We’ve been meeting on the second floor of a restaurant/pub that overlooks the main square. Sunset is at about 6:15. A lousy pic of marchers (from our usual table) on the first night, earlier in the week, when things first hit the fan in Pasto:
Last night three of us were walking near the square when we heard loud chanting a couple of blocks away. We went to investigate. Our timing was perfect as we got a near- front row seat. A group of protestors was chanting/dancing loudly.
The atmosphere was supercharged. Immediately around them were riot police in body armour tip-to-toe, some with tear gas guns. We were behind them. Behind us, in the intersections were both army troops and police 2-up on motorcycles.
Our local friend, Andres was nervous about our being there and was unhappy with the whole situation. We stood out. In the days we’ve been here we’ve only seen two other gringos in the whole town and on this night none. Andres says we’re a target. He told me not to take any photographs. But I wasn’t going to let the situation we were in pass without record so this is where we were after we had shuffled ourselves to a corner facing the protestors
I suppose we half knew things were going to explode but weren’t sure. After we watched with increasing nervousness for about fifteen minutes the riot police went into some kind of strategic action and started repositioning themselves. Somehow the numbers of people were going up quickly. The police and army around us were doing the same, moving in out of the intersections with urgency as they started blockading the area off. Something was about to happen and we started to slowly move away.
We were only a short block away when explosions started going off. People were yelling and screaming and the police/army went into high speed action all around us. Then the tear gas went off. People went into a panic and started running everywhere. We were determined not to draw more attention to ourselves and at no point in the evening did we panic or run. But we were determined to get the hell away.
Then came the worst moments. Three things happened at once that shook us. Firstly Ben and Maddie, looking left, were shocked as a policeman on the back of a bike rode by fast with a pump action shotgun aiming at the locals immediately around them. Secondly, I was looking right when an explosion went off about 50 feet away in front of us, clearing the block we were on of panicked locals. Lastly, the police/army were blocking the intersections all around us and we were trapped. We had to do a lot of fast moving and hiding to get the hell out, as were the locals around us, as the army and protestors did battle all around us. These few blocks we were in were the epicenter of the battle. Then the army let loose with the tear gas again where we were just 2 minutes earlier. The distance was enough – we were only mildly gassed and now that boxed is ticked in life experiences. More explosions and the sound of total crazyness all around us. The sound was amazing.
Unfortunately someone pointed at us and yelled ‘three gringos!‘. Oh boy, it was time to get out regardless of army blockades, somehow.
We marched by the underground parking lot where the explosion went off and by luck were out of the chaos within another 10 minutes. We headed back to the central park for a much needed drink but all doors were chained closed. We all had lasting impressions, many of them. One that struck me was the sheer speed the army/police moved with. The armed police motorcycle-packs, 2-up with shotguns ready, seemed to move in perfect sync with each other incredibly fast through the small streets. I admired their skill and precision.
This is largely an agricultural issue, the protestors are coming in from the country on motorcycles and buses (they can’t afford cars), so they’re now banned from the town. The other issues, although they are significant and still on the table, have taken a second place to the agricultural issues. It appears that due to government policy for years (free trade etc) the farmers have been squeezed hard to the point that they can’t make money on many crops. There seems to be consensus that they have a strong point. No-one seems to disagree that they can’t compete with American imports. The problem is that everyone else with an axe to grind, including natural agitators and FARC militia, have infiltrated the protests and are using them to create war-like conditions.
The big issue of course is how long this is going to last. None of us have an urgent need to get moving although I’m sure if it’s too much longer we’re going to get a bit crazy. Frustratingly we’re close to the border, Equador is just a 90 minute ride due south. With the airport and roads closed we’ll just sit it out.