, the likes of which appear in reports from the Marcha Patriotica and Prensa Rural.
At this point, it is unknown how many protesters have been injured, but there have reportedly been at least two shootings and three stabbings, none of which were lethal. Additionally, Dary claims that her local farmers union knows of eight cases of missing persons, whom she fears have been killed.
More certain is the overall state of the department, which has seen almost its entire, largely agriculture and transport-based, economy smothered by closed roadways and protesting farmers. Gas is only being sold to ambulances and police vehicles. Bus and cargo lines connecting northeast Colombia with Bogota have been shut down. An estimated 185,000 gallons of milk are spoiling every day, costing approximately 8,000 dairy-farming families almost $1,000,000 a week. Businesses, too, have been taking grave hits, as they’ve had to excuse workers unable to commute, or close their operations entirely. A single bus company, for example, claims to be losing $368,000 a day from road closings.
Police have lifted several road blockages, but as soon as they manage to do so, protesters spring up on another road, or another part of the same one, and the department remains almost completely closed off to the outside world. Unless the government manages to clear roads soon, moreover, Bogota, which has already seen some increases in food prices due to the trucker strike, and has already shut down much of its regional bus service, could begin to feel the effects of the protests.
The government, which had previously said it would not fold under strike pressure or in any way deal with protesters while road blocks are in effect, has sent two of its highest officials to negotiate an end to the protests in Boyaca. But the national agriculture movement’s negotiating team, which has still yet to receive formal contact from the Santos administration, has said it will fight the government’s efforts to avoid dealing with the unified front directly, and Boyaca organizers have indicated nothing short of substantive agricultural reform will be enough to lift their strike and end protests.
“Until the government presents a clear answer to the protests,” said Dary, “we’re not going to lift the road blockages. I repeat, we’re not going to lift the road blockages.”
Steven Cohen is an editor at Colombia Reports and contributing writer on the Beacon independent journalism platform. His interests in Colombia pertain mainly to labor, environmental, and human rights issues, though he is also a big fan of coconut rice and Aletico Nacional soccer.