Colombia's Indigenous Caught in the Conflict

September 25, 2007

Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and his many supporters in and out of government often point out that under his "Democratic Security" strategy implemented since 2002—with the unwavering support of the White House—the government has been able to regain control of over 500 municipalities, bringing a level of security to the Colombian people not felt in generations. Indeed, this was one of the clarion calls of Uribe's successful campaign to get legal approval of a re-election bid for an unprecedented second term in office.

But as is the case with most things in Colombia these days, the optimistic assertions about security resonate primarily with the urban middle and upper classes, which remain largely isolated from the daily reality of the conflict. For peasant and indigenous communities in the countryside, the security promised by Uribe is at best a mixed blessing, if not a step back for their communities. Such is the case in the southwestern department of Cauca.

Northern Cauca was recently dubbed by the Army as "Caguán II" in reference to the demilitarized safe haven of five municipalities former President Andrés Pastrana granted the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during the 1999 peace talks. In a highly publicized special Security Council session of the Army in early July 2005, officials described in great detail how, over the last 20 years, the FARC had converted this region in the heart of indigenous territory into one of its most important strategic outposts. According to the military, the FARC has built a 350-kilometer network of clandestine roadways throughout the mountainous region to facilitate passage between rebel camps, as well as a training camp for new guerrilla recruits.

Last April, in one of the most dramatic manifestations of the current security situation, the FARC and state security forces clashed in an intense battle in the town of Toribío that lasted 11 days, resulting in the deaths of a 9-year-old boy and several police and soldiers. When it was over, local Army commanders proclaimed that the guerrillas had been "neutralized," and that security had arrived for the people of the region. Currently in Toribío, as is the case in other small towns of northern Cauca, the National Police maintains a massive presence. Highly fortified bunkers are scattered at different strategic points, and M16-bearing soldiers are stationed at just about every corner of the town. Although the guerrillas still maneuver relatively freely through the unpaved roads between the region's many small towns, the large police presence in places like Toribío presents at least a temporary deterrent to another attack from the FARC. Nevertheless, the mostly indigenous residents of the region uniformly express a greater sense of tension and insecurity.

"For us, both the guerrillas and the military are unwanted, because they directly interfere with the community process we have been working on here for more than 30 years," said one community leader who asked not to be identified, a Nasa Indian who works in the mayor's office in Toribío.

The indigenous leadership has been on edge since early July, when at the aforementioned Security Council session the Commander of the Army's Third Brigade, Gen. Hernando Pérez Molina, stationed in Cali, stated unequivocally that "in that area of northern Cauca, there existed a co-government where the FARC used resources from the European Union that were directed to the Nasa Project for the guerrillas' own benefit." Pérez Molina was referring to the Nasa Project, a multifaceted community development plan started by the Nasa people in 1980 in the municipality of Toribío that encompasses three indigenous reserves—San Francisco, Tacueyo and Toribío. The Nasa Project incorporates political consciousness-raising, community organizing, and economic development based on sustainable agriculture and conservation. It also includes traditional education, health and family assistance programs—all under the rubric of an unwavering demand for indigenous autonomy and respect for their collective rights.

The Nasa Project is recognized internationally as an important community development program that has had outstanding success in reducing poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. In 2004, it was awarded special recognition from the Equator Initiative of the United Nations Development Program.

According to representatives of the Nasa Project, by linking their organization with the FARC, Gen. Pérez Molina was unilaterally trying to discredit its autonomy, thus exposing its leaders to reprisals from the state, and eventually, as in other parts of Colombia, even paramilitary operations.

"First of all, we have never received any money from the European Union," said the mayor of Toribío, Arquímedes Vitonás. "But more importantly, we are completely independent of any of the actors in this conflict, and we have been extremely diligent about accounting for all the resources that come to the community. For the General to say there is a co-government with the FARC is very irresponsible."

The tone of the general's comments is consistent with President Uribe's position regarding the alternative social programs of indigenous communities throughout the country, which on more than one occasion the President has described as illegal in their claims of autonomy from the state. Since taking office over three years ago, Uribe has been irked by the indigenous movements' claims of autonomy—particularly as they relate to his national security programs.

Early on in his term, Uribe proposed a series of constitutional reforms that would have chipped away at some of the hard-fought guarantees that indigenous people won in the 1991 Constituent Assembly that rewrote the Constitution. The President charges that some of the guarantees threaten the authority of the central government. Among these constitutional provisions is the recognition of indigenous territorial entities as autonomous zones where indigenous councils, or cabildos, have ultimate jurisdiction. Uribe's counter-reforms would have limited the scope of what are currently recognized as indigenous territories.

Another source of friction between the government and the indigenous communities has been the ongoing negotiations of a Free Trade Agreement (its Spanish acronym being TLC, for Tratado de Libre Comercio) with the United States. These trade negotiations are seen as the main reason Uribe and his supporters in Congress have been pushing new forest management laws that would hand over control of resources on indigenous lands to major corporate interests that stand to benefit most from the trade accord. Indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian organizations, along with the trade union movement, have been actively mobilizing against the trade agreement. These groups argue the agreement will devastate local economies, while "handing over sovereignty to multinational corporations who do not recognize the authority of indigenous communities," as Héctor Mondragón, an activist who has worked for years with Colombia's peasant and indigenous communities, told me recently.

