Colombia Keeps Troops on the Streets Amid Nationwide Protests

Ezra Fieser and Oscar Medina

(Bloomberg) -- Colombia will keep troops on the streets to help police maintain order, President Ivan Duque said Saturday, after nationwide protests in the past two days degenerated into looting in some areas.

Joint military-police patrols will continue to maintain calm, Duque told reporters Saturday, while condemning acts of vandalism.

Bogota’s mayor Enrique Penalosa ordered a curfew last night after looting broke out in the south of the city. Rumors that the attacks had moved to the wealthier north led some people to form vigilante groups to protect their property. Penalosa and Duque both denied the rumors, which the mayor said were part of an orquestrated campaign to spread fear, without saying who was behind it.

“We express the total and absolute rejection of all Colombians for the vandalism, for the terrorism, for the looting,” Duque said.

A bomb attack in the south-west of the country killed three police officers overnight. While no-one immediately claimed responsibility, the area is a center for drug trafficking.

Maintaining Pressure

Three days after a national strike, protest organizers are seeking to keep up the pressure on Duque. The demonstrations have been motivated by a range of issues, including the government’s education and labor policies, unsolved murders of social leaders and corruption. Unions said they’d convene another national demonstration Monday.

“Colombians have spoken and the government is listening,” Duque said in a televised address late Friday. While calling for deeper “social dialogue,” he spent much of the brief speech condemning acts of vandalism and looting during the protests.

Last night’s curfew in Bogota was the first in the capital since 1977, according to Jorge Restrepo, director of CERAC, a Bogota-based research institution that monitors the nation’s civil conflict.

Almost 150 people were arrested across the country on Friday after 98 were detained on Thursday. Hundreds of others have been taken to police stations to check their identity.

Elsewhere in the Andes, huge anti-government protests forced the governments of Ecuador and Chile to roll back austerity measures, while in Bolivia weeks of demonstrations helped force President Evo Morales to step down.

National Dialogue

In his national address last night, Duque said he would start a national dialogue next week. This is unlikely to be enough to calm the situation, said Claudia Navas, an analyst at the Control Risks consultancy in Bogota.

“Considering how Duque is handling it, this may extend for some more days,” Navas said. “He mentioned a meeting next week, even though the situation is urgent.”

On Friday, demonstrators chanted “Down with Duque!” and “Long live the national strike!”

Thieves hijacked a city bus and used it to batter down the doors of a shuttered shop in the south of Bogota, allowing a mob of looters to enter, according to footage shown by Bogota-based newspaper El Espectador. The mayor’s office sent workers home early and banned alcohol sales, saying it knew of groups that wanted to cause disturbances.

On Thursday, more than quarter of a million Colombians took part in the nation’s biggest protests in years. The demonstrations started out peacefully, but degenerated into violence as protesters clashed with armored anti-riot units, broke into businesses, and blocked roads. Three protesters died in the Valle del Cauca department, and at least 170 police and civilians were injured, the Defense Ministry said.

“We don’t want this to end after just one day, which would only be a mild warning for the government,” said Santiago Malagon, an advertising student. “We know that yesterday’s march was big, but we want to have greater repercussions.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ezra Fieser in Bogota at efieser@bloomberg.net;Oscar Medina in Bogota at omedinacruz@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Juan Pablo Spinetto at jspinetto@bloomberg.net, Philip Sanders, Matthew Bristow

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