Embattled Cauca: A New Wave of Violence and Indigenous Resistance

June 26, 2009

December 16 was not a day of joy for Aida Quilcué and her family. While most Colombians were kicking off the first night of La Novena, the traditional nine-day countdown for Christmas, Quilcué, a leader and at the time chief counsel of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), was grieving yet another day of violence in her community, this time striking her own family.

At about 4 a.m., on an unpaved road near her home in indigenous Nasa territory in the southwestern department of Cauca, Colombian soldiers fired 17 shots at CRIC’s official vehicle, killing the driver, Edwin Legarda, Quilcué’s husband.

Most people close to CRIC said they believed the bullets were meant for Quilcué, one of Colombia’s most prominent indigenous rights activists. At the time of the killing, she had just returned from Geneva, where she had been a delegate to the Universal Periodic Review sessions on Colombia held by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. And Quilcué was one of the most visible leaders of the six-week Indigenous and Popular Minga, an unprecedented nationwide mobilization that began in October, culminating the following month in a massive demonstration in Bogotá.

The tragic killing of Legarda represents a convergence of issues that aptly reflects the current struggle of the indigenous movement within Colombia’s broader political, social, and strategic context. On the one hand, it exemplifies the ongoing violence directed at the indigenous movement, which very often takes places with complete impunity and, at times, deliberate cover-ups.

Since August 2008, several Nasa leaders and activists in Cauca have been killed by an array of forces fighting for control within their territories. Nationally, dozens of indigenous people have met the same fate—five Kankuamo people were killed in a grenade attack by unknown assailants on New Year’s Eve in the Sierra Nevada region; 27 members of the Awá community were allegedly killed by FARC rebels in Nariño department in February; and Embera communities continue to be displaced by paramilitaries in Chocó. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) estimates that since 2002, more than 1,200 indigenous people have been killed as a result of Colombia’s internal conflict.

The current cycle of violence began in August 2008, when CRIC and its sibling organization, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), began receiving threatening e-mail messages. One of these, received August 11, was signed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Furious Peasants of Cauca. The seven-page missive criticized the indigenous movement’s ongoing land-recuperation campaign in the department, claiming that the effort was being spearheaded by “former CRIC leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.” This accusation is consistent with the almost constant declarations of government officials, from the president on down, attempting to link members of the indigenous community with “dark forces,” “subversion,” or “terrorism,” coded ways of saying FARC guerillas.

“Don’t be surprised when . . . you are found dead and a significant number of your members have disappeared. . . . We want Popayán, Cali, and Bogotá free of Indians because that is where their . . . greatest concentration of leaders is.” Just as troubling was the hateful tone of the letter, which referred to the Nasa people as Pa-Heces, meaning feces, a racist play on the Spanish name for the community, Páez. During the two months following the threats, gunmen shot eight Nasa people to death, forcing several other indigenous activists and their collaborators to go into hiding, including exile abroad.

Quilcué herself, together with other prominent indigenous leaders, had received numerous threats in the weeks prior to Legarda’s killing, especially during the 41 days of the minga, when she appeared on the news almost every night, fiercely criticizing the government of President Álvaro Uribe.

General Justo Eliceo Peña, the commander of the Colombian Army’s Third Division, which maintains a constant presence in Nasa territory, admitted that the army fired at CRIC’s bright red Toyota SUV, a vehicle well-known throughout the area for its countless trips throughout the mountainous terrain, regularly transporting the movement’s leadership, particularly Quilcué. According to the official version of events, Peña’s troops opened fire because the SUV passed through a military checkpoint without stopping.

Downplaying the gravity of the incident, Peña appeared on La W, one of Colombia’s most popular morning radio talk shows, and expressed regret for the attack, calling it an “accident.” Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s defense minister, in an attempt to placate the community, later acknowledged that even if Legarda had not obeyed orders to stop at the checkpoint, the volley of bullets was excessive and violated army protocol. Even Uribe got into the act, publicly sending his condolences to the family.

But CRIC lawyers immediately challenged the official version of what occurred. Witnesses said there was, in fact, no checkpoint in the area, leading CRIC to describe the attack as a premeditated ambush gone awry. ACIN pointed out that it was highly unlikely that the soldiers did not recognize the vehicle, since the site where Legarda was killed was near Finca San Miguel, in the village of Gabriel López in Totoró, an area that has been occupied for years by the army.

