Aug 26

Colombia’s National Organization of Indigenous People (ONIC) is reporting that several members of the Awá indigenous community have been massacred by an unidentified armed group in the municipality of Tumaco, near the Pacific coast in the southwestern department of Nariño. The death toll, estimated in the first communique at eight, has been revised upward to 12, five of them children.

On February 4 of this year, over 20 Awá people were massacred in the municipality of Barbacoas, Nariño. The crime was attributed to the FARC, which claimed responsibility for eight of the killings.

ONIC reports:

Today, August 26, 2009, at 5:00 AM a new massacre took place in the Awá indigenous community. The acts occurred in the Gran Rosario indigenous reserve, in Tumaco municipality.

According to information received, men dressed in military uniforms, without insignia and wearing masks, fired indiscriminately at the house of an Awá family. As a consequence of this macabre act, approximately eight members of the Awá people were murdered. According to information received, three children ages 1, 8 and 10 are dead. Mrs. Tulia García and her two children were killed. She was a witness to the death of her husband, Mr. Gonzalo Rodríguez, on May 23, 2009, who it seems was killed by the army.

Feb 11

Location of the massacre.

We condemn the FARC guerrillas, in the strongest terms, for massacring as many as eighteen members of the Awá indigenous community in a remote zone in the department of Nariño, in southwestern Colombia. If the group’s leadership had sought to generate goodwill with last week’s unilateral hostage releases, reports of the Nariño killings has undone that entire effort.

The atrocity took place on February 4, when “the Farc detained a group of indigenous families and accused them of collaborating with the army,” according to Nariño’s governor, Antonio Navarro, a prominent leftist politician who was a top leader of the M-19 guerrilla insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s. “One of the young men escaped and has said that they had been tied up and beaten and that they were killing them with knives.”

The victims are members of a badly battered indigenous ethnicity that has been struggling for survival. The Awá were the subject of one of the first posts ever to appear on this blog, in November 2004. We wrote then:

After four years of Plan Colombia and two years of Democratic Security – two strategies that have pushed drugs and violence from other zones to their once-peaceful lands – the Awá people are reeling. Many are displacing, leaving for Pasto [Nariño's capital], for Ecuador. A fiercely independent and well-organized group, the Awá, usually through UNIPA [the Awá People’s Indigenous Unity organization], have repeatedly sought to denounce abuses and plead for help before various Colombian government institutions, with almost no response. The government’s  non-miltary presence in rural Ricaurte remains virtually nil.

Here is a translation of the declaration released last night by the UNIPA and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).

UNIPA and ONIC Denounce Massacre Committed by the FARC Against Members of the Tortuga̱a Telembi Indigenous Reserve in Barbacoas РNari̱o.

  • We call on an integral humanitarian Minga [joining of forces] to enter the massacre site.
  • A humanitarian plan consulted with the participation of the Awá authorities.
  • That the state, the government and the FARC Secratariat make clear their positions.

The Awá People’s Indigenous Unity UNIPA and the ONIC make clear that the serious situation of violations of human rights, of IHL and of the Nariño Awá people’s collective rights is not new; evidence of that are the following facts:

The social, cultural and organizational dynamic of the Awá people was altered with the insurgent armed groups’ [guerrillas'] arrival at the end of the 1990s, when in their haste to impose their armed political project they have committed various violations of our political and territorial autonomy and against human rights. This situation became much more serious with the appearance of paramilitary groups and their actions in favor of economic interests.

It is important to highlight that the growing militarization of our territories in the development of the Democratic Security policy has also made the communities’ situation complex, since the illegal armed groups accuse them [the communities] of being the facilitators of the military’s entry into the territories, and because members of the Army commit human rights violations and IHL infractions, violations of ILO Convention 169, and the directives of the Ministry of Defense.

