The normally tranquil roads winding through the mountainous department of Boyacá have become the epicenter of Colombia’s agrarian strike over the last week as protesters block major highways and dump truckloads of tomatoes and milk onto the streets. Farmers protesting Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States and the price of fertilizer, among other economic issues, have succeeding in preventing the transport of agricultural products to the nation’s capital and in bringing Boyacá to a standstill.
Residents of Tunja and Duitama, two of the department’s largest cities, describe siege-like conditions as inhabitants struggle to find fresh produce, meat, and milk. Most grocery stores have boarded up their windows and some people have resorted to looting. Now that the gasoline has run out, the streets are empty except for the military personnel and ESMAD, Colombia’s riot police, charged with establishing public order.
Unfortunately, claim locals, the heightened police presence isn’t making them feel safer. Clashes between law enforcement and protesters have so far left two dead and 272 injured nationwide. Citizens in Tunja and Duitama say police masquerading as civilians are forcibly entering homes, breaking windows, and infiltrating marches.
The mayor of Tunja, the governor of Boyacá, and the local archbishop published an open letter to the director of the national police on Monday denouncing the violence perpetrated by ESMAD against unarmed protesters.
If anything, the police are uniting the people of Boyacá behind the farmers. Sunday night more than 50,000 residents filled the main plaza in Tunja to bang pots and pans in a show of solidarity known as a cacerolazo. More cacerolazos took place Monday night in at least ten municipalities across the department.
“At this moment a feeling of rejection of the state’s abuses is awakening,” says Julian López, a Tunja resident. “I’ve never seen so many people united for the same cause in Tunja. [At the cacerolazo] I saw people from all social classes.”
The national government further alienated protesters when Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón dismissed claims of police abuse as rumors, despite the videos of ESMAD beating unarmed protesters that have been widely circulating on social media sites. Mr. Pinzón also claimed members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) had infiltrated the protests and announced that all those arrested in conjunction with the strikes would be tried as terrorists.
In a department in which half of the population lives in rural areas, farming is the principal economic activity and a way of life. Boyacá produces and transports an estimated 1,865,000 tons of agricultural products each year, including more than a quarter of the country’s potatoes and a significant portion of the nation’s onions, tomatoes, and grains. Farmers have seen their livelihood threatened in recent years by an influx of foreign agricultural products, as well as by the high cost of fertilizer, pesticides, and other farming supplies.
“Most people are supporting the farmers,” says Diego Mauro, a university professor in Tunja. “We all think that no matter what, they produce the food that feeds the whole country so we should support them. They have the right to ask for better conditions.”
The last time the department of Boyacá rebelled, Colombia became an independent country. So it should come as no surprise that despite his government’s declarations that it would not negotiate until the roadblocks were cleared, President Juan Manuel Santos flew to Tunja on Monday to meet with representatives of the agricultural sector.
President Santos promised to protect the protesters from police aggression until an agreement can be reached. Negotiations are scheduled to resume Tuesday, but farmers say they will continue to block major roads until the negotiations have ended.