(This is the first posting from the CIP Colombia Program’s summer intern, Marcela Guerrero.)
The Paez indigenous community of northern Cauca department, in southwestern Colombia, is under fire from both the FARC and the government. While the former has continously attacked their principal towns since April 14, the latter accuses them of complicity with guerrillas and has begun a campaign of mass arrests. The 85,000-member community, known in its own language as the Nasa, is divided into 13 reservations and 2 civilian communities (individually or collectively owned lands not considered reservations) located in seven municipalities (counties) of northern Cauca (JambalÃ³, ToribÃo, Caloto, Santander de Quilichao, Buenos Aires, Corinto and Miranda). They elect their own leaders and have gained several mayoral posts in nearby towns. They govern according to â€œLife Projectsâ€ (Proyectos de Vida), which encompass development through participatory governance, agriculture and small enterprises. Their political and judicial procedures involve public assemblies and other participatory bodies. As northern Cauca has been a conflictive zone for decades, the community has sought to secure itself through a non-violent model rooted in centuries-old tradition: an â€œindigenous guardâ€ of about 9,000 members (3,200 in northern Cauca), armed only with symbolic ceremonial staffs, that has successfully confronted armed groupsâ€™ harassment and incursions. This peaceful approach has brought national and international recognition to the Nasa and has won them the Equator Prize from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and two national peace prizes.
Indigenous people throughout Colombia have been particularly vulnerable to the conflict. Many of their leaders have been threatened and killed, their communities have been displaced and their declared position of neutrality has not been respected by either the government or armed groups. Nevertheless, the Nasa continue to demonstrate strong cohesion and resilience. Committed to a non-violent strategy, the Nasa have mobilized thousands of people to demonstrate against the conflict, human rights violations, free trade agreements with the U.S., and on September 7th of last year, to confront the FARC and successfully rescue some of their leaders who had been kidnapped.
The latest events began to unfold on April 14 when several hundred guerrillas from the FARCâ€™s 6th Front and Jacobo Arenas Column attacked ToribÃo, a Nasa town of about 3,500 people. The guerrillas indiscriminately rained homemade gas-cylinder bombs on the town, damaging the police station that the Uribe government had installed, but also destroying a hospital and dozens of houses. Fighting between the FARC and government forces displaced approximately 6,000 people. As fighting continued in and around ToribÃo, the FARC attacked the nearby town of JambalÃ³ on April 21st, and more people were displaced.
These events worsened a strained relationship between the Nasa and the Uribe government. Uribe refuses to accept the groupâ€™s desire to exclude all armed actors, including government forces, from its communities. In 2003, the government â€“ which has made a great effort to place at least a small police presence in all of Colombiaâ€™s 1,092 municipalities â€“ installed a police station, surrounded by sandbags, right in the middle of the townâ€™s population center despite residentsâ€™ strong protests that the town would attract attacks. As predicted, the FARC attacked and troops were sent in to reinforce the police; however, it took a couple of weeks to get the FARC out of the town centers of ToribÃo, JambalÃ³ and TacueyÃ³. These are not only the longest confrontations in many years, since the FARC usually attacks and quickly retreats, but they show that the Uribe government â€“ which has made a big show out of installing police in all municipalities â€“ was not prepared to defend these police, and the towns in which they were stationed, in the event of a concerted guerrilla attack.Arriving by helicopter, President Uribe paid a brief visit to ToribÃo on April 15, in which he called the FARC â€œcowards,â€ pledged to keep the security forces in the town, and sought to rally community support for his strategy. On April 30, Uribe presided over a community council meeting in Santander de Quilichao (Cauca); however, his words were not well received and the meeting ended as indigenous leaders got up and left the room.
