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

COLOMBIA: Native Groups Mobilise Against Escalation of War

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jul 22 2011 (IPS) - The powerful Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), in southwest Colombia, has called a “minga” or protest march to “curb the militarisation driven by the army and the FARC,” the main guerrilla group, which set off a car bomb on a busy market day in a Nasa Indian town on Jul. 9.

"Toribío is not a battleground" - Nasa-run Centre for Education, Training and Research for Integral Community Development (CECIDIC) poster. Credit: Courtesy of CECIDIC

"Toribío is not a battleground" - Nasa-run Centre for Education, Training and Research for Integral Community Development (CECIDIC) poster. Credit: Courtesy of CECIDIC

“In the minga (a term that refers to a traditional indigenous meeting or activity for the collective good), we set out, but we don’t know when we’ll return,” Darío Tote, a Coconuco indigenous leader who is the regional coordinator of the educational programme of the CRIC, which represents the nine native ethnic groups in Cauca province, told IPS.

“The local indigenous children are terrified,” said Tote. “When they’re on their way to school, armed actors appear on the road, and you don’t know who they are: army, guerrillas or (far-right) paramilitaries.

“The children are terrified by the uniforms, weapons, shooting, helicopters, planes,” he added.

“We are on the alert, in permanent assembly,” which means “being together with our families, our children,” he said.

Tote told IPS that the “minga of resistance for autonomy and peace and an end to the war” will set out within one or two weeks, to march across indigenous territory that has been occupied by armed groups.

The immediate aim of the protest is to force the army, police and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to dismantle the bases and camps that they operate in the midst of the civilian population.

“We don’t want to give either side a military advantage; what we want is to defend the lives and the autonomy of our communities,” the CRIC said in a strongly worded statement issued Thursday Jul. 21 but dated Jul. 20, Colombia’s Independence Day.

“We hope both sides understand that our objective is humanitarian in essence. We are calling on our friends to help the government and the FARC understand this,” adds the CRIC communiqué, which was published Thursday.

On Wednesday and Thursday, some 6,000 indigenous people gathered in a hearing with the CRIC regional directors in Toribío, a town of 4,000 that is surrounded by Nasa Indian reserves in the Andes mountains in the north of Cauca province.

The municipality of Toribío is comprised of the town and the reserves, which have been recognised as indigenous territory since the Spanish colonial authorities did so in 1702, and is home to some 28,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Nasa Indians.

It was in Toribío where indigenous leader Quintín Lame led a rebellion in defence of native land rights against landowners encroaching on their territory in Cauca, starting in 1910. And it was in that town that the CRIC was created in 1971, to defend and fight for “unity, land and culture”.

It was also in Toribío that Álvaro Ulcué, Colombia’s first indigenous Catholic priest, was assassinated in 1984. Ulcué, a Nasa activist, was the driving force behind Project Nasa, a local indigenous-based development initiative launched in 1980 that gained international recognition for its local governance and anti-poverty efforts.

A bit to the north and east, on the other side of the Andes, a huge battle is raging because, according to the government, that is where the headquarters of FARC chief Alfonso Cano is located.

Because Jul. 9 was market day, some 1,500 people were packed into the central plaza in Toribío. Suddenly, shooting was heard nearby, and there was a loud explosion in a street parallel to the plaza, in back of the church where some 40 people were attending mass.

Over a radius of 400 metres, pieces of gas cylinders – used by the leftwing rebels to make homemade bombs – as well as the bumper of a rural bus sliced down from the sunny sky that morning. The bus transmission was blasted 70 metres before it ended up embedded in the wall of the parish priest’s house.

The explosion came from a bus full of gas cylinders that the insurgents apparently rolled down from the Project Nasa central offices to the police station, one block downhill. But the station is a concrete fortress and barely suffered a scratch.

The FARC also launched explosives “that fell in places with a heavy civilian presence”; the guerrillas had no concern for “the magnitude of the damage,” the office in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) said in a communiqué.

“We didn’t know which way to run,” one resident of Toribío told the UNHCHR delegation that visited the town after the attack.

The attack by the FARC, which first emerged in 1964 in the same impregnable region where government forces are now pursuing Cano, lasted an hour and a half.

“It’s hard to believe that in the plaza, only the butcher, Jesús Muñoz, died,” Henry Caballero, a business administrator who was working in the Project Nasa office at the time and somehow managed to escape injury from the broken glass, told IPS.

“You would have expected more people to die in the plaza, because it was jam packed with people,” he added.

A total of three civilians and one police officer were killed, and 122 people were injured in the attack, which destroyed 27 houses and damaged another 433. In addition, 1,175 students were left without classes because the school was damaged, as was the church, while the town’s only bank was destroyed.

“There is no possible justification for such contempt for human life and for a political process that has proven that it is capable of building dignity, democracy, autonomy and social justice,” says the CRIC statement.

“This was an attack against all indigenous people,” it adds. “We feel they have destroyed the house of each one of us, that the rain and cold felt in the past few days by those who have lost the roof over their heads has been felt in every indigenous reserve in Cauca.

“If we don’t stop this war, the country will witness a terrible massacre of civilians and the destruction of a good part of the peaceful political and democratic initiative that we indigenous people have brought to fruition with an enormous effort over the space of many years,” the CRIC added.

According to the mid-year report by the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think tank in Bogota, Cauca is one of the five regions where the armed conflict has recently escalated and the government forces have reportedly “adopted defensive strategies.”

There are some 15,000 troops in the northern part of Cauca province, and on Thursday another troop increase was announced.

In response, the FARC are bringing in fighters from other regions, and have stepped up recruiting of both adults and minors, according to the local indigenous groups.

In the meantime, “the State has subordinated the law and its own economic interests to sustaining a war and the economic-military mafias that drive it forward,” the CRIC statement says.

“For the insurgency, it is no longer a question of having an armed force to defend a political project, but to destroy all political projects – including their own – for the purpose of maintaining their military apparatus,” it maintains.

“Every actor in the war consciously violates humanitarian law, under the argument that the other side had already done so,” the CRIC says.

The “minga” protest includes a humanitarian commission made up of women, elders and former indigenous governors who will present the points of view of the traditional indigenous authorities, recognised by the constitution as the governing authorities in the reserves, directly to the government and the guerrillas.

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