Because the shooting occurred on indigenous territory, the Indigenous Guard of the Nasa community immediately detained the 12 soldiers involved in the attack, conducted an investigation, and later released the soldiers. According to a spokesperson, the Indigenous Guard found bullet holes only on the front and sides of the SUV, contradicting the official account that Legarda had jumped the roadblock, in which case bullet holes would have appeared on the back of the vehicle.

The Indigenous Guard also found two unaccounted-for AK-47 rifles in the soldiers’ possession, leading to suspicions within the community that the Third Division was preparing to convert Legarda (and Quilcué, had she been in the car) into “false positives”—civilians murdered by the army and then disguised as FARC guerrillas killed in combat. Revelations about the false positives rocked the Colombian military establishment in October, leading to the dismissal of the commander of the army and the arrest of at least 22 military personnel. CRIC lawyers called for a full, independent investigation into the Legarda case, but it never happened.

Instead, two officers and five soldiers were arrested in April and charged for their role in the shooting. Consistent with Uribe’s public relations tactics, the high-profile arrests were publicly announced on the eve of CRIC’s eighth congress, a move clearly meant to dampen any plans for mobilizing or calls for an independent review at the gathering.


The shooting of Legarda, carried out by government soldiers in an area known for an almost constant army presence, calls into question the ongoing argument of Uribe and his supporters that the government’s Democratic Security strategy, launched in 2003, has brought peace and safety to the Colombian people. The centerpiece of this policy has been the militarization of Colombia, with the deployment of security forces, including army and the police, throughout the national territory, including indigenous lands.

And considering the long track record of the Colombian state’s investigations into crimes committed by its own agents against the indigenous movement, the Nasa community had good reason to be concerned about the authorities’ approach to Legarda’s death. With tragic irony, his murder came on the 17th anniversary of one of the most brutal episodes of modern Colombia’s violent history against indigenous people, and perhaps its most despicable case of criminal cover-up and public deception.

On December 16, 1991, 20 indigenous people from the Huellas-Caloto community, including five women and four children, were murdered as they met to discuss a struggle over land rights in the estate of El Nilo in northern Cauca. About 60 hooded gunmen stormed the building where the community was meeting and opened fire. Initial reports embraced by the government at the time indicated that the gunmen were drug traffickers who had been seizing land in the region to grow opium poppies. This simplistic account minimized the responsibility of vested interests in Cauca by further demonizing the violence of the drug trade in the eyes of Colombian public opinion.

However, because of the work of the indigenous communities and their allies in the human rights sector, it eventually became apparent that the culprits were much more than simple narco-traffickers operating outside of the law. Just like today, the killings were preceded by threats and harassment against the Huellas community, in this case by gunmen loyal to local landowners who were disputing the indigenous community’s claim to ownership of the land.

After years of investigations by human rights attorneys and independent prosecutors within the Colombian justice system, as well as the demands for justice by victims’ family members, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was presented with documentary evidence that members of the National Police were involved, both before and during the execution of these horrific crimes. They were working hand-in-hand with drug traffickers and wealthy landowners who were uncomfortable with the organizing and mobilizing capacity of CRIC and the local communities.

The nefarious yet profound links between “legitimate” actors, like the police and traditional landowners in Cauca, and “illegal” actors profiting from the drug trade, were finally exposed. Clearly, the 1991 massacre was a response to the fact that the indigenous movement was getting in the way of these entrenched interests.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Colombian state should return almost 40,000 acres of land as part of the integral reparation to victims of the massacre committed by those death squads in collaboration with the police. In 1998, after years of foot-dragging from the executive branch, President Ernesto Samper acknowledged the responsibility of state actors in the massacre of El Nilo, and on behalf of the Colombian state, he apologized to the families of the victims and to the Nasa community of Northern Cauca. Samper also made promises to the relatives of the victims and the communities. In 1999, he signed an agreement with CRIC to implement the recommendations of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in the matter of Justice and Individual and Collective Reparations.

As the Huellas case demonstrated, the violence facing indigenous people in Cauca and elsewhere in Colombia is rooted in land, as the state, paramilitaries, and local elites attempt to expel them. To this day, less than half of the Huellas land has been returned to any of the family members of the community, despite repeated promises from various governments. As in other parts of the country, the issue of recuperating indigenous lands in the northern Cauca region continues to be a major point of contention between the Uribe government and the indigenous movement, and has sparked repeated mobilizations by the community in the last 18 years. This fight over land has also led to an aggressive backlash directed at the leadership from all sides in the conflict who are seeking territorial control within indigenous reserves—government forces, paramilitaries, and guerillas.


