Indigenous Communities Caught in the Crossfire

September 25, 2007

This past March, three U.S. indigenous rights activists, Ingrid Washinawatok, Lahe'ena'e Gay and Terence Freitas, were kidnapped and later killed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). For Colombia's 84 Indian tribes—who have been victims of intimidation tactics and outright killings by guerrillas, state security agents and right-wing paramilitaries for the past several decades—the execution-style murders were seen as a direct attack on their communities and their centuries-long struggle for political, economic and cultural rights.

The attacks against indigenous people and their communities have taken place in the context of a dramatic escalation of Colombia's internal conflict—a conflict that has been tearing apart the fabric of Colombian society for generations. In fact, the action carried out by FARC rebels—the country's oldest and largest guerrilla organization—was simply the latest step in the escalation of the civil war which is devastating Colombia's indigenous people and seems to be getting worse every day.

"The killing of indigenous rights activists is nothing new," said Senator Jesus Piñakwé, a Páez Indian leader from the southwest province of Cauca and one of Colombia's two Indian senators. "What is new is that they attacked American citizens."

Piñakwé is one of many Indian leaders who has repeatedly denounced the presence on indigenous territory of Colombia's three principal armed actors: the Colombian Armed Forces and state security apparatus, leftist guerrillas, including the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and right-wing paramilitary groups, which have close links to the army and drug traffickers. As these heavily armed groups seek to gain territorial advantage over one another, Colombia's indigenous communities are among the most affected.

"On our territories we have the army, we have paramilitaries, we have guerrillas," said Piñakwé, "all of whom have absolutely no respect for the rights of our people."

The office of the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman says that all parties to the conflict are now using Indian reserves as battlefields, threatening or killing leaders suspected of aiding the enemy and recruiting young Indians—often by force—as soldiers, messengers or spies. According to that office, 63 Indian leaders were assassinated in 1997 alone.

In one case, FARC guerrillas were accused of killing 15 members of a tiny Indian tribe, the Koreguaje, in the southern province of Caquetá, after accusing them of aiding right-wing paramilitary groups. The guerrillas have also been accused of being responsible for the recent forced displacement of hundreds of Guambiano families in Cauca province after carrying out armed incursions onto their reserves.

Over the past year, FARC guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries have murdered, abducted and threatened numerous members of the Embera Katío community, a tribe of about 500 families living along rivers in northern Córdoba and Antioquia provinces, in the highly militarized resource-rich region known as Urabá. UN monitors in Colombia say that since July, rightist militias and the FARC have killed and tortured Embera Katío leaders, burned homes and forced dozens of families to flee. In early February, the Colombian Air Force carried out a series of air raids over Embera territory, ostensibly to weed out leftist guerrillas. Authorities claimed that numerous guerrillas were killed in these operations, but "could not account for" the local civilian—primarily indigenous—population.

The violence was so intense that in late April Embera Katío leaders appeared at the Spanish Embassy in Bogotá requesting political asylum for all 2,500 members of the community. They alleged that the government-owned Urra Electricity Company was responsible for the killing of 12 members of the community in the past year, stemming from a successful lawsuit filed by the Embera Katío to block the construction of a $700 million hydroelectric plant upstream from their home. Indian supporters say the recent violence is not a coincidence given the view by some that the indigenous population is an obstacle to development.

According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), the umbrella group representing Colombia's many regional indigenous councils, Colombian army planes have also been carrying out bombing raids on Páez Indian villages since early April, killing local residents and their livestock and destroying native forests. These are the worst attacks the Páez have endured since the December 1991 massacre of 20 Indians, including four women and four children, by paramilitary gunmen with orders from local police commanders.

In total, since the early 1970s, when the modern indigenous movement began to take shape in Colombia, over 500 indigenous leaders have been killed.

This situation led the ONIC to petition the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva last March about the grave human rights situation facing the country's indigenous population. The petition called for the world body to "condemn the government of President Andrés Pastrana" for its failure to recognize the country's indigenous people, and called for an international tribunal to judge the armed groups for the actions carried out against Indian communities. The ONIC has also criticized the major multinational corporations that have been operating on indigenous territory for activities that threaten the "complete extinction of certain ethnic communities."

Perhaps the most dramatic and well-known case is that of the U'Wa, in northeastern Colombia. Since 1992, the U'Wa have been fighting a major oil-exploration project by California-based oil giant Occidental Petroleum. Occidental was granted a license from the Colombian government to begin seismic explorations in the oil-rich Samore block, described by oil analysts as one of the richest oil deposits in all of South America. The U'Wa and their supporters see this project as a major threat to their ancestral lands, their traditions, and their environment.

A traditional indigenous tribe of about 5,000 people, the U'Wa argue that the land that has sustained them for centuries is sacred and that "oil is the blood of Mother Earth." Extracting oil, they say, is "worse than killing your own mother." Because of their firm position against the exploitation of any part of their territory, the U'Wa have come under repeated threats from many different sectors. The U'Wa have vowed to commit collective suicide if the oil project proceeds, saying they prefer suicide to the slow death of their environment and culture that oil exploitation will bring. While Occidental has been forced to put their plans on hold due to public pressure, few observers believe they have backed off completely from the project.

Colombia's Indian communities were the first in this war-torn country to put into practice the radical concept of active neutrality. This idea, which is only now beginning to gain adherents in the broader society, is rooted in the belief that there is no end in sight to the war in Colombia and that all the armed actors are equally responsible for the violence, regardless of their political motivations. Colombia's indigenous peoples have long aspired to govern themselves free from the intrusion of outside forces, violent or otherwise, which they see as threats to their autonomy, their culture and their very survival.

This is precisely why the Indian movement is perceived as a threat by those sectors who are profiting from the war. If indigenous communities refuse to work with the guerrillas, they are immediately branded as paramilitaries or government agents; if they do not cooperate with the army, they are denounced as subversive collaborators with the guerrillas; and if they dare speak out against economic interests torpedoing their rights, they are targeted by the paramilitaries.

Despite preliminary talks between the Pastrana Administration and FARC rebels aimed at resolving the 35-year war through dialogue, the conflict shows no sign of abating. As the fragile peace process stumbles along, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and army and police forces continue to operate with impunity within indigenous territories. Ironically, those most affected by the violence—the indigenous communities and civil society in general—remain left out of the discussions, not an encouraging sign for a real peace in Colombia.

Mario A. Murillo is host and producer of Pacifica Radio's Our Americas and is an assistant professor at the School of Communication at Hofstra University. He is also a member of NACLA's editorial board.

Tags: Colombia, neoliberalism, indigenous politics, human rights, FARC

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.