In the last 10 years, as a consequence of the armed conflict, there have been 5 massive displacements, continuous individual displacements into and out of our territory, cross-border migration, 4 massacres, approximately 200 murders, 50 affected by landmines, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, accusations of helping armed groups, threats, forced recruitment, blockades of food and medicine, utilization of civilian facilities for military purposes, and pressure on civilians to serve as informants.

All of this has been the subject of permanent denunciation at the national and international level, to such an extent that in 2008 the Ombudsman’s Office [Defensoría del Pueblo] issued Defensorial Resolution 53 demonstrating the seriousness of the Awá people’s situation and proposing a series of recommendations for the State to guarantee this people’s protection, but to date effective measures have not been taken.

Starting in 2008, paramilitary groups’ presence was reactivated in the region, the insurgency’s actions radicalized, and the state’s militarization increased, bringing as a consequence an increase in human rights violations and a deepening of the humanitarian crisis in all of the Awá territory.

With regard to the acts that are the subject of this denunciation, we highlight:

Starting on February 1, the presence of the Army (Cabal [cavalry?] Group, “Mártires de Puerres” Battalion of the 29th Brigade, part of the 3rd Division) was registered in the rural villages of Volteadero and Bravo in the Tortugaña Telembí Reserve (Barbacoas municipality). They abusively entered people’s homes and, through various mistreatments, obligated members of the community to give information about the location of the FARC-EP guerrillas, exposing the community to a situation of powerlessness and fear.

On February 4, armed men with FARC insignia rounded up 20 people (men, women and children), who were tied up and led away to a stream called El Hojal, in the El Bravo community,  and they were observed killing some people with knives. Acording to information from the community, these same men returned the next day for the children who remained in the houses, and we don’t know what became of them. Members of the communities inform us that this FARC action was taken in retaliation for soldiers having occupied the indigenous people’s houses, and because they offered collaboration [information about the guerrillas' activities and location].

According to information from the reservation’s communities, on February 5 at 4:00 in the afternoon there was combat between the guerrillas and the Army, during which the latter carried out a bombing between Bravo and the Sabaleta hill, generating great fear in the communities.

On February 6 at 5:00 PM, there was more combat between the Army and the FARC, which began again on the 7th. As a result of all of this, several families have displaced into the interior of the territory and towards Samaniego, Buenavista (Barbacoas), and Planadas Telembí, despite the presence of anti-personnel mines planted by the guerrillas along the different access roads. Meanwhile about 1,300 people are in a situation of confinement, suffering hunger and sickness with a serious impact on the population of children.


We demand that all armed groups respect the lives and rights of Colombia’s indigenous people and that they let us live in peace like before, that they don’t involve us in a war that is not ours and which we don’t support.

That the FARC Secretariat, the commanders of the 29th Front and the Mariscal Sucre column pronounce, before the national and international community, about their resonsibility for these crimes, that they respect the territorial and political autonomy of the Awá people, that they stop mining our territories and that they stop involving indigenous communities in a war that does not belong to them.

That the FARC, if it is holding people, release them immediately and unconditionally.

That the Ministry of Interior and Justice take the measures necessary to clarify what happened as soon as possible.

That the national government, the state and all its institutions recognize the  vulnerability of the Awá people as expressed in Defensorial Resolution 53 of June 5, 2008, and that they completely follow each one of its recommendations.

That the Presidency’s Office of Social Action and the Ministry of Interior implement an ethnic safeguard plan for the Awá indigenous nation, respecting the right to prior consultation in accord with finding 004 of the Constitutional Court.

That the National Army, in the development of its operations, observe strict compliance with human rights and IHL norms, as well as the Defense Ministry’s directives with regard to intervention in indigenous territories.

We call on the United Nations, human rights organizations, social organizations, state institutions, international NGOs, oversight bodies and indigenous organizations to accompany us in the development of an INTEGRAL HUMANITARIAN MINGA [joining of forces] to verify what occurred, and to save the lives of our indigenous brothers at risk.

That the Inspector-General of the Nation [Procuraduría] follow up with each institution to ensure that they are fulfilling the responsibilities that correspond to them.

