When Miguel Moran Acosta graduated from high school this year in Colombia's southern jungle province of Putumayo, he went back home to farm with his family in Alto Comboy, an Awa indigenous reserve. Days later, on May 23, Colombian army officials entered the reserve, tied Miguel’s hands and feet together and took him off to a nearby mountain. The following day, Miguel’s lifeless body was put on display in the province’s military barracks as a “guerrilla downed in combat.”
Hundreds of miles away, and just days before Miguel’s death, 700 Embera indigenous people gathered in peaceful protest on the Pan-American Highway in the northwest province of Chocó, demanding social services guaranteed to them under Colombian law. Colombia's anti-riot squad attacked the protestors on May 26, killing three children—ages 6 to 8—with another 22, including 14 children, unaccounted for.2
Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the state of human rights and the fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, has warned the violence targeting Colombia’s indigenous communities “are truly acts of genocide and ethnocide against indigenous peoples.”3
Stavenhagen reports that out of Colombia’s 84 officially recognized indigenous groups, 12 are “on the brink of extinction as a result of the murder of their leaders, massacres, threats and the forced dispersal of their members.” Although irregular armed groups of the country’s nearly 50-year civil war are responsible for most of the violence against indigenous communities, local human rights groups have thoroughly documented the increasing role of the Colombian military in such abuses.
Miguel’s death in Putumayo, for example, represents just one of over 1,000 cases of extrajudicial killings by state forces in Colombia over the last four years.4 Many of these killings result from the military dressing slain civilians in guerrilla fatigues, labeling them “terrorists,” and this tactic is occurring with alarming frequency in indigenous communities. The UN report, for example, cited the alleged murder of 54 indigenous Kankuamo by state security forces in 2003 alone. Likewise, actions similar to those carried out by the army’s anti-riot squad on May 26 in Chocó, have contributed to what the Commission of Colombian Jurists describes as “a systematic pattern of forced disappearances carried out [by state agents] in a large portion of the nation’s territory.”5 The Commission also found that between 2002 and 2006 extrajudicial executions by state security forces rose by 92% compared to the previous four years.
Although highly organized in many regions, Colombia’s estimated one million indigenous peoples have little control over the military’s actions against them. The United States government, however, does have the power to assert considerable pressure on the Colombian military, and according to the letter of the law, it is required to do so.
The current U.S. Foreign Appropriations bill requires the State Department to “certify” Colombia’s human rights progress every six months before dispersing a large portion of U.S. military aid. Last year alone, that sum represented over 55 million dollars. Nonetheless, since Plan Colombia—a U.S. military aid package aimed at curbing drug production in Colombia—was launched seven years ago, the State Department has not exercised its influence over the Colombian military. Instead, the State Department has consistently certified the military’s human rights record, despite well-documented abuses, and provided them with nearly five billion dollars in aid.
Despite the increase in extrajudicial killings and forced displacement in indigenous communities during the tenure of Plan Colombia, it was not until mid-2007 that the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá agreed to include indigenous leaders in meetings to assess the impact of military aid on human rights. The State Department’s decision was apparently driven by a new condition, included by Congress, in the Foreign Appropriations bill that requires the Colombian military to respect the territory and rights of Colombia’s indigenous people. To date, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) has been invited to one such meeting.
Darío Mejía, member of the ONIC’s executive committee, recently railed against the government’s record in protecting indigenous communities: “Over 100 forced displacements of our people in four years, nearly 600 political assassinations of indigenous peoples in the same time period and 423 illegal detentions. In this war, we understand that the government has an anti-insurgency policy and we understand that the government has an anti-narcotics policy, but we must ask, what is its policy against indigenous peoples—a policy of extermination?”
U.S. and Colombian human rights organizations are calling upon Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to help protect indigenous peoples in Colombia by “decertifying” the country’s military. Instead of offering the army a blank check that leads to violence against indigenous communities, say human rights groups, Secretary Rice could play a crucial role in protecting innocent young men like Miguel Moran Acosta and the thousands of indigenous people making up the 12 communities near extinction.
By withholding U.S. funds, Secretary Rice would be sending a clear message in support of indigenous rights to the Colombian military, and, more importantly, she would effectively reduce the likelihood of a mass indigenous extinction in the country. The U.S. Congress has given her the tools to do just this, yet until she does, the process of indigenous extinction in Colombia will continue to be certified with a stamp of approval by the U.S. State Department.
1. Minga, “Urgent Action,” May 26, 2007.
2. Informe Comisión de Observación Interinstitucional, “Hechos ocurridos en el puente la Unión,” May 26-27, 2007.
3. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People,” Addendum: Mission to Colombia, November 10, 2004.
4. Colombian Commission of Juristas, “2002-2006, Situation Regarding Human Rights and Humanitarian Law,” January 2007.
Annalise Romoser is a Senior Associate at the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Office on Colombia, a non-profit organization that seeks to educate policymakers, the media and the public about the impact of U.S. policy on Colombia.