SEGOVIA, Colombia -- Just before midnight, masked men armed with sticks began hurling rocks at 40 heavily armed riot police, who responded with gunshots and flooding the street with tear gas. As dawn broke on this usually bustling gold-mining town, stores were shuttered, streets were blocked with sandbags, rocks and smoldering tires. At least eight police and five civilians were injured in the melee.
The actions marked the beginning of a national strike aimed at paralyzing this Andean nation in hopes of winning a laundry-list of concessions. President Juan Manuel Santos has accused guerrillas and other armed groups of trying to infiltrate the protests and ratchet-up tension as the country is in the midst of delicate peace talks with the FARC rebels and heading into elections next year.
The agrarian strike, as it’s known, is broad-based and far-flung. Coffee, cacao, potato and rice farmers have joined ranks with cargo truckers, gold miners and others. Teachers and labor unions are also joining in. Their demands are equally ample, calling for reduced fuel and fertilizer prices, the cancellation of free trade agreements, increased subsidies and the end of a crackdown on informal mining operations, among others.
Government negotiators worked through the weekend and managed to mollify some sectors in some parts of the country but it wasn’t enough to stop what many believe could become the largest protest of the year.
The National Police said at least 20 people had been detained and estimated that some 12,500 were participating in protests in 20 different municipalities. But there was no mention of the injuries in Segovia or elsewhere. More than 16,000 police have been trying to dismantle roadblocks that were snarling traffic on a day when many were trying to return home after a three-day weekend. Bus transportation was also anemic as companies decided to suspend service to avoid run-ins with protesters.
At a news conference in Havana, where peace talks are taking place, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, backed the protesters.
“We hope that the government’s hackneyed custom of linking all social and popular protests with the boogeyman of the FARC isn’t an excuse for violence from the armed forces,” guerrilla commander Iván Márquez read from a statement. He also said the government should reconsider a free trade agreement with the United States, which he said had put national farmers at a disadvantage against a flood of subsidized U.S. agricultural imports.
In Segovia, some 2,000 people from surrounding hamlets began congregating in the town over the weekend. Several people said that guerrillas had been pushing villagers to participate in the march. Others said that local criminal groups, known as the Bacrim, were supporting the protests. On Friday, a pamphlet circulated declaring anyone who participated in the protests a “military target.” The warning was signed by a local group called Seguridad Heroes del Nordeste, or Security — Heroes of the Northeast, composed of former paramilitary fighters.
Javier Correa Velez, the head of a coffee-growers association called Dignidad Cafetera, said farmers have little control over who joins the protests.
“We’re not trying to overthrow the government or support one armed group or another, we just want solutions to our problems,” he said. “The strike is simply a symptom of an illness that the entire agriculture sector is suffering from.”