History Repeats Itself for Indigenous Communities Under Attack in Colombia

In the southwestern department of Cauca on October 14, over 12,000 peaceful protestors from indigenous and other popular movements were violently attacked by Colombian security forces. The repression against the indigenous mobilization is only the latest sign of a growing wave of violent acts and selective assassinations against Colombia's popular movements by all armed actors of Colombia's internal conflict.

October 15, 2008

On October 14, over 12,000 indigenous activists and representatives of other popular and social sectors of southern Colombia congregated in what is called the “Territory of Peace and Coexistence” in La María Piendamó, Cauca department, confronting a massive presence of Colombian security forces determined to dislodge them.

The popular mobilization began on October 12, and was called to protest the militarization of their territories, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the failure of President Álvaro Uribe’s administration to fulfill various accords with the indigenous communities relating to land, education, and health.

On Monday, as expected, the communities participating in the indigenous protest blocked a portion of the Pan-American Highway, which connects Cauca’s main cities of Popayán and Santander de Quilichao. The road blockade was a peaceful act of civil disobedience trying to force the government to the negotiating table to discuss some of their demands.

Over the last two days, special-forces police units have responded violently, severely wounding several indigenous activists, one possibly fatally, in the ensuing clashes. These unfolding developments come just days after unidentified gunmen killed two other Nasa Indians—Nicolás Valencia Lemus and Celestino Rivera—late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. The shooting occurred just a few hours before the start of the mobilization. The latest killing brings the number of indigenous activists killed throughout Colombia in just the last three weeks to 11.

Dirty War with Many Sources

Eyewitnesses say the assassins of Lemus and Rivera were members of the Águilas Negras, or Black Eagles, an ascendant paramilitary group formed in recent years that works throughout Colombia.

The 39-year-old Lemus, a brother of two well-known Nasa activists, was driving his car on the road from the town of El Palo to the indigenous reserve of Toribío in the mountainous region of northern Cauca. His wife and son accompanied him. According to eyewitnesses, Lemus was ordered to stop and get out of his car by two masked gunmen, who proceeded to drill him with bullets in front of his family. Before moving on, the assassins wrote “Águilas Negras” on the window of Lemus’ vehicle.

Despite overwhelming evidence, current governor of Cauca Guillermo Alberto González, denies new paramilitary groups are active in the department. Nonetheless, it appears that a dirty war against the indigenous and popular movements in Colombia is well underway, and threats are coming from many several fronts.

On Saturday, the Council of Chiefs of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) received a call from the office of Cauca’s governor, informing them of intelligence reports indicating the “Teófilo Forero” guerrilla column of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) intended to assassinate the well-known indigenous leader and member of the CRIC’s council of Chiefs, Feliciano Valencia. The day before, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) received a faxed letter from the FARC, warning of a campaign of extermination against alleged government collaborators within the indigenous Nasa territories of Toribío and Jambaló.

While government officials repeatedly accuse the indigenous leadership of being manipulated by FARC guerrillas, the FARC quickly join in by unilaterally targeting so-called sapos (snitches) from within the indigenous communities. For the indigenous communities, the results are tragically the same, despite years of declaring their autonomy from all the armed actors in the conflict.

Indeed, since receiving a seven-page email threat from a group that described itself as “Angry Peasants of Cauca” (CEC) on August 11, five indigenous people in Nariño, three in Riosucio, Caldas, and now three in Cauca have been assassinated. The governor of the indigenous council of Canoas, also in Cauca, was saved only by the courageous act of a member of his community, who refused to provide details of his whereabouts to armed gunmen who were looking for him two weeks ago.

Indigenous activists are not the only victims of this latest wave of political violence. In just the last month, an Afro-Colombian leader in Tumaco, two non-indigenous peasant activists in Cauca, and Olga Luz Vergara, a woman’s rights leader from the organization Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres in Medellín, have also been assassinated.

The “State of Internal Commotion”

Before the October 12th mobilization began, indigenous leaders in Cauca and throughout the country had been warning about the potential for a repressive backlash against the indigenous movement by state security forces, as well as other armed actors.

President Uribe’s declaration of a “state of internal commotion” on the eve of the protests gave the indigenous leadership considerable reason to be alarmed. However, the President offered assurances that the extraordinary measure was invoked to address the growing crisis in the judicial system, crippled by a four-week strike of judicial workers throughout the country.

As stipulated in the 1991 Constitution, the “state of internal commotion,” allows the president to govern without the oversight of the legislature, giving the president unprecedented powers, particularly in the area of security and “public order.” Uribe justified the measure by claiming 2,600 so-called “delinquents” had been released as a result of the 42-day judicial workers’ strike. He said something needed to be done to rein them in and resolve the crisis facing the country’s legal system.

Critics say the “state of internal commotion” declaration is another example of Uribe justifying his increasingly autocratic approach in the name of security. But the government and the judicial workers union seemed to have reached a tentative deal on a new contract yesterday. The big question is whether or not the President will deactivate the measure, criticized by many constitutional scholars as unnecessary, if not altogether undemocratic.

Brutal repression by security forces of the indigenous mobilization in La María, Cauca Cauca is one indication the government has no plans of letting up. The government deployed helicopters and heavily armed riot police squads known as ESMAD to surround the communities.

