Troops and police patrol Bogota as uneasy calm returns

Bogota (AFP) –


Police and soldiers patrolled the streets of Bogota on Saturday following a rare overnight curfew imposed after massive protests against President Ivan Duque turned at times to violence.

In armored vehicles, on motorcycles, in helicopters or on foot, some 13,000 soldiers and riot police kept watch over sensitive neighborhoods in the city of seven million, where violence and looting had led to about 300 arrests.

"These patrols are necessary and ensure tranquility," said Duque, the target of protests Thursday by hundreds of thousands of Colombians.

He did not say how long the armed patrols would continue.

Bogota, known for its mammoth traffic jams and the constant rumble of trucks and cars, was gradually returning to normal Saturday.

It had taken on the feel of a ghost town overnight, subjected to a near-total curfew.

- 'A minority of delinquents' -

Cleaning crews had their work cut out for them, sweeping up broken glass, debris and the charred residue of fires set by demonstrators, who Mayor Enrique Penalosa insisted were only a "minority of delinquents."

He suggested that unspecified "high-level organizations" were seeking to destabilize the country, adding, "This is not about young people carrying out spontaneous demonstrations."

Late Friday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo announced that "acts of vandalism" had been brought under control and that the curfew was being respected in 90 percent of the city -- which last experienced such emergency measures in 1977.

More than 330 arrests were reported overnight, mainly for violating the curfew, which was also enforced in Cali, the country's third-largest city and also the scene of protests.

In the capital, hundreds of people defied the curfew to converge before Duque's home, singing the national anthem and banging pots and pans in a clamorous protest known as a "cacerolazo." They eventually dispersed.

Shops and businesses had closed early, some after protecting storefront windows with plywood or metal grills.

But universities remained open to shelter students unable to return home after transit services were suspended.

The violent protests had no clearly identifiable leaders.

Penalosa denied that the worst violence was linked to the anti-Duque protests.

"This is not a strike, or a democratic march, or a 'cacerolazo,'" he said. "We're confronted with a minority of delinquents who are destroying the city."

The protests Thursday, involving hundreds of thousands of Colombians, were mostly peaceful.

But subsequent clashes between civilians and riot police left at least three people dead and more than 270 wounded.

- 'Not acts of protest' -

Hugo Acero, a security expert, said the looting and vandalism were "not acts of social protest."

Scattered demonstrations Friday were mostly peaceful.

"This morning things are calm again," 35-year-old street vendor Ana Belen Cuellar told AFP, "whereas last night it was unbearable... it was frightening."

Nervous residents armed themselves with clubs and knives as reports -- some groundless -- spread of hooded individuals breaking into homes or stores.

Sporting events were postponed or canceled, and many flights into Bogota's international airport were delayed.

Before the outbreak of protests, Duque had warned that Colombia could be shaken by upheavals like those roiling Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, and he expelled 24 Venezuelans he said were trying to promote unrest.

Viewed unfavorably by seven in 10 Colombians, according to polls, Duque has vowed to open a "national conversation" next week in response to the unrest.

Protesters are demanding, among other things, a crackdown on narco-trafficking and violence, more flexible labor market conditions and improved retirement benefits.