A side effect of election results like last night’s is a minor, momentary crisis
of confidence for some on the losing side. When a majority of your fellow citizens
ratifies a foreign policy you strongly oppose, it’s only natural to ask – probably
while lying awake at night – "Am I missing something? How do so many not
see the obvious danger, the likelihood of failure, the need to change course
now? Are they blinded by ignorance, ideology, or propaganda? Or could it be
If that has happened to you, don’t worry. It’s easy to make that flash of doubt
vanish in an instant. All you have to do is read a newspaper, visit some websites,
For example: if you ever have even the faintest feeling that the Bush and Uribe
governments could somehow, possibly, be on the right path, simply scan the
day’s news in Colombia.
One item in this morning’s news did it for me. The IndyMedia Colombia site
had posted an alert
from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) about the disappearance
of Efrén Pascal, a leader of the Awá indigenous group in Nariño
department, in Colombia’s far southwest. Members of the FARC’s 29th Front kidnapped
Pascal, the governor of the Awá nation’s Kuambí Yaslambí
community, from his home in Ricaurte municipality (county) in the middle of
the night on October 24. Even a 250-person delegation organized by the Awá
People’s Indigenous Unity (UNIPA),
the ethnic group’s advocacy organization, was unable to free or find him.
The alert struck a chord because I know some of these people – I paid a visit
to the UNIPA’s headquarters in Ricaurte back in April. While I’ve seen many
examples of the human cost and unintended consequences of Plan Colombia and
the Uribe security policies, the largely unknown situation of the Awá
people is one of the most disturbing and urgent.
Nariño and Ricaurte.
Ricaurte straddles the main road between the city of Pasto and the busy port
of Tumaco, about halfway between the high Andes and the sea. The municipality
is big, stretching all the way to the Ecuadorian border. Indigenous groups,
particularly the Awá, make up 85 percent of the 14,000 people scattered
across Ricaurte’s very rugged terrain. Colombia’s 22,000 Awá people live
in 11 communities, or resguardos, in three municipalities (Ricaurte,
Barbacoas and Nariño). More live across the border in Ecuador. Their
language, Awapit, is still widely spoken, and UNIPA has helped develop an alphabet
to accommodate some of its softly spoken consonants – a project that Mr. Pascal,
the kidnapped governor, helped to spearhead.
Together with colleagues from several Colombian and Ecuadorian human rights
groups, I met and shared lunch with leaders of UNIPA. (I don’t know whether
Mr. Pascal was present; he may have been, as he is a member of the organization’s
board.) The group’s leaders told us this was the first time any human rights
groups had ever visited them.
We apologized for arriving at midday, nearly two hours late. They told us that
it was for the best, since guerrillas and police had been fighting just that
morning at a site about ten minutes away. Ricaurte is a violent place: its position
on the Pasto-Tumaco road places it along a strategic corridor for the movement
of drugs and weapons. All of Colombia’s armed groups are present, and significant
plantings of coca are in the countryside.
The Awapit language.
The spike in violence, the group’s leaders said, is a very new phenomenon.
Their part of Colombia had gone largely untouched by the conflict until very
recently. "This was a tranquil zone," one UNIPA member said. "It
was safe to travel through the countryside. … We had a way of life that was
functioning well, with our language, our traditional medicine, and a tight social
fabric." Though a small ELN presence had established itself in the general
area by about 1995, illegal armed groups were unknown.
Plan Colombia changed all that. In 2000-2001, the United States began
pouring millions of dollars in military hardware, training and herbicide fumigation
into Putumayo, the department about six hours’ drive to the east. Putumayo was
the main focus
of Plan Colombia’s first phase; at the time, it had more coca than any of Colombia’s
other 31 departments. Spray planes and a U.S.-funded army counter-narcotics
battalion fanned throughout Putumayo’s coca fields, destroying the crop. It
did not take long for many Putumayo coca-growers, and the armed groups and narcotraffickers
who buy from them, to pack up and move westward to Nariño, especially
the coastal zone just west of Ricaurte. By 2003, the UN reported (PDF
format), Nariño had replaced Putumayo as the country’s number-one
coca-growing department. As it has done many times since major spraying began
in Colombia about ten years ago, the problem moved to a new zone.
The Awá leaders told us they had never seen coca until Plan Colombia
began pushing it out of Putumayo. People began arriving from Putumayo in 2000-2001
and buying up land, even in the indigenous group’s reserves, offering astronomical
prices. Coca-growing expanded dramatically. In an area where people had traditionally
lived on subsistence agriculture, earning perhaps $1-2 per day on sales of food,
a strange world of brothels and discos sprouted up overnight, particularly in
zones like Llorente in Tumaco municipality to the west.
