Protesters block Pan Am highway near Colombian border, blaming police for the death of a suspected smuggler

Sep 23, 2014

In a scene reminiscent of the pre-Rafael Correa presidency, burning tires, rocks, logs and chanting protesters are blocking the Panamerican Highway between Ibarra and Carchi, just south of the Colombian border.

chl protestResidents of Ecuador’s northern Chota Valley are protesting the death of Milton Chalá, who died last week in prolice custody. Chalá was charged with smuggling goods from Colombia.

Until 2006, the year Correa was elected president, road closures by protests were common in Ecuador, often causing millions of dollars in economic loses and paralyzing major thoroughfares. On some occasions, major cities such as Quito and Cuenca, were only accessible by air until the government reached agreements with protesters. The road closures were associated with the ouster of at least three presidents.

Following his election, Correa said he would not allow road blocks and would not negotiate with protesters. The current shut-down of the Pan American highway is the first in Correa’s presidency.

The closure is delaying thousands of travelers as well as trucks headed for Ecuadorian markets, although lengthy detours are being used in some cases.

Chalá, who was 35, and several others were arrested by police last week and charged with smuggling goods from Colombia. Three vehicles were confiscated at the time of the arrests. Autopsy results show that Chalá died from a blow to the head.

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The governor of  Carchi Province and Deputy Minister of the Interior Carina Arguello are talking to protesters, who are mostly of African descent, and say they hope to reach an agreement soon to reopen the highway.

Meanwhile, passengers of interprovincial buses are forced to deboard on one side of the blockage and take buses parked on the other side. Hundreds of others in vehicles are simply stranded.

Photo caption: Protesters on the Pam Am highway near Colombia.

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