Roadblocks and protests disrupt Colombian metropolis of Cali – KIRO 7 Information Seattle


CALI, Colombia – (AP) – The sugar mills that employ tens of thousands of people have come to a standstill. Broken traffic lights dangle uselessly over intersections in the city center. The police watch over burned bus stops and looted petrol stations. Even the ice cream cone factory has gone silent.

Anti-government protests have been raging across Colombia for almost a month, and nowhere as violent as in Cali, a western city of over 2 million people usually more famous for its tropical music than social unrest.

At least 32 demonstrators have been killed in clashes with police in Cali since the protests began in late April, according to Indepaz, a human rights group. 52 victims have been identified across Colombia.

Protesters and police officers in Cali have accused each other of using live ammunition in clashes that still occur most nights in poor areas where gangs live.

Bright orange plastic barriers, sandbags, metal bars, ropes and debris are still blocking the main roads.

“We know that these roadblocks harm businesses and industries. But that also prevents the government from getting more money, ”said a protester who named his name as Brian. He wore dark sunglasses and a mask and refused to reveal his full name because he was afraid of reprisal from the police.

“This is a way for us to get noticed in the city and let the government know that we don’t accept what they are doing,” he said.

Nationwide protests erupted when President Ivan Duque proposed a sweeping tax hike, but it continued even after his retreat and turned into a general outcry against growing poverty and inequality in a country where the unemployment rate doubled in the past year of the pandemic.

Alfonso Otoya, a Cali-based expert on education projects, makes the city’s decision last year to end a US-funded program that sought to break youth out of gangs with jobs and cultural activities for part of the problem responsible on site. Now Otoya said the mayor has lost the trust of young people in many parts of the city.

The official response itself has also intensified the protests, with demonstrations against police violence. International human rights agencies have accused the government of overreacting.

And while roadblocks persist on highways and city streets, companies are warning that they will have to cut staff.

Dafi Food Factory typically sells around 1.5 million ice cream cones to fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC every week.

However, production stopped in the last 10 days as the company, with 40 employees, couldn’t get flour through the roadblocks.

“So far we have all been able to pay wages,” said Jan Lelie, CFO of Dafi. “But if this continues, our employees will see the effects on their bank accounts.”

On Tuesday, thousands dressed in white marched through the city center to ask protesters and the government to speed up negotiations and demand an end to roadblocks.

“We need the president who listens to the youth so that these roadblocks end,” said Ana Maria Arias, whose confectionery factory has been shut down for two weeks.

While the roadblocks in Cali have eased somewhat in recent days, food shortages have kept prices for goods such as tomatoes and potatoes in local marketplaces at two to three times normal levels.

Hector Ruiz, a tailor who went shopping at a downtown street market, said he agreed with protesters’ complaints “but I don’t think there is a need to block the city and isolate us from the rest of the country”, he said.

Others were more sympathetic: “If we don’t raise our voices, who will do it for us?” said Diana Rosas, a tour guide who has been unemployed for much of the year. “In life there is always darkness before there is light.”

The repeated protests have closed sugar factories that directly and indirectly employ 180,000 people in Cali and the state of Valle del Cauca. The city’s retail sector has seen sales decline 80% over the past three weeks.

Getting around has also become more difficult. According to the city government, thirty-six traffic lights in the city were destroyed and twelve stops on the city’s express transport system were burned down during the protests. Dozens more were destroyed, their windows smashed and their turnstiles destroyed.

Buses that are still in circulation wear a white flag on the side windows to communicate that they are not part of the conflict.

Camilo Cortez, an unemployed construction worker, took advantage of the traffic chaos to earn some money. Now he spends several hours every day under the sweltering sun at a busy intersection where the traffic lights don’t work, trying to steer cars with plastic whistles and a stop sign for tips from drivers.

“It looks ugly in Cali,” he said. “So I do this to stop accidents and make ends meet.”