Representatives of alleged youth protesters booed the mayor of Cali, Colombia, out of scheduled negotiations aimed at ending leftist blockades and violent riots in the city Thursday.
Colombia has entered its third week of violent leftist attacks on police forces, medical personnel, and basic infrastructure prompted by what leftist groups are calling a “national strike” against conservative President Iván Duque. While protesters initially claimed the objective of protests was to oppose a progressive tax increase Duque proposed in late April, the president rapidly backed away from the suggestion after swift condemnation from both leftists and the leaders of his own party, the right-wing Democratic Center. Duque abandoned the tax plan nearly two weeks ago, yet the “national strike” continues.
The first week of the strike resulted in firebomb attacks on dozens of police stations nationwide, most dramatically in Cali and Bogotá, the nation’s capital. Rioters also attacked and looted local businesses and formed roadblocks that have left major cities like Cali with limited food, fuel, and other basic resources. This week, robbers began exploiting the roadblocks to attack medical supply convoys and steal pivotal supplies for coronavirus patients like oxygen, antibiotics, and vaccines.
Labor unions, indigenous associations, and far-left student groups have become the protagonists of the “national strike.” While Duque has repeatedly called for “dialogue” to end the violence, the groups have not offered any coherent demands that would result in the end of the strike. Some of the many disparate requests the groups are making include a universal basic income, the tabling of a healthcare bill meant to improve Chinese coronavirus pandemic response, and an “end to gender discrimination.”
Answering Duque’s call for dialogue, the mayor of Cali, Jorge Iván Ospina, organized a roundtable discussion with individuals purporting to be strike leaders on Thursday. The discussion never happened, as those organized attacked and booed Ospina, forcing security to remove Ospina and other political leaders present.
According to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Ospina arrived alongside the governor of Cali’s department (regional division), Valle del Cauca, Clara Luz Roldán and Minister of the Interior Daniel Palacios to the venue hosting the talks and was set to greet representatives of the riot movement when “a hooded man spoke to other youth” and claimed that police were forcibly removing an illegal roadblock in the city. The unidentified hooded man generated a mob atmosphere in which those scheduled to speak to Ospina instead booed him and shouted insults like “murderer” and “traitor,” creating a scene that reportedly posed a physical threat to the Colombian officials.
Security escorted Ospina and the other officials to their vehicles to leave the venue; the mob reportedly pelted the cars with rocks and splashed them with paint. It was not clear from reports on-site where the “negotiators” managed to find paint and rocks quickly enjoy to attack the officials.
Ospina confirmed the incident to reporters shortly after vacating the premises.
“It’s true,” he said. “We were with the national government … waiting for the youths and they showed up, intervened, and explained that [anti-riot police] were intervening in the spaces that they came from. We looked into it and, in reality, it wasn’t true.”
“Not just because I had explicitly ordered no such dislodging, but because the Ministry of the Interior had ordered it [but] that was the argument for getting up from the table,” Ospina said, concluding that the crowd had damaged some government vehicles.
Another official present at the failed talks, Lina Marína Arbeláez of the Colombian Institute for Family Wellbeing, added in a radio interview that several hooded individuals, present with shields, began showing the assembled protesters videos that allegedly depicted clashes between rioters and police happening at that moment. In reality, the videos were taken in prior disturbances and had no relation to what was going on at the time in Cali, Arbeláez explained, but officials were unable to clarify the situation before it turned dangerous.
Arbeláez also highlighted other bizarre details of the incident, including the fact that officials lost their mobile phone receptions — she suggested that the protesters were deliberately blocking their signals — and that the “youth” roundtable appeared to include individuals up to 60 years old.
“We did not understand why they were there if this was a dialogue with the youth,” she noted.
Arbeláez stated in the interview that Cali officials would return to attempts to dialogue with the mob because Duque had ordered it.
“The president told us to set up some talks,” Arbeláez emphasized.
The federal government in Bogotá called for talks once again with the rioters on Thursday.
“We would like to reiterate the clear and express will of the national government to initiate immediately a negotiation table with the accompaniment of the United Nations and the Episcopal Conference of Colombia,” a document sent from the Colombian government to “national strike” organizers read.
Calls for peace have not deterred attacks associated with the roadblocks. On Thursday night, the Colombian television network RCN reported, yet another group of vandals attacked a convoy carrying oxygen for hospital use through Valle del Cauca. Colombian hospitals are in dire need of oxygen given the high number of hospitalizations in the country due to Chinese coronavirus infections. The convoy also included two ambulances; the attack reportedly affected 75 patients.
Valle del Cauca suffered multiple similar attacks on humanitarian aid convoys this week that officials had brokered with rioters to allow passage for through the leftist roadblocks. The largest attack saw unidentified assailants slash the tires on trucks carrying antibiotics, oxygen, and other key medical supplies, then unloading the goods and stealing them. Elsewhere in the country, officials have reported robberies of coronavirus vaccine doses and syringes.
The roadblocks and associated violence have complicated life for residents of Cali, whose businesses continue to lack gasoline and basic produce goods. Some reports suggest that meat shortages may occur in the future when supplies of beef and chicken run out in stores.
Duque has urged Colombians to limit their judgment of the rioters.
“It is unfair to identify all those who express themselves in the streets peacefully as a vandal, as a terrorist, or as a criminal,” Duque said this week. “That is not fair, it has no place here. Just as it is unfair to generalize the behavior of all the members of our public forces [the police].”