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Colombian Slum Dwellers Signal Their Need For Food Aid


COVID-19 deaths are spiking in Latin America, so Colombia is extending its nationwide lockdown until the end of May. Now, that will mean more hardship for poor people who need to work every day to eat. As John Otis reports, some desperate Colombians are sending out an eye-catching SOS.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The mountainside slum of Soacha, just south of Bogota, is home to more than a million people. They work as maids, security guards and bus drivers. Some wash windshields at intersections for spare change. But since Colombia's lockdown began in mid-March, they've been unable to work, and many are going hungry. That would explain all the red banners I saw.

Every house along the street has some kind of a red cloth hanging out a window. In some cases, it's a red jacket and a red pajama top, a red T-shirt or sometimes just a red rag.

These households are part of Soacha's so-called red rag movement. Here's how it works. Needy families tie something red to their doors or windows as a distress signal to their neighbors who may be willing to give them food.

MARIA MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The grateful recipients include Maria Mendoza, who was just scraping by before the pandemic hit by selling magazines and used clothes.

MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She explains, "The neighbors will ask, do you need tomatoes? Take some. Do you need onions? Take the onions."


OTIS: This food exchange was the brainchild of Mayor Juan Carlos Saldarriaga. He himself grew up poor here. He devised the red rag plan as a stopgap as he scrambled to organize food donations after the lockdown. Now, he's handing out bags of rice, lentils and pasta.

SALDARRIAGA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Saldarriaga says free food has been crucial for keeping people home and keeping the COVID-19 death toll in Soacha at just four. But patience is wearing thin.


OTIS: This angry crowd is complaining to the mayor that they haven't received any food. They're also angry that Saldarriaga has imposed some of the tightest local restrictions in Colombia, including a Friday-night-to-Monday-morning curfew.

DIANA MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Diana Munoz, who's itching to get back on the streets to sell roses, says, "I have debts. I have a special needs daughter. I have bills to pay."

MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But there are few hospitals and intensive care beds in Soacha. That's why Saldarriaga is refusing to budge.

SALDARRIAGA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "People tell me, I don't want charity. I want to go back to work," he says, "but that would be like sending them to their deaths." So for now, the mayor is sticking with the curfew and the red rag program.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Soacha, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.