Armed Conflicts, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean | Analysis

COLOMBIA: Neutrality Impossible for Indigenous Groups

BOGOTA, Sep 10 2009 (IPS) - The latest killings of Awá Indians in southern Colombia – 12 members of a family, including four children and three teenagers –, the forced displacement of hundreds of native villagers, and death threats against indigenous leaders and teachers are signs indicating that their demand to be considered neutral in the armed conflict is still being ignored.

The Aug. 26 murders were preceded by the killings of at least 17 members of the Awá community in February by the left-wing FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas, and by death threats against Indigenous Unity of the Awá People (UNIPA) leaders.

Some become obstacles for the armed groups, as awkward witnesses. That was the case of Tulia García, one of the Aug. 26 victims, who had seen armed men detain her husband Gonzalo Rodríguez on Aug. 23 and later found his body, with shots to the head.

According to a statement by Human Rights Watch, “Colombia: Investigate Massacre in Southern Region; Possible Army Involvement and Effort to Eliminate Witnesses in Killings of 12 Indigenous People”, García had accused the army of killing her husband.

The Awá collectively own the land and rivers in the Gran Rosario reservation or “resguardo” in the southwestern province of Nariño, a place of strategic value for the armed groups. They also have strong boys and young men that the armed groups recruit, against the wishes and cultural values of their families.

The Awá are intimately familiar with the region, but refuse to serve as guides for any group that carries weapons. Like other indigenous communities, “they are opposed to any form of violence,” as missionary Antonio Baraín explains.

Any of these reasons, or all of them together, could be the explanation for the murders of the Awá. And any of the armed groups, or all of them, could have been their killers.

So far this year, 10 different waves of forced displacement have brought hundreds of people to the Pacific port town of Tumaco, in Nariño, near the Ecuadorean border.

In June, 517 people fled to the town from villages in the area, and 1,062 did so in July and August, according to a statement by the Catholic diocese of Tumaco. Meanwhile, the recruitment of minors by armed groups has increased.

A total of 62 teachers are facing death threats, 14 of whom have fled the region, and 173 people have been murdered this year, according to the forensic institute – or more than 260, according to the local diocese.

Fifty forced disappearances have been reported this year. And based on reports of common graves, authorities from the attorney general’s office and the forensic institute are seeking remains along the Chagüí River, in the villages of Candelilla de la Mar and La Guayacana, and in the area along the border with Ecuador.

In June, the corpses of seven people killed three or four months ago in La Guayacana were brought into the morgue.

The statistics reflect a region at war.

Caught in the crossfire of the various armed groups, the aim of the Awá indigenous people is to be left alone. The FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), far-right paramilitaries, drug trafficking gangs and army are all active in the area.

With a gesture of indignation, Oscar Ortiz, secretary of UNIPA, said “all of the armed actors are in the region, and they are all murderers.”

Like indigenous communities and other groups around the country, the Awá have tried to remain neutral in a conflict not of their making, but have ended up as victims.

In September 2002, the press in Colombia covered an “uprising” by the people of El Charco, also in Nariño, against a group of paramilitaries who had seized control of the town a year earlier. The natives finally got fed up with the abuses and shows of force and, armed with sticks and machetes, forced the paramilitaries to leave. In the fight, one paramilitary was killed and four were wounded.

Two months earlier, local residents had stood up to the guerrillas in the Guambiano indigenous reservation in the neighbouring province of Cauca.

In response to death threats against indigenous mayors, the Guambiano responded with sit-down vigils and rallies to back up local functionaries acting in the name of Colombia’s indigenous authorities. “Threatening a mayor is not only an attack on the state, but is also an interruption by force of a process of which we all form a part,” said one of the local authorities.

Despite the risks, the indigenous people insisted on confronting the guerrillas unarmed. “Indigenous resistance does not consist of a show of force, but cohesion,” said a local anthropologist.

It was that common front that convinced the insurgents to temporarily pull out of the area. A month later, the guerrillas laid siege to a nearby municipality, Jambaló, whose local indigenous council had approved resolution 007, in which its 13,000 inhabitants declared “civil resistance.” And in the face of the threats from the leftist rebels, they announced: “Your weapons will not be met here with violence, but will be met by guards watching over their people, armed only with staffs representing their authority.”

More effectively than by taking up arms, the Guambiano have attempted to distance themselves from the conflict by refusing to cooperate with any armed group.

That is the same policy followed by the Paez Indians, also from Cauca, who in July 2003 did not hesitate to defy the guerrillas who kidnapped Swiss citizen Florian Arnold Benedite, head of “Manos por Colombia” (Hands for Colombia), a non-governmental development foundation that works in that area.

Some 2,000 unarmed indigenous people surrounded the spot where seven FARC combatants were holding Benedite and Paez leader Ramiro Pito. Their unity, strength in numbers, opposition to the conflict and demand to be respected as non-combatants did more than weapons could have done, and secured the captives’ release.

Non-indigenous peasant farmers have also followed the path of nonviolence and civil resistance in the face of armed groups, even the army. The best-known case is that of San José de Apartadó in the northwestern province of Antioquia, which declared itself a “peace community” in 1997, but with less success.

More than 100 people in the community have paid for their decision to remain neutral in the conflict with their lives.

The most recent massacre in San José de Apartadó, where eight adults and three children were killed in February 2005, had clear similarities with the Aug. 26 murders of the 12 members of the Awá family. Members of the army – three officers and 12 non-commissioned officers – as well as paramilitaries were charged with the murders in March 2008.

Like the peasants in the peace community who said “no” to all of the armed groups, the Awá had become an “estorbo” – a Spanish term used by the indigenous leader Ortiz when referring to the Aug. 26 murders, which means “nuisance,” “hindrance” or “obstacle.”

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