Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Economic Motives Behind Killings of Kankuamo Indians

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Aug 6 2004 (IPS) - To be a Kankuamo Indian in Colombia today is dangerous. In the past two decades, 261 members of that ethnic group have been killed, 92 (more than one-third) in the two years since the government of President Alvaro Uribe took office.

Indigenous leaders and activists interviewed by IPS say economic motives lie behind the killings. They blamed not only right-wing paramilitaries but also the political and economic elites in the northeastern department (province) of Cesar in connection with Tuesday’s murder of Kankuamo leader Freddy Arias.

The Kankuamo, who number just over 5,000, are a symbol for the rest of Colombia’s indigenous groups, because their culture was almost totally lost, but began to re-emerge 20 years ago due to the determination of the ethnic group’s younger generation, who heeded their elders’ call for the need to recuperate their cultural identity.

Freddy Arias was the son of the group’s long-time leader and ”mamo” (shaman or religious leader) Salomón Arias, who had great knowledge of medicinal plants, and who spearheaded the revival of the Kankuamo culture.

Arias was murdered in 2001 by right-wing paramilitaries, who tortured him and disfigured his face and body.

Freddy was also the brother of Jaime Arias, the head of the Kankuamo community council, who was assigned two bodyguards by the Interior Ministry on Wednesday. Up to then, the only security he had been given by the state as part of its protection programme was a cell-phone and a car (but not an armoured car, as others have been assigned).

Last month, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights told the Colombian government to take the necessary measures to protect the lives of these leaders and of the Kankuamo community in general.

Freddy Arias was the coordinator of human rights issues in the Kankuamo Indigenous Organisation (OIK). He was killed after setting out on bicycle fr om the Casa Indígena (indigenous centre) in Valledupar, the capital of Cesar, by two hired killers on a motorcycle.

In the Second National Panel on Peace and Indigenous Human Rights in mid-July, Freddy stood up and recited a detailed list of the atrocities committed against his people by the right-wing paramilitary militias.

He spoke out in the presence of Sergio Caramagna from Argentina, the head of the Organisation of American States (OAS) mission that is following the government negotiations with the paramilitary groups, most of which form part of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) umbrella. The talks are aimed at the demobilisation of the militias.

According to the National Panel, the government’s talks with AUC are not ”a peace process but an agreement between allies that have always acted together.”

Arias, ”as the Kankuamo delegate, was one of the driving forces behind the decision by indigenous peoples not to support the negotiations,” Héctor Mondragón, an expert on indigenous questions who acts as an adviser to the Campesino (peasant), Black and Indigenous Convergence network, told IPS.

Freddy Arias’ murder was ”in retaliation for the extremely outstanding stance he took in the Panel,” and against the Panel itself ”to punish the position taken by indigenous groups,” he said.

Several indigenous leaders blame the murder on AUC, which is responsible for at least 80 percent of the human rights abuses committed in Colombia according to the United Nations and leading human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The paramilitaries, who are negotiating an amnesty-like agreement with the government, say their actions are in support of the armed forces in the fight against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main guerrilla group, which rose up in arms 40 years ago.

In December 2002, AUC announced a ceasefire, which it has since violated hundreds of times.

Since May the paramilitary umbrella group’s chiefs have been staying in Santa Fe del Ralito, in the northern department of Córdoba, in a 368-sq-km safe haven protected by the security forces, for the talks.

The paramilitary leaders, a number of whom face drug trafficking charges in Colombia and the United States, said in a statement that they would carry out ”a rigorous probe” into whether their men were responsible for Arias’s death.

They also reiterated their commitment to ”strict compliance with the ceasefire”, and expressed renewed interest in meeting with indigenous leaders – a meeting that was scheduled for Wednesday but was cancelled because of Arias’s murder.

Rodrigo Tovar, alias Jorge 40, the commander of paramilitary activities in the Kankuamo region, comes from a prominent family in Valledupar. He is second-in-command in the AUC’s Northern Bloc, the group led by Salvatore Mancuso, one of the chief negotiators in Santa Fe de Ralito.

Even if the allegations that the paramilitaries were responsible for Arias’s death turn out to be true, the militias would merely have been a tool, said Mondragón.

The murder ”was a response by the land-owning elites in Cesar and by those who want to get their hands on the water resources in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains (where the Kankuamo live) to the ethnic community’s process of recovery of its indigenous identity,” he said.

”The Sierra is the birthplace of the water sources for the (economically active) lowlands, and any project to privatise the water or build a dam needs the support of the local indigenous people,” Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), told IPS.

The Colombian constitution recognises indigenous people’s authority over their legally demarcated reserves and the natural resources found in those areas.

But ”those in power do not want to negotiate and share,” said Andrade. ”They simply want to force the people out of the area to obtain greater profits. The logic of the war shows that the underlying motives are economic, and that there is an effort to eliminate all of the obstacles standing in the way of the economic interests.”

Mondragón said ”the murders began as a response to prevent the Kankuamo from recuperating their culture, and they have become more and more frequent as the cultural revival process has grown in strength.”

The Kankuamo Indians were pressing the state to create a reserve on only a small portion of their ancestral territory, which nonetheless annoyed the elites in Cesar, said Mondragón.

The demarcation of the 24,600-hectare Kankuamo reserve was approved shortly over a year ago. In 2003, an average of one member of the ethnic group a week was killed. Some 1,732 have been displaced from their land, joining the ranks of the internal refugees in this South American country of 44 million, who number around three million.

”These crimes constitute ethnocide for a community with just over 5,000 members,” said the head of ONIC.

”The people are already accepting that this is the end, that nothing can be done, that we must accept the rules of war and death,” said Andrade.

But he said indigenous people are prepared to march to Santa Fe de Ralito to demand that AUC ”state clearly why they have killed so many indigenous people, what are the real reasons behind the attacks on the Wayúu people, what happened to the Wiwa, why have they been so cruelly massacred, why have their food provisions been blockaded, and where is Kimy Pernía Domicó,” an Emberá shaman who was ”disappeared”.

”We want them to tell us what their commitment will be with respect to spiritual and material reparations for the victims, what commitment they will make with respect to justice,” Andrade added. ”And they should tell us why they killed Freddy, who was a leader who had nothing to do with weapons.”

”The state should tell us why it took so long to strengthen the protective safeguards, especially after the ombudsman’s office issued two reports on the high level of vulnerability of the (OIK) headquarters and the Kankuamo leaders,” he said.

”While some Indians have joined armed groups, that is not the general position taken by indigenous peoples,” Andrade underlined.

He also called for the OAS ”to clarify why the paramilitaries are committing these atrocities,” which include cutting up people alive with chainsaws.

The indigenous leader said that ”so far not a single person has been convicted. If the murder victim had been rich, a decision would certainly have been taken already, but since many see indigenous people as an obstacle to development, the investigations go nowhere.”

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