Jan 09

Location of Atánquez, site of the New Year’s Eve attack. Map from Wikipedia.

Here is a translation of Cambio magazine’s coverage Thursday of what appears to have been a serious December 31 attack on an indigenous community in Atánquez, in the municpality of Valledupar, in the northeastern Colombian department of Cesar. There, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, a grenade explosion at a New Year celebration killed five members of the Kankuamo indigenous group, a community that had already been hit extremely hard by the conflict.

Increasingly likely that emerging criminal groups carried out the attack in Atánquez

On Monday, January 5, Erika Fuentes, an 18-year-old Kankuama indigenous woman, became the fifth fatal victim of the grenade explosion that, on New Year’s night, stained with blood the celebration of an “open house and yard,” which is the name that the community of Atánquez, in Cesar, gives to its popular dances that are open to outsiders. The attack left an additional 67 people wounded.

Amid the pain the act produced, the young girl’s relatives heard the ultimatum that the mayor of Valledupar, Rubén Carvajal, gave the authorities. “The municipal government gives a period of 40 days for the authorities to tell the Kankuamo people who were those responsible for the possible massacre that occurred in their territory.”

“40 days could be a century for us,” replied Jaime Arias, governor of the Kankuamo cabildo. And he announced that he will employ the autonomy that the Constitution recognizes for indigenous communities to carry out an “agile, independent and conclusive” investigation of their own. His urgent haste owes to the fear generated by the possibility that the December 31 tragedy could be a signal that violence has returned to the indigenous territory most battered by the paramilitaries during the time of [AUC Northern Bloc leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias] “Jorge 40.”

And while Arias told Cambio that it is still premature to talk about a return of the massacres, and that it is fair to recognize that the AUC demobilization has so far had a positive effect, the fear has deep historial roots. “We don’t want a history of blood and pain to be revived,” he affirmed, and with statistics in hand he recalled that 300 Kankuamos have been murdered since 1986 by extremist groups, in some cases allied with the security forces. That violence, which he characterizes as “systematic,” reached its highest crest between 2000 and 2003, when 90 members of this ethnic group met with death.

The state’s apparent indifference about what happened in Atánquez, the center of one of the most important indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, led the Inter-American Human Rights Court to order the adoption of provisional protective measures because, in its judgment, the Kankuamo people were victims of an ethnocide. The decision came before the 2005 paramilitary demobilization, in the face of the government’s delay in implementing the precautionary measures the [Inter-American Human Rights] Commission had requested.

The year-end tragedy happened days after the government requested that said Court lift the precautionary measures.

According to the Cesar governor’s office and sources in the Army and Police, in the region are emerging criminal groups who are trying to occupy the spaces left behind by the demobilized, and during October and November 2008 pamphlets circulated in Valledupar from a group calling itself the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups of Colombia.” According to the intelligence services, this was a small group within the criminal organization of [fugitive narcotrafficker and backer of new paramilitary groups Daniel Rendón, alias] “Don Mario.”

Everything indicates that the emerging groups are seeking in Kankuamo territory the same thing as the paramiitaries who came before them: territorial control in a region where the central government expects to build the Besotes dam, in the Guatapurí River basin, and the promotion of development projects that especially favor growers of industrial oil palm.

Dec 18

Communiqué from the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), Cauca, Colombia, December 16

At 4:00 this morning, troops from the National Army fired without pity upon a CRIC pickup truck, a vehicle that had been on a medical mission to the municipality of Inzá Tierradentro, driven by Edwin Legarda Vásquez, husband of the Chief Counselor of the CRIC, Aide Quilcué. Legarda was hit by two bullets, one on the right side of his chest, and he died at 8:00 AM in Popayán’s San José Hospital.