In the face of the unfolding crisis, ACIN along with regional and national indigenous organizations reached out to Santiago Cantón, Secretary General of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). The groups asked the Commission to directly monitor the situation in Cauca. Making matters worse for the ACIN, by early Tuesday afternoon, its Web site was shutdown and made unavailable, complicating the organization’s efforts to communicate information about the mobilization and government crackdown.

Main Points of the Indigenous and Popular Protest

The ongoing protests in Cauca are a continuation of the movement’s “Liberation of Mother Earth” campaign, initiated by the indigenous communities in 2005. This land recuperation and resistance effort was organized by the leadership in response to the government’s failure to fulfill its obligations to the victims of the December 16, 1991, massacre of 20 indigenous people from the Huellas community. Among the dead were five women and four children, who were murdered as they met to discuss a struggle over land rights in hacienda known as “El Nilo.”

Harassment and threats against the Nasa community by gunmen loyal to local landowners who were disputing the community’s claim to ownership of the land culminated in the 1991 massacre. The Special Investigations Unit of the Office of the Attorney General, which handled the first stages of the investigation, uncovered evidence showing the involvement of National Police before and during the massacre.

As a result of these findings, the Colombian government agreed to return 39,000 acres of land to the community that had been targeted by the assassins. As was widely reported at the time, in 1998 then-President Ernesto Samper publicly apologized for the role the state had played in the atrocity and promised to compensate the victims.

But after taking office four years later, President Uribe reversed course. He claimed there were simply no resources to provide any more lands to the indigenous communities affected by the massacre. It was the start of a rocky relationship. In his six years in office, Uribe has followed a strategy of outright defiance against the indigenous community’s demands, not only in Cauca, but throughout the country. He constantly accuses ACIN, CRIC, and even indigenous members of the Colombian congress of being accessories to delinquency and criminality. This week’s mobilizations are part of the movement’s ongoing response to what they perceive to be the government’s intransigence in fulfilling the commitments it makes to indigenous communities.

Recognizing the Uribe administration’s uncanny ability to get its message across to the Colombian people through its powerful public relations machine, organizers of the current popular mobilization have been putting out statements of their own for weeks about the nature of their protest. In essence, the indigenous movement, in alliance with other popular sectors, has a comprehensive program that it is promoting within the context of the current political crisis. The movement’s position maintains an extremely critical view of the Uribe government, while stating unequivocally its independence from the guerrillas or any other armed group.

For weeks, members of ACIN’s communication team have been carrying out an education campaign throughout northern Cauca, speaking directly with locals about the threats facing the indigenous movement in assemblies, workshops and town hall-style meetings.

These so-called barridos (sweeps) and countless communiqués all consistently reject “free trade agreements like the ones negotiated behind closed doors with the United States, Canada, the European Union.” One statement says the trade deals seek “to displace us of our rights, our culture, our knowledge and our territory.” They also voice their vehement opposition to many constitutional counter-reforms and legislative measures implemented by the current government that have chipped away at the territorial rights of the country’s 85 indigenous communities.

They are also demand that the government comply with the series of agreements, accords, and conventions that it has signed with indigenous communities over the last 16 years. So far, these agreements have been ignored systematically, including the legal settlement over the Nilo massacre. A key point of the indigenous communities’ position is their demand for an end to the militarization of their territories. This includes the widespread presence of state security forces, FARC guerrillas, or paramilitary groups working under the auspices of powerful local interests.

For the CRIC and ACIN and all the indigenous organizations in the country, these demands are an effort to prevent history from repeating itself in their territories..

Ruling on Naya Massacre of 2001

Ironically, the same day that government forces fought with indigenous protesters, Colombian courts ordered the government to pay $3 million in compensation to 82 family members of at least 40 indigenous Colombians that were massacred by paramilitary forces in Naya, Cauca in 2001.

According to the groundbreaking ruling issued on Tuesday, the Colombian government neglected to prevent the incursion of paramilitary groups that led to the murder of at least 40 people (some reports say the number was closer to 100) and the forced displacement of another 3,000. At the time of the Naya massacre, the government of President Andrés Pastrana ignored repeated warnings by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about a probable paramilitary incursion into the area.

In the infamous 2001 attack, 500 men from the Calima Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary federation, murdered people with chainsaws in several villages in the Naya area of western Cauca. The leader of the Calima Bloc, jailed paramilitary commander Ever Veloza, alias H.H., has admitted he was responsible for influencing the Cauca gubernatorial elections that brought Uribe-ally and anti-indigenous politician Juan José Chaux to power in 2003. Former governor Chaux recently resigned as Uribe’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic when it was revealed that he had close ties to paramilitary groups in Cauca.

As governor of Cauca, Chaux developed the well-deserved reputation of being one of the most racist, anti-indigenous politicians in the country, regularly using derogatory language to describe the indigenous movement and its leaders. That same language found its way into the already mentioned August 11, 2008, email threat sent to the ACIN and CRIC. Events since then prove that those words were not meant to be taken lightly.

The thousands of protesters in La María facing off with government forces understand this very well.

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of Communication at Hofstra University in New York, and the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia, finishing a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of community media.

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