The Nasa people have long struggled to keep their autonomy and unique way of life and governance. At the same time as having government indigenous representatives, they have a completely separate Nasa system of governing and democracy. For the native leaders, the attacks by the guerillas and positioning of state military in their territory is an attack on their autonomy.
TORIBIO, COLOMBIA – Like most Saturdays, Sara Muñoz, 34, went to deposit money at the local bank in Toribio, a small town in Cuaca province, Southern Colombia. While waiting in line with her small three children, she suddenly heard loud explosions from outside. The FARC – left wing guerrillas who have been fighting the state government since the 1960s – had stormed the town and detonated a car bomb outside the police station. Being only a block away from the blast, the roof of the bank was blown off, trapping Muñoz and her three children. “It was terrifying, we did not know what had happened, we were just stuck there,” says Muñoz clearly traumatised by the event.
At the time, her father was working at his meat stall, a couple of blocks away in the local market, in the main square. One of the gas cylinders, which the guerillas used for the home made bomb, was hurled through the local church and hit him in the head. He died instantly. Muñoz’s eldest son was next to him when it happened, “He just collapsed, we did not know what happened, but you could not recognise his face,” says the son Christian. The family’s house was next to the police station and was completely destroyed. “We have no idea what we will do now, we are too scared to stay here,” says Muñoz trying to comfort her children. She says that they have not been able to sleep since the day. “So many times innocent native people are being caught up in a conflict that we have nothing to do with,” says Muñoz.
The same sentiment is echoed throughout Toribio, which is unfortunate to be placed on a key drug smuggling route and near FARC territory. While Cauca has remained relatively peaceful in recent years, fighting between the government and guerillas is on the rise. The government military has stepped up its efforts to flush the FARC out of strategic strongholds. The FARC claims to fight against Colombia’s ruling class and for the people. It was founded on the ideals of Marxism and communism but has since been criticised for funding its operations through the drug trade and losing much of its ideology. In response to the rise in government efforts, the FARC have responded by increasing bombings, attacks and assassinations. Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris reported a 10% increase in attacks over last year. Though some media have labeled it a ‘comeback’, local observers believe it is more of a desperate attempt to hold on to strategic land in the face of a growing state military offensive.
While the FARC and government military battle it out for the rebel’s strategic land, the natives leaders say they are increasingly caught in the middle. They point to the bombing of Toribio as evidence. The walls of the local police station, a concrete fortress, were completely left in tact. Around the police station, though, nearly thirty homes were completely destroyed, five hundred damaged, four civilians killed and hundreds injured. With so little damage done to the police station, and the bomb mostly just affecting the local native population, many are asking themselves, what are the FARC really trying to achieve?
A week later, in the main square where Muñoz’s father was killed, indigenous leaders from across Cauca came together to find a solution to the increasing suffering of their people. They were joined by the Indigenous guards – a 7,000 man unarmed police force made to protect the communities from armed groups and rescue natives when fighting breaks out – and also by representatives of international and national NGOs. Standing in front of thousands of local people, leaders took it in turns denouncing the violence and effects it was having on their people. Leaders agreed to demand a complete demilitarization of their territory and asked that the FARC and the government enter into peace negotiations. While local media has criticised the natives for being supportive of the guerrillas, the native leaders were very clear they want all armed groups out of their territory. “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,” said the leaders’ statement. “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 leaders say they are fed up with the guerillas lack of regard for the civilians and explain that the situation is only getting worse. Gabriel Pavin, a former mayor of Toribio, told Upside Down World that the civilian population is being increasingly targeted by the guerillas. Civilians are killed when fighting breaks out, children coerced into the FARC ranks and indigenous leaders leaders killed when their fighting for autonomy is seen to be a threat. “Look, the police station is completely fine, but only the civilians were effected, there is no care for us,” says Pavin standing by the meeting in Toribio. At the same time, the leaders also voiced their frustration with the government for putting military posts and police stations in the centre of the towns. This, they say, brings the guerrillas into the town space and the violence. “It is against international law,” says Pavin. “They should be outside of the town.”
The Nasa people have long struggled to keep their autonomy and unique way of life and governance. At the same time as having government indigenous representatives, they have a completely separate Nasa system of governing and democracy. For the native leaders, the attacks by the guerillas and positioning of state military in their territory is an attack on their autonomy. Their governance is based on a system called the ‘living plan’, which refers to the building up of education, health and governance to make a ‘good life’ for their people. When fighting takes place in their territory it destroys their process. Mayor Jose Correa of Tacueyo explains that by calling on the armed groups to leave their territory, this is part of their developing model for the life plan of their communities. “We are not trying to make a military resistance but simply continue are traditional way of looking after our people.”
When asked why they thought the FARC had bombed Toribio in such a way, which would obviously effect the local population, many said that the FARC see the indigenous leaders as a threat to their power. The FARC frequently tell the indigenous leaders that the guerillas are for the people and the natives must help them. However, the natives see this as a threat to their autonomy and argue that they are not FARC but natives and that the guerillas should respect their autonomy. The most powerful and vocal native leaders, who stand up to the FARC, are often assassinated. Over the years several assassinations have taken place, leading Jose Correa to say, “It does not matter what we say or do anymore, it is too late, we are already the enemy of the guerrillas and the government”. At the same time the state government often accuses the native population of supporting the guerillas, something the majority of the leaders denounce.