Legarda’s killing took place in the immediate aftermath of the popular minga, one of the most important acts of collective resistance that the Colombian indigenous movement has carried out since it began its dramatic land-recuperation efforts in the early 1970s. The minga generated considerable attention and led to countless expressions of solidarity from both within and outside of Colombia, accompanied by pointed criticism of the Uribe government. Quilcué’s loss, therefore, was seen as a direct attack on the entire movement.

Although it continued a longer process of organizing and protest that stretches back to 2004, the latest chapter of the minga began on October 11, as the violence and the threats against the movement increased. The disciplined, six-week mobilization made the government’s fulfillment of its pledges to the community one of its five main rallying points, although it was not the only issue on their agenda. The five-point agenda of the minga was made clear from the start of the mobilization in the movement’s daily communiqués, on its websites, and over the airwaves of their many community radio stations. The agenda was also discussed publicly in the countless community gatherings throughout northern Cauca, the movement’s self-described “sweeps,” or barridos.

Yet, not surprisingly, the indigenous movement’s specific points were ignored by the major media during the first two weeks of the protest. This made it appear that the minga’s agenda was primarily “indigenist” and that the conflict could be resolved by simply returning small parcels of land back to the communities in Cauca—without addressing some of the other, more structural concerns that covered a broad cross section of Colombian society. Ignoring the five-point agenda also facilitated the very sensationalist reportage in the Colombian media, which focused heavily on the violent confrontations between Special Forces Police and the communities mobilized in the first week of the protests, detaching the conflict from its political context.

The main points on the minga’s agenda were (1) opposition to the proposed free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, and Europe; (2) an end to legislation that the indigenous movement describes as “laws of displacement,” governing mining, forestry, and water companies, while surrendering the country to corporate interests without consulting indigenous communities whose land would be used; (3) an end to the militarization of indigenous territory and the expansion of the government’s “war on terror” under the guise of Uribe’s Democratic Security, funded primarily through Plan Colombia; (4) respect for and application of international and national agreements and accords, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; (5) and an open call to all sectors of Colombia to jointly construct a “new society.”

Armed with these five points and the staffs of authority in hand, the mingueros marched throughout the country, carrying out a national dialogue on their agenda and the direction of the Uribe government. At times reaching as many as 40,000 people, the minga demonstrated to the world the organizational capacity of the indigenous communities of Colombia. It also represented the most elaborate effort on the part of the communities to reach across sectors in order to link struggles, from the trade union movement to the sugarcane workers suffering through a four-week work stoppage in the massive plantations of the south. As they said in every public forum and open-air meeting they held throughout the long march to Bogotá: “Every struggle is our struggle.”

Among the many challenges facing indigenous communities in the current context is developing a national strategy to confront the counter-reform against territorial control that has been unfolding under Uribe, whose own minister of agriculture in 2003 proudly proclaimed “no more land reform.”

He was referring to the dissolution of the Colombian Institute of Land Reform (Incora), which was replaced by a toothless, multifaceted agency with 20% of Incora’s original budget, now known as the Colombian Institute for Rural Development, or Incoder. This entity has in effect been tasked to oversee the dismantling of collective land titles in the interest of opening up vast chunks of the Colombian national territory for private domestic development and foreign investment. Therefore, the uneven concentration of land will continue for the near future, given the limited budget and the generally weak mandate of Incoder under the Uribe government. This is not a coincidence, and makes it impossible for the government to address the basic demands relating to the recuperation of indigenous territories.

However, as the minga organizers recognized, the failure of the government to fulfill its commitments is just one manifestation of a much larger government strategy of pushing back the indigenous movement’s national, broad-based call for social transformation.

The minga’s platform of resistance includes rejecting the government’s counter-reform measures that negate protections afforded to indigenous peoples across the country, measures that have opened the way for free trade agreements that will affect a broad array of poor and middle-class people in Colombia, from peasant farmers to public-service employees. And it is a platform that openly calls for an end to the government’s militarization of indigenous territories—what Uribe calls Democratic Security, but in the end results in the kinds of state-sponsored violence that took the life of Legarda.

Quilcué has been one of the most eloquent voices promoting this agenda. Which is why Feliciano Valencia, a member of CRIC’s council of chiefs, asked rhetorically in December: “Are we jumping to premature conclusions in assuming those bullets were meant for her?”

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor communications and chair of the Department of Radio, Television, Film of Hofstra University. He is the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories Press, 2004). He blogs at mamaradio.blogspot.com.


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