A view of Ricaurte.
Our UNIPA hosts admitted that some Awá had planted coca too – particularly
younger people tempted by the easy money – but that they only planted tiny amounts,
enough to produce perhaps a few grams of coca paste per harvest. The paste sells
for 2,500 pesos (about $1) per gram, a price that they said had not risen over
the years despite U.S.-led eradication efforts (fumigation, they said, has occurred
in waves arriving about every nine months since 2001).
As Plan Colombia pushed the coca westward into Awá lands, violence quickly
followed. The FARC showed up for the first time in 2000, at about the same time
as the coca. The paramilitaries’ Pacific Bloc was not far behind. Guerrilla
presence and violence grew sharply worse in 2002, as the end of the Pastrana-era
peace process, and the Uribe government’s military offensives elsewhere, pushed
greater numbers of FARC into this more remote zone. The army, which had been
utterly absent for years, established itself in 2003, as part of the Uribe government’s
efforts to secure strategic roads.
The armed groups, competing ruthlessly for drug money and access routes, have
hit the Awá people exceedingly hard. Both the guerrillas and paramilitaries
routinely blockade and displace populations. Dozens of indigenous people have
been killed, both by selective assassination and by getting caught in the crossfire.
Rape is common. Armed groups routinely steal money, livestock, crops, and even
clothing. Blockades have had a devastating effect on a zone where malnutrition
levels are already high; the guerrillas have made it impossible to maintain
flows of food aid from the World Food Program and the Colombian government’s
Social Solidarity Network. In June 2003, the FARC killed an Awá governor
who had tried to facilitate some of these shipments, accusing him of helping
"You are the owners of this land, but we make the rules," a local
FARC leader told UNIPA. The guerrillas prohibit travel after 6:00 PM. Both sides
suspect anyone who travels – even from the rural to the urban part of Ricaurte
– of spying for their opponents. Even a few minutes’ detention and questioning
by the military or paramilitaries may mark one as a sapo (snitch) in
the eyes of the local FARC.
What of the Uribe government’s vaunted Democratic Security policy, which has
sought to protect citizens from this kind of violence through increased military
presence? An Awá leader put it well: the increased presence is "only
good if you happen to live near the highway," where most soldiers and police
are deployed. In fact, the military and police presence in larger towns and
roadsides has served only to push the guerrilla and paramilitary presence farther
into remote, neglected zones like the Awá resguardos, making conditions
For their part, the indigenous leaders said, the army and police themselves
have done little to win the local population’s trust. Residents are treated
as likely terrorists; even wearing rubber mud-boots, carrying more than a little
cash, or lacking an identity card (a cédula, which many indigenous
do not have) may mark one, at a military or police roadblock, as a guerrilla.
Several recent combats between the military and guerrillas have taken place
in small Awá towns, amid a terrified population; in February, as the
denounced, the Colombian air force apparently even bombed an Awá
school in Ricaurte. Meanwhile, nobody we asked could cite an example of soldiers
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, for Ecuador. A fiercely independent and well-organized group, the Awá,
usually through UNIPA, 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.
Awá leaders did not hide their consternation when I told them that my
country’s aid to Colombia was 80 percent military and police assistance. "Plan
Colombia should be all social aid," they said unanimously, as if that were
the most obvious thing in the world.
We still await news on governor Pascal’s whereabouts. Rumors that he had been
killed were proved false earlier this week. The UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights’ Bogotá office has called
on the FARC to release him immediately. ONIC and UNIPA are demanding the same.
Though the guerrillas and paramilitaries have a poor record of responding to
international pressure and outcry, CIP adds its voice to those urgently calling
on the FARC to immediately release Mr. Pascal.
Faced with the overwhelming evidence of places like Ricaurte, and the evident
suffering of the Awá and many others in similar circumstances, we repeat
our calls for an immediate and fundamental reconsideration of U.S. policy toward
Colombia. We fear that too many vulnerable Colombians – who, like the Awá,
have the misfortune of living far from the roads and the towns, and far from
the gatherers of optimistic statistics – are quietly becoming indirect victims
of both Plan Colombia and the Democratic Security policy.
What we have seen in places like Ricaurte makes a crisis of confidence impossible,
no matter what the election results tell us about public opinion in general.
We will stay informed and active in the new political climate, and we hope that
you will too.