While finding themselves caught in the middle of FARC attacks, the Nasa are now also subject to government accusations that some community members collaborated with the FARC. On May 22, the director of the DAS (Colombiaâ€™s equivalent of the FBI), Hector OrtÃz, told MedellÃnâ€™s El Colombiano that â€œwe will prove that there are indeed indigenous people involved with subversive groups as militants, informants and combatants.â€ These allegations followed earlier statements by Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, who affirmed that the attack in ToribÃo was facilitated by indigenous residents, and by Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who publicly questioned the neutraility of both the Nasa and the peace community of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³, which also seeks to exclude all armed actors.
A campaign of massive arrests ensued. On May 19, the indigenous leadership issued a statement denouncing an operation carried out by the â€œJosÃ© Hilario LÃ³pez Batallion [of the Colombian army], the DAS, the FiscalÃa [attorney-generalâ€™s office] and the police.â€ The statement indicates that on that day, DAS searched six indigenous leadersâ€™ residences in nearby Caldono and claimed to have found explosives. The leaders insist that DAS agents planted the items themselves in order to incriminate local indigenous political leaders. Among the subjects of the house searches was Vicente Otero, a former mayor of Caldono and a leader in the Nasa communitiesâ€™ nonbinding March-6th referendum against a free trade agreement with the United States. Oteroâ€™s house was searched while he was away and only his 11 year old son and disabled brother were present. Documents and much personal information were removed.
Indigenous groups have admitted that after three decades of FARC presence it is inevitable that some members have developed relationships, though on the whole the guerrillas â€“ whose rigid Marxism sees no role for indigenous identity â€“ have very poor relations with the Nasa. The general perception, as expressed by the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), is that the government has indiscriminately labeled indigenous communities in this region as FARC sympathizers, an excuse it uses to settle political scores against community leaders who may disagree with its policies. Furthermore, although the government charges that some indigenous members are FARC sympathizers, the weekly magazine Semana asserts that the indigenous organization has in fact been the only real obstacle to FARC control of northern Cauca.
DAS regional director Hector Ortiz claims that while 200 arrests were announced the week before the searches, they were not exclusively directed toward the Nasa. This clarification comes after his vow to find indigenous collaborators was made widely public in the Colombian media, and the Nasa leadership began to sound the alarm both nationally and internationally.Meanwhile, the Colombian government has attempted to justify its actions by emphasizing the strong presence of FARC members in the region, as well as the widespread cultivation of coca and poppies (63% of Cauca municipalities according to government figures). However, Uribeâ€™s open defiance of the Nasa peopleâ€™s expressed will has strengthened the notion that Colombian indigenous groups are being targeted politically, due to their position of impartiality in the armed conflict as well as their success in challenging government policies through peaceful demonstrations and their â€œLife Projectsâ€.
The Nasa populationâ€™s non-violent defense of their sovereignty against all armed groups has brought much domestic and internatinal attention. In an interview with Pacifica Radioâ€™s â€œDemocracy Now,â€ former ToribÃo mayor Ezequiel VitonÃ¡s recalled that a resistance movement is active in his town, as well as in the rest of Northern Cauca. Civil society has put forth a movement, he asserts, that dates back to 1971 â€“ or even 1701, when reservations were formed and lands were given to communities to be administered according to their needs and customs.Mr. VitonÃ¡s is currently on a tour of the United States to raise awareness about what is happening in his community, hosted by the American Friends Service Committee. He requests that the U.S. government stop providing military aid for Colombiaâ€™s war, and instead fund development, humanitarian and governance efforts to help his people and other Colombians.His visit achieved some success in New York, where the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous People, Rodolfo Stavenhagen reiterated his concern for the situation of indigenous people in Colombia. In a report issued last year, Mr. Stavenhagen acknowledged that conditions have deteriorated, going as far as to characterize the situation of indigenous people in Colombia as â€œethnocide.â€ Mr. VitonÃ¡s and his companion Manuel Rozental believe this recognition is a step in the right direction. However, they are calling for international presence and pressure to raise widespread awareness about their issues. They hope to see an international delegation, led by the Special Rapporteur, visit Colombia and verify the current situation. In order to reach this goal, they call for better coordination among NGOs and for a legal framework to pressure the Colombian government to change its policies and ultimately to hold it accountable.