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Thursday, March 23, 2017
Constanza Vieira interviews indigenous leader DARÍO TOTE
- At 5.30 AM the fog was just starting to lift in the freezing cold mountains of eastern Cauca, in southwest Colombia, when indigenous leader Darío Tote came across the red pickup truck riddled with bullet holes. At the wheel was Edwin Legarda, who was critically wounded.
The lights of the double cabin pickup truck used by the leadership of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) were still on. Two of the 17 bullets that hit the car went through the windshield.
When Tote opened the door of the vehicle, which had come to a stop on the road, Legarda, the husband of CRIC leader Ayda Quilcué, “was unconscious,” Tote told IPS in this interview.
Tote and his companions drove Legarda and the nurse who was accompanying him, who was also wounded, to the hospital in the town of Totoró.
From there, an ambulance took them to Popayán, the capital of the southwestern department (province) of Cauca, where Legarda died in the hospital at 8:00 AM Tuesday morning, nearly four hours after he was shot.
The authorities did not release Legarda’s body until 12 hours later, said Tote.
On Thursday, Legarda’s remains will be taken to the remote rural hamlet of Itaibe in the foothills of the Andes mountains, on the border between the provinces of Huila and Cauca.
Legarda’s widow, Quilcué, is the leader of the National Minga of Indigenous and Popular Resistance, which began in October as a massive protest movement against killings of native people and in defence of indigenous rights. (“Minga” means a traditional indigenous gathering for a collective purpose).
The leaders of the Minga have received death threats from the far-right paramilitary Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) and from a group supposedly created by landowners, which goes by the name of “Campesinos Embejucados del Cauca” (Furious Farmers of Cauca).
Meanwhile, in the indigenous reservation, where soldiers had opened fire on the pickup truck driven by Legarda, hundreds of local residents and members of the Indigenous Guard gathered on Tuesday morning and surrounded the 32 soldiers and three noncommissioned officers who were posted there against the native community’s will. The group of soldiers included the shooters.
Police from the Attorney General’s Technical Investigation Unit (CTI), the commander of the José Hilario López army battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Iván Cantillo, and United Nations delegates began to arrive on the scene.
In response to pressure from the local indigenous community, the soldiers were disarmed. “The CTI seized their weapons and we drove to Totoró, where we held a meeting,” said Tote, a member of the CRIC’s political committee.
The native authorities – the top officials in the country’s indigenous reservations – proposed that the soldiers be held at the San Isidro prison instead of at the army post, as the commander of the Third Division, General Eliseo Peña, insisted.
Peña said the shooting incident was a “mistake,” and that the soldiers opened fire on Legarda’s vehicle after he ignored an order to stop at a military checkpoint.
In the end, the local Indigenous Guard took the soldiers – who were certified to be in good condition – to the army post on Tuesday evening, where they spent the night.
The first public hearing held under the Special Indigenous Jurisdiction (JEI is the Spanish acronym) began at 11:00 AM local time (16:00 GMT) Wednesday at CRIC headquarters in Popayán.
In the legal framework of the JEI, the head of the provincial branch of the Attorney General’s Office must attend the hearings.
Attorney General Mario Iguarán visited Popayán, where he announced that he would attend the hearing, which marked the start of the trial against the soldiers under the JEI system. Quilcué testified to the JEI that she was the victim of a crime of state.
The indigenous authorities are demanding that the government of Álvaro Uribe immediately reveal the name of the officer who ordered the soldiers to open fire on the CRIC truck driven by Legarda.
For his part, Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the attack was not premeditated, and that claiming it was is “absurd and ridiculous.”
In Tote’s view, “the important thing is that we did not allow the case to be taken over by the military justice system.”
The indigenous authorities can now request that the case remain under the JEI – created by Colombia’s 1991 constitution – instead of going to the ordinary courts.
“We are going to present that request to the Attorney General’s Office,” said Tote.
IPS: Is the investigation currently in the hands of the Attorney General’s Office? DARÍO TOTE: Yes. The CTI and the Attorney General’s Office are in charge of the investigation. But we are holding conversations at the level of government to government, authority to authority.
We have had the authority (in our territories) for thousands of years, since ancestral times, and their justice system is that of the Colombian government. We have our own recognised indigenous jurisdiction. So we are also carrying out our own inquiry, which we began at 6:00 AM (on Tuesday).
Of course it will take time, but what we want is for the soldiers to be held in custody under the ordinary laws, and we will do what we have to do to bring them under the jurisdiction of the indigenous legal system.
IPS: How is Ayda Quilcué holding up? DT: Ayda is a very brave, intelligent woman. That is why we have named her the second Chief Gaitana.
The first Chief Gaitana was an indigenous woman in the Huila region who fought the Spanish (in colonial times). During the resistance, the invaders killed one of her sons. The pain from her son’s death only made her fight harder, like a good warrior. She led an entire indigenous army against the invasion, and avenged her son’s death by dragging the Spanish conquistador around the village till he died.
She is a symbol of resistance for the Kokonuko, Guambiano, Nasa, Totoro, Yanacona, Apirara and Ambirara indigenous communities in the country’s Pacific coast region. We carry with us her pain as an indigenous person, as a woman, as a mother.
That is why we tell Ayda that she is our second Chief Gaitana. She gives us courage to wage our struggle. She always raises the morale, of women, men, young and old. Of course she has great pain in her heart, because Edwin was her partner, the father of her daughter, and her companion in the indigenous movement. He was a very active member of the community. So Ayda is dealing with her pain in a very responsible manner.
IPS: How long should it take to transfer the case from the ordinary courts to the jurisdiction of the indigenous authorities? DT: Legally, I think they have 32 or 33 hours to decide on the jurisdiction. There is a technical expert who keeps us informed about cases, in writing. In this case, what actually happened was an ambush.
The survivor (the nurse) who was in the car with Legarda has already filed a lawsuit and has testified that there was no military checkpoint, there was no order to stop. What actually happened was a planned operation. The military were waiting for a car when the pickup truck came along.
But we staunchly reject the story that has been repeated over and over again, that it was a military error. For us it was a crime of state, state terrorism, because there were 17 bullet holes.
That was at kilometre 39, in the village of San Pedro, municipality of Totoró (in the local indigenous reservation). One of the principles that we defend is the non-invasion of our territories, and that they must remain free of any military presence.
This was not a military mistake. It was an attempt on the life of Ayda Quilcué, an attack on the Minga. It is a provocation against the indigenous movement, and especially the Cauca indigenous movement. And we say that because there is an arrest warrant out for Luis Acosta, the head of the Indigenous Guard, and yesterday they arrested another leader of the Indigenous Guard.
IPS: What’s next? DT: The conclusion reached by the authorities in the (Tuesday afternoon) meeting was that we will continue marching for dignity, we will continue to resist, with courage. We are peaceful, calm people who are setting forth proposals to the country – proposed structural, economic and political changes. And because we are seeking these changes, we are slandered and we are killed.
Our message to the world is to continue marching. The Minga, for the dignity of the people of Colombia, will continue indefinitely; it has not ended.