The CRIC vehicle, which is widely known because of frequent travels on this road, was attacked on three sides and had 17 rifle impacts, in a clear act of war on the part of the Colombian Army against the civilian population and, especially, against indigenous people. …

The CRIC Counselor, upon analyzing the circumstances of her husband’s assassination, has denounced this deed as a premeditated act in which she was the real target. Aida Quilcué has received multiple threats, and her risk increased after having made national and international denunciations [including in Geneva the previous week] about violence against indigenous people, and murders committed during the National Minga [indigenous protests that began in Cauca in October].

Statement from the Colombian Defense Ministry, December 17

The minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, denied that the death of indigenous person Edwin Legarda, husband of indigenous leader Aida Quilque [sic.], could have been premeditated, and expressed his conviction that it was an error committed by the troops, whose circumstnaces must be clarified by competent authorities.

“We have to clarify what happened, whether there was an excess of force or an irresponsible act, but I can assure you that the rumors about a premeditated action have neither feet nor a head,” the minister insisted, while affirming that the soldiers themselves reported the act.

Santos announced that personnel from the Army Inspector-General and from the 3rd Division had arrived at the scene of the act, and reiterated that he has asked the Prosecutor-General [Fiscalía], the Inspector-General [Procuraduría] and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to carry out the investigation to determine responsibilities.

Meanwhile he said that if punishments are established, they will be rigorously applied. “If this is the case we are willing to offer reparations to everyone,” the minister emphasized.

Finally, he said that there are no orders to shoot at vehicles at roadblocks and, to the contrary, there are established procedures for these cases. “If someone did not follow them he will be punished, that is not the policy.”

We join dozens of Colombian and international groups in condemning the killing of Edwin Legarda, and share our sorrow with Ms. Quilcué, her family and colleagues. Ms. Quilcué’s role as an outspoken human rights defender, and the unusual nature of the attack, certainly arouse suspicions of foul play. We strongly hope that Minister Santos’ words above mean that the investigation and prosecution of this incident will pass to Colombia’s civilian justice system. 

Oct 14

Thousands of indigenous activists gathered yesterday for a protest in northern Cauca department, part of a nationwide day of indigenous mobilizations to commemorate what we in the United States call “Columbus Day.”

By several accounts, as the protests – and accompanying road blockages – entered a second day, the Colombian government has begun responding violently.

The worst case appears to be in La María, in the municipality of Piendamó, in Cauca department. Information received so far has been sketchy, but the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC) reports that Colombian security forces have fired into a crowd, wounding as many as twenty-five people, some very seriously.

It is unclear what is going on, but our inbox is filling up with alerts. A main source of information, the website of the Indigenous Cabildos of Northern Cauca (ACIN), has been down – and reportedly blocked – since late this morning.

We are monitoring the websites of the CRIC, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), and the Colombia Indymedia page.

Meanwhile El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper, has nothing about the events in Cauca. Instead, its website is featuring soccer news on its front page, along with an article exhorting readers to wash their hands before eating, and an article about a man in Florida who tried to pay for his food with marijuana.

Update 7:20 PM: El Tiempo is now running an EFE story giving a figure of 30 wounded.

Updates 11:30 AM 10/15: The situation looks pretty bad. “Violent assault on indigenous people in La María – Piendamó,” reads a bulletin posted this morning to the CRIC website:

On October 15 at 5:30 AM, the Army, Police and ESMAD (the National Police’s feared Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron) are violently evicting the indigenous comuneros who had been peacefully waiting in La María for the government to meet with them.

The security forces entered shooting with long-range weapons, and there are already three people seriously wounded. The military forces have already entered the territory of dialogue and negotiation.

It is urgently requested that international organizations work to slow this violence. And that the indigenous communities reinforce the personnel who are being attacked.

It is urgent, compañeros, so far there are 39 wounded since yesterday, one dead and more arriving at the health posts, there is fear for disappeared people, since there are armed civilians surrounding La María.

There is official knowledge on the part of the High Council of the CRIC, the the ESMAD killed, with a machete, an indigenous comunero and left his body on the side of the bridge … also an ambulance carrying several of those afected has been kept from arriving at the health post. The indigenous people are bing chased through the nearby coffee fields by the security forces who are using rifles. This constitutes a SERIOUS HUMAN RIGHTS AND INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW VIOLATION.

