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COLOMBIA: Awa Indians Hemmed in by War

Constanza Vieira*

BOGOTÁ, Feb 27 2009 (IPS) - Colombia’s FARC guerrillas admitted to killing eight Awá Indians who they accused of being army informants. Expert on military affairs Ariel Ávila said this indigenous community in the war-torn province of Nariño had formed vigilante “self-defence” groups.

Displaced Awá children. Credit: UNHCR//M. H. Verney.

Displaced Awá children. Credit: UNHCR//M. H. Verney.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) referred to these groups in statements it released, Ávila told IPS. “The Awá had set up these Peruvian-style groups. I had heard of this practice.”

Ávila is a member of the Armed Conflict Observatory of the Bogotá-based Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which differs from other think tanks because its studies and papers are based on close monitoring on what is happening on the ground.

“The debate is whether the self-defence groups were set up by the army or at the initiative of the indigenous people themselves. According to the FARC, it is a form of pressure through rewards” handed out by means of government programmes like “forest ranger families”, which provides subsidies to farmers who refrain from growing coca, said the analyst.

“But the guerrillas also say it was on the community’s own initiative,” he added.

Similar “rondas campesinas” or peasant self-defence groups emerged in northern Peru in the second half of the 1970s to fight cattle rustling and impose justice in property boundary disputes. But they later expanded to a total of around 400,000 local vigilante committees in that country.

In the early 1990s, the Peruvian government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) armed the rondas campesinas, even in areas where the guerrillas were not active, and the army began to take often bloody action against those who refused to cooperate with the rondas as part of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy.

According to experts on the issue, the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in Peru were actually defeated even before the group’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in 1992, because the rondas isolated and fought Sendero, while the armed forces were modernised and upgraded.

The mountainous province of Nariño in southwestern Colombia has the largest number of people forcibly displaced by irregular armed groups and the highest concentration of land mines in the country.

All of the forces involved in Colombia’s civil war – the army, the far-right paramilitaries and the leftwing rebels – are fighting for control of the province, which is no man’s land in military terms, a strategic corridor for drug traffickers and a supply route for the irregular armed groups.

According to the Armed Conflict Observatory, the military situation in Nariño is as follows:

The 17,000 armed forces troops posted there will be reinforced this year with another 10,000.

The FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest insurgent group in Colombia, have been active in the province since 1987 and 1985 respectively.

Today there are some 600 FARC fighters in Nariño – including the 150-160 members of the Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre Column, which claimed responsibility for killing the eight Awá Indians – and around 300 ELN combatants.

Since 2005, the two rebel groups have been fighting each other fiercely for control over territory in the entire southwestern part of the country.

Since negotiations with the government that led to the demobilisation of 32,000 paramilitaries, offshoots of the far-right drug trafficking gangs have also been present in Nariño, under the names of Black Eagles, New Generation, Gaitanista Self-Defence committees and “Los Rastrojos”, who total around 600 combatants.

The paramilitaries began to establish a presence in the province in 2001, with the “Libertadores del Sur” (Liberators of the South) front, which has been identified as working with the army.

Some 630 members of that group demobilised in a July 2005 ceremony. But the very next day, said Ávila, “just over 300 of them took up arms again. People in Nariño told me ‘nothing has changed here’. A day later, they were patrolling in uniform, as members of the New Generation.”

The Black Eagles and New Generation have threatened and intimidated social activists in the province. No one has publicly stated that the groups currently work with the army.

The Rastrojos, part of the drug-running Cartel del Pacífico, are allies of the ELN, while the Gaitanistas, headed by drug lord “Don Mario”, come from the northwestern province of Antioquia.

Another gang, “Los Machos”, disappeared six months ago. The group, led by drug baron “Jabón” of the Norte del Valle cartel, who was killed by his men in Venezuela, was reportedly allied with the FARC.

But “today they are all against the FARC” in Nariño, said Ávila.

In addition, some of the groups create temporary alliances and others fight the FARC and the ELN in the province.

Los Machos and Los Rastrojos spent several years fighting each other. Today their leaders are either dead or in jail. “They clash over control of drug routes, and after the capture and death of all of these leaders, the gangs are left adrift. It’s the law of the jungle,” said Ávila.

In this scenario, “it’s unclear whether these indigenous people are only working on behalf of the army,” as the FARC stated, he said.

“The paramilitaries are also threatening and driving out the local people. They are planting African oil palm plantations, which lead to forced displacement, and coca is grown everywhere,” he said.

The police station and army base in the Nariño town of Roberto Payán, whose population is mainly black, were attacked by the FARC on Jan. 13 with homemade explosives that left five dead, including four children.

President Álvaro Uribe, who visited the Nariño municipality of Barbacoas, where the eight Awá Indians were killed, announced that he would step up his government’s anti-terrorism policy and that he had designated a military officer as a liaison with the Awá community.

The Awá refused to cooperate with the army in locating the bodies of the people killed in the Feb. 6 massacre committed by the guerrillas, said armed forces commander Freddy Padilla.

Because the area where the bodies were left was heavily mined, army troops only began to find the corpses 10 days after the killings.

The Awá reported fighting, machine gun fire and bombing in their territory since Feb. 1.

“Little is known about how the clandestine networks of informants grow up in these communities around the actors in conflict,” anthropologist Efraín Jaramillo of the interdisciplinary and inter-ethnic Colectivo de Trabajo Jenzera working group wrote in his article “Terror in the Pacific”.

In Colombia, said Ávila, “one of the main problems is that the government, the FARC, the ELN and all of the other groups have involved the civilian population in the conflict,” which violates the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants in conflicts, a basic tenet of international humanitarian law.

The government does so by means of social assistance programmes like “forest ranger families,” in exchange for which it demands military intelligence and information, he said.

As a result of the confrontation between the ELN and the FARC, the growth of drug trafficking in the region and the growing degradation of the war, “local people do not trust any armed force, because they become potential traitors in the eyes of all of the groups,” said Ávila.

*This article is part of a three-part series about recent killings of at least eight Awá people by the FARC.

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