Colombian Slum Residents Show Their Need for Food Aid: NPR | Instant News

When the locking up of the coronavirus drained their already small incomes, slum dwellers in Soacha, Colombia, hung red flags outside their homes to signal their need for food aid shipments.


Deaths of COVID-19 surged in Latin America, so that Colombia extended national lockdown until the end of May. Now, that means more difficulties for the poor who need to work every day to eat. As John Otis reports, several desperate Colombians sent out SOS which attracted attention.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Slums in the mountains of Soacha, just south of Bogota, are home to more than one million people. They work as waiters, security guards and bus drivers. Some wash the windshield at the intersection for backup replacement. But since the Colombian lockdown began in mid-March, they have been unable to work, and many have starved. That would explain all the red banners that I saw.

Every house along the road had some kind of red cloth hanging outside the window. In some cases, it is a red jacket and a red pajama top, a red T-shirt or sometimes just a red cloth.

This household is part of what is called the Soacha red cloth movement. This is how it works. Needy families tie something red to their door or window as a sign of danger to their neighbors who might be willing to give them food.


OTIS: Grateful recipients include Maria Mendoza, who just scavenged before the pandemic hit selling magazines and used clothing.

MENDOZA: (speaks Spanish).

OTIS: He explained, “The neighbors will ask, do you need tomatoes? Take some. Do you need onions? Take onions.”


OTIS: This food exchange was the brainchild of Mayor Juan Carlos Saldarriaga. He himself grew poor here. He devised a red cloth plan as a temporary replacement when he hurried to arrange food donations after the lock. Now, he distributes a bag of rice, lentils and pasta.

SALDARRIAGA: (Speak Spanish).

OTIS: Saldarriaga says free food is very important to keep people at home and keep the COVID-19 mortality rate in Soacha at only four. But patience is getting thinner.


OTIS: This angry crowd complained to the mayor that they had not received food. They were also angry that Saldarriaga had imposed some of the most stringent local restrictions in Colombia, including Friday night-to-Monday-morning curfews.

DIANA MUNOZ: (speaks Spanish).

OTIS: Diana Munoz, who wants to return to the street to sell roses, said, “I have a debt. I have a daughter with special needs. I have to pay the bills.”

MUNOZ: (speaks Spanish).

OTIS: But there are hospitals and intensive care in Soacha. That’s why Saldarriaga refused to budge.

SALDARRIAGA: (Speak Spanish).

OTIS: “People tell me, I don’t want charity. I want to go back to work,” he said, “but it’s like sending them to death.” So for now, the mayor survives with a curfew and a red fabric program.

For NPR News, I’m John Otis in Soacha, Colombia.

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