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Anti-Government Protests In Colombia Now In Their 3rd Week

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Colombia, nationwide protests over poverty and police violence have stretched into a third week. Now demonstrators are blocking major roads and highways, but that's led to food and gasoline shortages in many parts of the country. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Cali is Colombia's third largest city. It's home to 2.2 million people and normally is choked with traffic but not anymore. On this highway leading to the airport, these protesters have erected a barricade made of overturned power poles, guardrails and tree branches.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: With no vehicles to bother them, some protesters relax on the curb, smoking marijuana. Others build a fire to cook a huge pot of chicken stew. Blocking streets and highways in Colombia is illegal, but so many roadblocks have popped up in recent days that police have been unable to take them all down. Protesters hope these tactics will force the government to negotiate.

ANDRES RESTREPO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Right now the government doesn't want to talk, says Andres Restrepo, a university professor standing watch at one of the barricades. It only wants to repress and chase after us. Then, as if on cue, a police helicopter buzzes over us. The demonstrations began late last month, when the government tried to raise taxes in the middle of a pandemic that had already pushed millions of Colombians into poverty. President Ivan Duque quickly withdrew the tax bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: However, protesters remain in the streets and are making dozens of new demands. They include a guaranteed basic income for the poor and an overhaul of the police force. More than 40 people have been killed in the unrest, and human rights groups blamed the police for most of those deaths. Yet the roadblocks are making life even harder.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

OTIS: Here in Cali, many gasoline tankers have been unable to get through the roadblocks. Most filling stations have closed, while hundreds of cars line up at the few that are still open, like this one. Among the motorists straining to move their vehicles is Franklin Ramos.

FRANKLIN RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: It's like something out of "The Flintstones" with me pushing my car, he says. Despite the hassles, Ramos and several others in the gas line said they strongly support the protests. But some Cali residents are growing weary.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

ALBA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The roadblocks have also caused food shortages, says Alba Garcia. She's a retired dressmaker who's buying plantains at an outdoor market, where she argues with the salesman before paying double the normal price.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Garcia says that the roadblocks are also bankrupting businesses and preventing people from getting to work. We're going to end up in even worse shape, she predicts. President Duque has tried to restore order with proposals like free college tuition for poor and working-class students during the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OTIS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At a news conference in Cali, Duque insisted that the blockades must come down so Colombia's economy and COVID-19 vaccinations can get back on track. But while some protesters have gone home, many continue to block streets and highways and say they have no plans to budge. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cali, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF U.S. GIRLS' "NAVY AND CREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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