Out of work and hungry, Colombians protest during Covid-19 lockdown

Screengrabs of the video (below), which was filmed in Medellin, Colombia in mid-April.
Screengrabs of the video (below), which was filmed in Medellin, Colombia in mid-April.

Hungry Colombians have been spilling into the streets, calling on the government to provide more food aid and defying stay-at-home orders that have been in place since 25 March in an effort to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Some even attempted to loot vehicles transporting food and other essential goods. It’s a sign of a growing crisis in Colombia, where many people who usually work in the informal sector are running out of food and money under lockdown.

The Colombian capital, Bogota, was put on lockdown on 20 March while the rest of the country followed suit on 25 March. Since then, Colombians have been banned from leaving their homes, except to get food, go to the bank or for medical reasons.

On 24 March, street vendors and other people who work in the informal sector, many of whom are Venezuelan, started gathering in the main square in Bogota, calling on the government to provide financial support to those unable to work because of the pandemic. In Colombia, around half of the population works in the informal sector.

Following the initial protest, other small demonstrations calling for increased government support started to pop up across Colombia. These protests have been gaining momentum in recent days, especially in the poorest and hardest-hit neighbourhoods in Bogota, Medellin and Cali. According to reports by local media and posts on social media, authorities haven’t distributed any food at all in some of these neighbourhoods. And even when they do, families say it isn’t enough.

In this video filmed in Bogota, people call out “We’re hungry!” and ask where the authorities are.

Last week, people in some of the most economically deprived neighbourhoods in Medellin actually started looting vehicles carrying food and essential goods that the city was trying to distribute to vulnerable populations. The video (below) shows the looting underway.

This video was filmed in the Olaya Herrera neighbourhood in Medellin’s commune 7. “How awful, they are stealing groceries,” one woman says. “They aren’t waiting, they aren’t waiting in line.”

The video below shows people stopping a truck in the middle of the street in Medellin. They open the doors before letting the truck drive on. There is no indication that they stole any of the goods the truck was transporting, however.

This video was filmed in Medellin, on the road that leads towards the Western tunnel.

"People are taking to the streets because they are hungry"

Twenty-five-year-old Jonier Quiceno Ceballos is a community organiser in the Altavista neighbourhood in Medellin’s commune 16.  There was a protest in his neighbourhood on 16 April.


Around 7pm, people started banging pots and pans in their homes [Editor’s note: a type of protest often referred to in Spanish as a 'cacerolazo' or in French as a 'casserole']. Then people started spilling into the streets, still banging pots and pans and bin lids. A group of demonstrators made a fire out of tyres, wood and cardboard. Lots of people came out to see it. There were maybe around 200 or 300 people outside, including women with babies, children and the elderly. Hardly anyone was wearing a mask.

Ceballos filmed this video in El Concejo, which is in the Altavista neighborhood in Medellin’s commune 16 on 16 April.

The police came to put out the fire. At first, they were trying to hand out fines but there were just too many people gathered there. The police and locals started talking to one another and they had a conversation for a good 15 or 20 minutes. By the end of it, police promised that the neighbourhood would be a priority for food aid.


"I’d say that only about 50% of residents are respecting stay-at-home orders”


There have been regular pot and pan concerts taking place in the neighbourhood since lockdown began. People have protested in the past, too, but there’s never been such a big turnout.

People are going out into the streets because they are hungry. A lot of them haven’t been able to work for a month or more. Around 60 to 70% of people in this neighbourhood work in the informal sector -- this includes street vendors, sex workers and cobblers to name a few.

I’d say that only about 50% of residents are respecting the lockdown. Others are going out to earn a bit of money because, otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to survive.


"If people have a bit of money, then they buy food not masks” 

There’s a megaphone right by where people lit the fire on 16 April. It broadcasts messages from the city authorities every hour, telling people to make sure that they are eating correctly, washing their hands and wearing masks.

So I think what people wanted to express by using that location was, "We want help and not advice!” If people are starving and they have a bit of money, then they are obviously going to go and buy rice, bananas or tomatoes and not masks.


This megaphone is used to broadcast messages from the city on how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in El Concejo, located in the Altavista neighborhood in Medellin’s commune 16. (Ceballos filmed this video)


The day after the protests, city workers came and handed out chicken to people in the neighbourhood, but the portions were really small. Still, it was the first time in the past month that anyone here had received anything from the authorities. I think that if people don’t get more aid, then they will just keep protesting and the protests will grow.


"The red cloth hanging up in people’s windows mean ‘We don’t have enough to eat in this house’”

All around the neighbourhood, you’ll see pieces of red cloth hanging up in people’s windows. That means they don’t have anything to eat. We started to see them appear about two weeks after the lockdown went into effect. In some neighbourhoods in Medellin, they are hanging in almost every window [Editor’s note: These pieces of red cloth, which people hang from their windows or doors during protests, are becoming more and more widespread across the country.]

In early April, Ceballos started raising money to buy essential goods for the most vulnerable people in his neighbourhood. He has collected donations from both individuals and foundations.

This shows a pot and pan concert and red cloth hanging up in people’s windows in the Altos de la Torre neighbourhood in Villa Hermosa in Medellin’s commune 8.


This video shows a pot and pan concert and red cloth hanging up in people’s windows in the centre of Medellin on 17 April. A sign hanging up in one window reads, “We don’t have coronavirus nor essential goods here. There are 38 of us living here.” This video was filmed by Melissa Toro from the Putamente Poderosas collective.

According to recent official figures, there have been over 4,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and over 200 deaths in Colombia, which has a population of around 50 million. The country is meant to be under lockdown until at least 11 May.


Article written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).