CALI, Colombia — The sugar mills that employ tens of thousands of people have ground to a halt. Broken stoplights dangle uselessly over downtown intersections. Police watch over burned bus stops and looted gas stations. Even the ice cream cone factory has gone silent.
Anti-government protests have raged for nearly a month across Colombia, and nowhere more fiercely than in Cali, a western city of more than 2 million people normally famed more for its tropical music than for social unrest.
At least 32 protesters have been killed in Cali in clashes with police since the protests began in late April, according to Indepaz a human rights group. It has identified 52 victims across Colombia as a whole.
Protesters and police in Cali have accused each other of using live ammunition during clashes that still occur most nights in in poor neighborhoods, which are also home to gangs.
Bright orange plastic barriers, sandbags, bars of metal, ropes and debris still block major roads.
“We know that these roadblocks hurt business and industry. But that also stops the government from getting more money” said a protester who gave his name as Brian. He wore dark sunglasses and a mask and refused to reveal his full name over fear of retribution by police.
“This is a way for us to be noticed in the city, and to let the government know we don’t accept what they’re doing” he said.
Nationwide protests erupted when President Ivan Duque proposed a wide-ranging tax increase, but continued even after he backed off, transformed into a general outcry against growing poverty and inequality in a country where the unemployment rate doubled over the past year of pandemic.
Alfonso Otoya, a Cali-based expert of education projects, blames part of the problem locally on the city’s decision last year to end a U.S.-financed program that tried to ease youths out of gangs with jobs and cultural activities. Now Otaya said the mayor has “lost the trust” of youth in many neighborhoods.
The official response itself also has aggravated protests, with marches against police violence. International human rights agencies have accused the government of overreaction.
And as the roadblocks continue on highways and city streets, businesses warn they will have to cut employees.
The Dafi foods factory normally sells about 1.5 million ice cream cones each week to fast food chains such as McDonalds and KFC.
But production has stopped for the past 10 days because the company, with 40 employees, hasn’t been able to get flour through the roadblocks.
“We have been able to pay everyone’s wages so far,” said Jan Lelie, Dafi’s CFO. “But if this continues our workers will see the effect in their bank accounts.”
On Tuesday, thousands marched through the city’s center dressed in white to ask protesters and the government speed negotiations and demand an end to roadblocks.
“We need the president to listen to youth so that these roadblocks end” said Ana Maria Arias, whose candy factory has been idled for the two weeks.
While the roadblocks in Cali have eased a bit in recent days, food shortages have kept prices of goods like tomatoes and potatoes at two to three times normal levels in local marketplaces.
Hector Ruiz, a tailor who was 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 voice, who else will do it for us?” said Diana Rosas, a tour guide who has been out of work for much of the year. “In life there is always dark before there is light.”
The repeated protests have shut down sugar mills that provide direct and indirect employment to 180,000 people in Cali and its state of Valle del Cauca, and the city’s retail industry reported an 80% decline in its sales over the past three weeks.
Getting around has also become more difficult. Thirty-six traffic lights in the city were vandalized during the protests according to the municipal government, and 12 stops on the city’s rapid transit system were burned down. Dozens more were vandalized, with their windows smashed and their turnstiles destroyed.
Buses that still circulate carry a white flag fixed to their side windows in an effort to communicate that they’re not part of the conflict.
Camilo Cortez, an unemployed construction worker has taken advantage of the traffic chaos to earn a little money. He now spends several hours each day under the sweltering sun at a busy intersection where the traffic lights don’t work, trying to direct cars with plastic whistles and a stop sign in return for tips from motorists.
“Things are looking ugly in Cali” he said. “So I do this to help stop accidents and make ends meet.”