Apr 28

The Nukak Makú are an indigenous group of perhaps 600 nomadic hunter-gatherers who were first “contacted” by the outside world in 1988. Deep in the jungles of eastern Guaviare department, they have their own language and intricate set of customs. The men hunt monkeys and other prey with blowguns, the women weave intricate armbands and baskets. They have only a rudimentary knowledge of agriculture.

The Nukak somehow missed out on the Spanish conquest and all that came after it. This has meant no access to even the most basic technology – not even light bulbs or radios – and no knowledge of what the rest of Homo sapiens has gone through. (Imagine gazing upon the moon and not knowing that people had been there.)

On the other hand, it also meant no enslavement, no theft of their lands, and no involvement in the frequent armed conflicts that have marked Colombia’s history. But their luck is quickly running out.

Increased contact with the outside world has meant death by unfamiliar diseases for perhaps half the Nukak since the early 1990s. It has meant murder at the hands of landowners on whose property Nukak hunters have unwittingly strayed. It has meant coca growers encroaching on the land that the Colombian government “reserved” for the Nukak, cutting down old-growth rainforest in order to grow the lucrative crop used to make cocaine.

And now, perhaps inevitably, it has meant combat between the military and the FARC guerrillas in the territory where the Nukak Makú have ranged for generations. Many of the remaining Nukak, a peaceful people, have fled.

Now about sixty are in a settlement about ten minutes’ drive outside San José del Guaviare, a patch of land called Aguabonita that is the property of the mayor’s office. A shifting, leaderless group of displaced Nukak (they go in and out of the jungle, and in and out of the town of San José) has been in Aguabonita since 2006.

Journalist Juan Forero, then writing for the New York Times, visited the site in 2006, shortly after their arrival. He compared them to a second group of Nukak that had previously arrived at a settlement in Barrancón, to the east of San José del Guaviare.

What everyone agrees on is that the Nukak of Aguabonita must avoid the fate of the Nukak who came here in 2003 and now live in a clearing called Barrancón.

Now in their fourth year in the area, the Nukak in Barrancón lead listless lives, lolling in their hammocks awaiting food from the state. They do not work, nor have they learned Spanish. They also have no plans to return to the forest.

That, unfortunately, is a fair description of what I saw in Aguabonita in April 2008.

After driving through an expanse of cattle ranches, one arrives at a stand of trees, which opens up into a clearing of perhaps an acre. The ground is well-worn dirt, and dust coats everything. The Nukak live in a cluster of six or seven open-sided thatch-roofed huts strung with hammocks, an arrangement similar to what they would have in the middle of the jungle.

In the huts, cooking fires are always burning; instead of set mealtimes, a Nukak eats small amounts all day long. As hunter-gatherers, they do not work if food stocks are sufficient; they spend much of the hot day reclining in hammocks. Donated food supplies – most bearing the seal of the Colombian Presidency’s “Social Action” office, some with the USAID logo – are stacked overhead, on planks laid just below each hut’s roof. Despite the food deliveries, I saw at least two children with the light hair and swollen bellies typical of severe malnutrition.

(This basket, I was told, holds aid items for which the Nukak have no use, like lentils, pasta and toothpaste.)

When they want something other than the donated food, Nukak go back into the jungle to hunt. Monkeys in particular are a preferred food. When a hunter kills a monkey carrying offspring, the baby monkey is kept as a pet. Several young monkeys were living alongside the Nukak at Aguabonita, some adopted by children on whose shoulders they inseparably sat. Monkey and child even eat from the same bowl.

Though it was hard to get definitive information from a few linguistically difficult conversations, I gathered that the violence the Nukak have suffered has been principally at the hands of guerrillas. As “Plan Patriota” and similar military offensives have brought periodic sweeps into increasingly remote parts of Guaviare, the FARC, fleeing frontal combat, has moved into the Nukak Makú reserve.

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