BOGOTA – At least 70 people were arrested and 10 were injured as five bus stations were destroyed, others were badly damaged and chaotic traffic jams were widespread in the Colombian capital during protests by thousands of passengers for the poor service of the TransMilenio bus system.
“What began (Friday) as a peaceful protest with speeches and banners berating the deficiencies of TransMilenio, gradually degenerated into acts of vandalism and a shutdown of the system,” said the mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro.
Petro told a press conference that among the injured were three police officers and two youths who were accidentally hit by cars, but none are in serious condition.
He said that of those arrested, 20 were minors, eight of whom have been returned to their parents, and nine are people who remain in custody because of evidence that besides entering bus stations bent on destruction, they stole money from ticket offices.
Meanwhile, district authorities offered a reward of up to 20 million pesos (some $11,400) for anyone providing information leading to the arrest of the vandals who attacked the transport system.
They said that repairing the five bus stations will cost the city more than 1 billion pesos (some $566,600).
At the same time, Petro said that behind the protesters were undoubtedly members of the previous municipal government.
By nightfall, hordes of people who normally take the bus walked home through the streets, for though some bus routes were back to normal, others remained shut down by the blockades.
The protests against Bogota’s articulated buses began at dawn Friday, when hundreds of users, chiefly students, occupied the bus stations and stopped the vehicles from leaving.
Users of the Bogota transport system also blocked several streets in the south and northwest districts of the city.
The protest originated because of rush-hour delays, the cost of tickets, the meager coverage of the routes, the insufficient number of passengers the buses can carry, and the lack of public transport alternatives.
The situation was exploited by some misfits, according to the police, who set about robbing security cameras from the bus stations, stealing money from ticket offices and smashing the buildings’ windows.
Officials said that some 1,200 city cops and anti-riot police were deployed at different points around the capital to defuse the disturbances.
Because of the protests, Petro insisted on the need to “renegotiate the conditions” of TransMilenio’s service and said that people who blockade stations and streets impede any direct agreements being reached with the citizenry.
The left-leaning mayor also charged that behind the incidents of sabotage were the political interests of the Communist Party and the Moir (Independent Revolutionary Workers Movement).
At the same time, Petro ordered the suspension of a measure that keeps cars off the roads on certain days of the week in order to allow thousands of people to use that means of transport.
Meanwhile security personnel arrested a one-time professional soldier who detonated explosives in the vicinity of the Casa de Nariño presidential palace and the National Congress building, but which caused no injuries or material damage.
This incident was not related to the protests against the articulated bus line, but heightened the nervousness and uncertainty among those who work or study in the capital’s downtown area.