As the conflict has been going on for so long, many of the leaders and natives have begun to question why. While some suggest the FARC has been able to successfully resist the state military, others provide more sinister explanations for the escalating conflict in their region. According to some Nasa activists, they believe that certain people in the FARC are being paid by military commanders to keep the conflict going. They believe that the state is trying to provoke fighting in order to excuse bringing in more military soldiers on to indigenous land. They say the conflict displaces the local communities, and the state military together with paramilitaries then sells the land to multi-nationals. Feliciano Valencia, a Nasa leader, says that there are applications for multi-nationals pending throughout Cauca province. He believes that all the attacks and conflict are planned under the US-backed Plan Colombia. “These attacks and military movements are not random events,” says Valencia standing near the meeting. “There is a policy of Plan Colombia to recover the territory, which uses a lot of force to provoke confrontations so they can reclaim the land.”
While the indigenous leaders stood in Toribio’s square demanding demilitarization of their land, the government was seemingly not paying attention. Six hundred extra troops were being prepared to deploy to Tacqueyo reserve, next door to Cauca. The soldiers form a special high mountain battalion, specifically trained to hunt down FARC chief Alfonso Cano, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains around Tacqueyo. The deployment has terrified local residents.
Sitting outside her small shop, high in the mountains in the Tacueyó indigenous reserve, Liliana Alarco tried to hold back tears as she recalled the day her young son was injured. When the military installed a base close to their village in Buenavista, in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca province, she says her family knew something bad was bound to happen. “We lived there peacefully for many years, but when the military came they were fighting with the guerrillas nearly everyday,” says Alarco. Then one day, as her 13-year-old boy was walking home from school, fighting broke out between the FARC and government soldiers. Her son was caught in the middle as the two sides exchanged gun and mortar fire. Suddenly, a large bomb exploded, and her son was hit in the stomach by shrapnel. “It was terrible, his entire digestive system was destroyed,” she says, adding that he was in a coma for a month. Eventually, they managed to raise the money to get him the treatment he needed, which saved his life. But while his health may be better, the trauma remains, says Alarco.
“He does not sleep at night, he cannot stand the sight of soldiers and he is always scared,” she says. Following the incident, she moved her family to Tacueyó in hope of escaping the intense fighting. For some time now she and her sons have lived in relative peace. However, the news of the deployment has terrified her children, who are scared that once again they will be caught in the middle of the fighting. “He’s only just started going back to school after his injury,” Alarco says about her son. “It’s a horrible life when you are always worrying what will happen the next time your boy walks home.”
A major concern for the reserve is the number of people fleeing their territory due to the violence. They are losing many young people, who either go to the cities to find work or are coerced into joining the FARC at a young age. Sitting outside his home halfway up a mountain on the outskirts of Tacueyó, Juan (not his real name) tells Upside Down World how he was recruited to the ranks of the guerrillas at the age of 13. “They would constantly call on me and ask me to come to training and tell me I would be a man if I did,” he says. Then one night in March, he was called by a FARC contact to come to a training session. In the middle of the night, the government forces bombed the area, killing 16 of the 40 or so young people there.
According to the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), at least four of the victims were minors, who were “supposedly combatants.” ACIN also stated in its communiqué that two civilians went missing there, and their bodies later showed up in the morgue in the city of Cali, the capital of the neighbouring province of Valle del Cauca, “reported as guerrillas killed in the army operation.” It is widely alleged here that the FARC contact who invited Juan and the others to the training session was actually a guerilla who had been paid by the military to set up the operation. “They paid him to let them kill us, so they could pretend we were all real full-time guerrillas, and they would get reward money,” adds Juan. “I am scared to see more military of any type in this area.”
Another concern is the rise in suspicions by the government, and guerrillas, on the natives. On August 2, a young lady was assassinated in Cauca province. The indigenous leaders believe that the guerrillas killed her because they suspected she was an informer for the state army. As the fighting escalates many fear that this will increase in the coming months. The government army also has a record of mistreating, and killing, those that they suspect are supporting the FARC. “We know if fighting increases we will suffer as both sides suspect us of supporting the other,” said Maria, a local farmer going by one name. “We are just trying to live our lives in peace but neither side wants us to, for their own selfish reasons.”
It appears that already the FARC is keen to threaten the indigenous leaders and prevent any progress of the demilitarization campaign. Ten days after meeting with other leaders in Toribio’s square and calling for demilitarization, the General Secretary of ACIN received an anonymous death threat. The caller asked the General Secretary to speak to whoever is in charge, at being asked to identify herself, the caller made the threat. “You have 24 hours to vacate all your offices, or you will face the consequences,” the caller said before abruptly hanging up. The indigenous communities believe that it was the guerillas, trying to intimidate the leaders for their decision to push FARC and other armed groups out of their territory. This is potentially a major blow to the FARC who will be struggling to get support from the native population as the government military launches its offensive.
Despite the serious risks involved by publicly denouncing the guerrillas, the indigenous leaders remain resolute. They are demanding the armed groups leave or they will take measures. In the pipeline are plans to march to army barracks and demand they leave, erect indigenous checkpoints to prevent armed groups from entering their territory, and using all other legal and non-violent means to prevent the fighting from escalating in their territory. Letters will be sent to both the FARC and government in an attempt to create a ‘humanitarian dialogue’ and end the conflict. On August 21, leaders say they will build the first checkpoint of the Indigenous Guards, which will be located on the main road to Toribio. They are also planning to march to FARC camps to demand the return of child soldiers, and also to government military bases to request their departure. They know it will be no easy feat. They will be going up forces known to kill and value territorial control over human life. However, according to indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia, they have no other option but to risk their lives to protect their communities. “It might be suicide, but we have to do it, for the good of our people.”