He wears an upside down traffic sign as a shield, an anti-vapor mask lent to him by a painter friend, and leather knee pads and nails mended with a sewing machine. Hugo is only 20 years old, but he assures that he is willing to die tonight for defending his neighborhood from the police.
He finishes a sandwich and takes position in one of the barricades of Puerto Rellena, a poor neighborhood in the Colombian city of Cali where some of the toughest clashes between police and protesters have been recorded, especially during the early hours of the morning. “Here we are day and night. They are not going to happen ”, he says, and when he opens his mouth he reveals an orthodontic appliance.
Cali, of 2.2 million inhabitants, the third largest city in Colombia, has starred in protests against the government. It is a city with a powerful business fabric that in the last year, for example, had the lowest homicide rate in the last three decades. But also a place with enormous inequality, where it is estimated that a quarter of its inhabitants live in poverty.
That is the world that the residents of Puerto Rellena, which now calls itself Puerto Resistencia, fell. The neighborhood is surrounded by barricades and checkpoints. It has emerged as a small independent republic where the presence of the State has disappeared.
It all started on April 28, the first day of the national strike called to protest against the tax reform promoted by the Government. In the midst of the protests, a 17-year-old boy, Marcelo Agredo, pushed a motorized policeman. The agent got out of the vehicle, chased Agredo for a few meters and shot him twice in the back. I kill him. A while later another agent murdered 13-year-old Jeirson García. They were two very popular teenagers in the neighborhood. The wick lit up. A mob drove out the riot squad with stones and sticks and burned down a small police station. Since then they rule here.
Whatever the authorities return, Puerto Resistencia has a life of its own. There are assemblies where the future of the nation is discussed and makeshift hospitals to care for the wounded. Fruit and beverage vendors stroll with their mobile tents. A preacher, standing on a pedestal, shouts to the crowd: “God’s time has come. God is strong! ”. The figures for the deceased in Cali are confusing. Some social organizations have documented the death of seven young people. Others raise the number to 22.
Francia Márquez, an environmental activist well known for opposing mining companies in Colombia, walks carelessly through Puerto Resistencia, without the three police officers who usually escort her: “Here I would have to defend them.” It is not surprising that this has become a focus against the security forces: “Young people have no future, they have taken everything from them. They have nothing to lose. “
In the rest of Cali there are makeshift checkpoints where bonfires burn. It has become a ghost town. People are afraid to go out on the street. They spend the day locked up, forwarding audios and videos of what happens outside. There has been looting in banks, shops and supermarkets. A hotel has burned down. The price of vegetables and fruit has multiplied by 10. Gasoline is scarce.
In one corner, a crowd robs a gas station in order. There are four guys who draw fuel straight from the well and fill the soda bottles of those waiting in line. A boy approaches a woman who has just received a liter:
-Madam, how much?
– No, love.
-I give you 50,000. (Almost 11 euros, when the liter usually costs 0.4 euros)
-100,000-, insists the young man.
At that moment, a man with a mustache, looking as if he had never broken a plate in his life, crosses in front of the gas station and takes a photograph with his mobile. Immediately those around the well chase him and take his phone from him. The man leaves, resigned.
A few meters up, more confusion. Two armed men chase another down an avenue. Traffic stops. The cars desperately try to turn around. When he is caught, the gunmen talk to him for a few seconds and then let him go. The hunted sighs, pale.
The police, who have reinforced the city with 1,500 more troops, suddenly appear. Another group of looters has just been forcibly dispersed at a central gas station. “We open and serve people. But a man that he wanted more, he got angry and took out an iron (pistol). The firefighter (the employee who fires the fuel) ran far away, ”says one of the workers. Then he was left alone in command of operations. “I told them they couldn’t take that away like that. A little spark that I make there and they all go to shit. They wanted to lynch me, ”he says, still scared.
It begins to get dark. The few who are in the street hurry to get home before dark, when the bulk of the fighting takes place. Hugo and the other young men accompanying him must have already barricaded themselves in the barricades, ready for the sacrifice.
Subscribe here to newsletter from EL PAÍS América and receive all the informative keys of the current situation of the region
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.