Colombian Police Battle Demonstrators as Farm Protests Spread

Colombian police fired tear gas at demonstrators in Bogota today as students and other groups joined anti-government protests by farmers and truck drivers.

Public schools closed in the capital and some bus routes stopped operating. The army was deployed to keep order in the Ciudad Bolivar district of southern Bogota, where city authorities last night imposed a curfew in response to what they called “vandalism.”

“We’ve mobilized the army, which we normally don’t do, to Ciudad Bolivar,” Bogota government secretary Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo said in an interview on Blu Radio. “With a demonstration as large as this one, coming from different points in Bogota, and in a city this big, the police presence feels diminished.”

Coffee growers, dairy farmers and other producers have been protesting and blocking highways since Aug. 19 over the farm and trade policies of the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. A free trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. took effect last year. The protestors have been joined by truckers angered by high fuel costs.

Colombia is passing through a “storm,” Santos said in a speech on state television today, adding that the government will control prices of fertilizers and pesticides to help farmers. Government officials are meeting with farmers in the city of Tunja in Boyaca province today, to try to reach a deal to end the protests.

Potato prices in Bogota’s wholesale markets have risen 65 percent since the protests started, according to national statistics agency, while other fruit and vegetable prices also jumped. Banco de Bogota, Colombia’s second-biggest bank by loans, raised its forecast for August inflation by 0.07 percentage point to 0.14 percent in response to the protests.

Food has a 28 percent weighting in Colombia’s consumer price index. The demonstrations will curb third quarter economic growth by hitting consumer confidence, Banco de Bogota’s chief economist Camilo Perez said in a phone interview.

The central bank last month cut its forecast for 2013 gross domestic product growth to 4 percent, from 4.3 percent.

The peso depreciated 0.1 percent to 1941.31 per U.S. dollar today, its weakest level since December 2011.

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