Last August, the second of a series of nonbinding public referenda, sponsored by indigenous and peasant organizations, was held in northern Cauca on the TLC. A similar consulta was held in March as a symbolic gesture to allow the communities to express their feelings about the trade accord. On both occasions, over 95% voted to reject the agreement. Nevertheless, the government gave it little weight. One minister described the outcome as the result of "dark forces" influencing the indigenous and peasant communities—a not-so-veiled reference to the guerrillas.

As this organizing against "free trade" agreements continues, the government finds itself struggling to implement its Democratic Security strategy in indigenous territory. Two controversial components of this strategy have been the creation of part-time "peasant armies" in rural areas and the establishment of a network of civilian informers who ostensibly collaborate directly with state forces in helping weed out guerrillas. The approach of involving civilians in local security has heightened tensions between the government and a growing number of "peace communities," which have declared their "active neutrality" in the conflict.

This confrontation has been especially acute in Cauca, where the indigenous leadership has been adamant about refusing to cooperate with any of the armed actors in their territories, citing the constitutional provision protecting indigenous autonomy. The FARC's attempt to consolidate its control in the region has inevitably led to clashes with state forces, leaving the indigenous communities caught in the middle. The vicious attack in Toribío was seen as the most extreme example of this type of violent escalation.

"The attack of last April was no surprise for us. We saw it coming as the National Police began stepping up its presence in the municipality in the weeks prior to April 14th," said Toribío native Mauricio Casso, who is the administrative coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN). "The FARC really messed things up with the attack on the town, alienating everybody in the community with their brutality. But the state forces were just as much part of the problem. Their presence now opens the community up to even more reprisals from the guerrillas."

This is precisely why the indigenous leadership resented what they described as President Uribe's grandstanding in the immediate wake of the Toribío attacks: when he arrived to the town, Uribe openly challenged the FARC "cowards" to confront the state forces. The President and several members of his cabinet also used the incident to condemn the FARC for violating indigenous autonomy and threatening their rights.

"Those same people in the government who said the indigenous community's rejection of the free trade agreement was the manipulation of 'dark forces' suddenly became indigenous protectors," said José Domingo Caldon, a Kokonuco Indian and representative of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC). "The same people who have opposed indigenous self-government denounced the FARC's violation of our autonomy and said we should bring in the Army to protect us, to bring us democratic security."

Indigenous leaders fear this may be the beginning of a much more intensified process of violence in the months to come. "In Urabá [in the 1990s] we saw something similar, where the military accused banana workers of collaborating with the guerrillas, leading to the introduction of paramilitaries who waged an all-out war against the people," said Carlos Andrés Betancourt, the indigenous governor of Jambaló, a town about an hour further up the mountain from Toribío. "You began to see targeted assassinations against the leadership, with complete impunity, followed by massacres and the forced displacement of entire communities. I hope it doesn't come to this in northern Cauca."

Betancourt adds that the indigenous community's high level of organization has up to now prevented a similar level of displacement, but how long they will be able to walk the security tightrope remains to be seen. "Will the people be able to withstand another battle like that in the future? This is another question entirely," he said.

The indigenous leadership in northern Cauca, through the ACIN and other indigenous organizations in the area, has consistently made three demands in order to stabilize the situation in their territories: a complete withdrawal of all armed actors from the municipalities and indigenous territories; an immediate cease-fire and end to hostilities; and a negotiated end to the conflict between the government and the FARC rebels.

It is unlikely that any of these community demands will be met anytime soon. President Uribe has made it clear that state security forces will remain anywhere he deems necessary in order to confront "illegal activity." In September, state security forces actually clashed directly with the indigenous communities in the town of Caloto, where Nasa leaders occupied a piece of land that was supposed to have been given over to the indigenous communities years ago as part of a settlement reached after the state was found complicit in a 1991 massacre of 20 Nasa Indians. A number of indigenous activists were wounded in the week-long assault, and despite a negotiated outcome to the land takeover acceptable to the indigenous communities, doubts remained about the government's intentions. (For example, one government official again hinted of "nefarious forces" behind the indigenous community's action.) Just a few weeks after the assault, President Uribe invited some indigenous activists to participate in one of his famous "community councils," or consejos comunitarios, in Bogotá. Most of the major regional organizations boycotted the session, accusing the President of trying to divide the community by not inviting representatives of the ONIC.

"The social organizations of the Nasa people in northern Cauca are the most important popular social movements in the entire country right now. They're the only social sector that to a certain extent has been able to defend its rights and maintain a certain level of recognition on the part of the state," said Mondragón. "And this will continue so long as there is an organization and a movement that makes sure these rights are recognized and respected. How will these rights be taken away? As in other recent examples in Colombia, through violence and attacks on the leadership."

These attacks have already begun. In late October, after receiving a series of threats on their lives, a number of community activists from the ACIN were forced to take extra security precautions, including Alcibiades Ulcué, a Nasa leader who in 2004 was kidnapped by the FARC, Ezequiel Vitonás, the chief counsel of the ACIN, and Manuel Rozental, the co-coordinator of the ACIN's Communication Project, who actually left the country and is now in exile in Canada. The threats have come from pro-government paramilitaries, left-wing guerillas, and state security forces. Clearly, democratic security for the indigenous communities in northern Cauca has been far from what the government promised. "It's the calm of la Chicha," one community resident said, referring to the traditional corn-fermented drink popular in the region. "On the surface everything seems normal, but below it, things are bubbling over, ready to explode."

About the Author
Mario A. Murillo is associate professor in the School of Communication at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York and host of Wake-Up Call on WBAI Pacifica Radio in New York City. A member of NACLA's editorial board, he is author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories Press, 2004).


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