Cauca: A Microcosm of Colombia, A Reflection of Our World

In tandem with the rising tide of violence in Cauca, a department in Colombia’s southwest, the Colombian government is using the media to attack solidarity activists in Colombia and Canada through dangerous allegations.


July 2008 assembly in Corinto, Cauca to discuss escalating violence in the region

During the first two weeks of August, more than two dozen youth were assassinated by suspected paramilitary groups in the streets of Santander de Quilichao, and an extensive death threat was directed to Indigenous groups in the area.

In tandem with the rising tide of violence in Cauca, a department in Colombia’s southwest, the Colombian government is using the media to attack solidarity activists in Colombia and Canada through dangerous allegations.

Call it the storm after the passing calm that swept Colombia and the world after the July 2 rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 prisoners of war held by the FARC.

Paramilitary violence historically pursues a double agenda of social cleansing and political cleansing through threats, detentions and killings; in this case, young men have been killed by paramilitaries in what some locals likened to a low-level drug war in Santander de Quilichao. The extrajudicial assassinations carried out in Santander de Quilichao, a town of about 100,000 people, are part of the paramilitary agenda to rid a given territory of their perceived enemies, and create fear among the general population.

For members of the Communications Network (Tejido de Comunicación ) of the Association of Indigenous Authorities of Cauca (ACIN), the killings, in addition to often directly affecting their friends, families and communities, have another meaning: their leaders will be the next to be targeted.

"What I’m scared of is that this happened here about seven years ago, it started like this and then the killings started to become so normal, and our leaders started to be killed" said Vilma Almenda, a coordinator with the Communications Network.

Almendra’s perspective on the issue was prescient: just days after our interview, the Communications Network received a seven page threat signed by the "Irate Campesinos [Peasant farmers] of Cauca."

Rife with racist comments, the threat accused the Nasa of being responsible for occupying lands, which led to the displacement non-indigenous peasant farmers. The threat was received on August 11, and reads: "at approximately 00:00 tonight, you will receive information regarding the murders at the hands of peasants of paHECES [1] and the ex-guerrilla heads of the CRIC [Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca], which will be confirmed by phone and a consequences of their disrespect."

According to a communiqué released by CRIC and the ACIN, "All indications lead us to believe that this letter comes from the landowners and paramilitaries in collusion with their counterparts in the government."

Adding weight to their claim that paramilitaries were responsible for the threat, the largest campesino associations in Cauca distanced themselves from the threat in a statement that reads "the Irate Campesinos of Cauca… are not campesinos, they just use the name to disguise themselves." The statement from the peasant organizations continues: "The construction of true Agrarian Reform and the defense of life and human rights are a goal that unites us with the indigenous movement…"

A Campaign of Continuous Terror

The Nasa people, who number about 110,000, live for the most part in the north of Cauca. It is estimated that over 50 percent of children from Nasa families in northern Cauca suffer from malnutrition, and 24 percent of the population does not have lands with which to sustain their families.

The Nasa have won Colombia’s national peace prize twice for their commitment to non-violent social organizing and struggle, no small feat given that there are active paramilitaries, fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a huge army presence in their territories.

The violence against Nasa people does not happen without calculated reasons, the most prominent of which is control over territory. Landowners have been involved in planning massacres of indigenous farmers, which not only destroys the community leadership but leads to the displacement of the families and the communities of the victims, opening up territory for cash crops and resource extraction.

Nor does the violence against the Nasa happen in isolation. According to Ron Redmond, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, "There are around a million indigenous people in Colombia, belonging to more than 80 different Indian-American groups with over 60 separate languages. Nearly all of these groups have been victims of forced displacement or are threatened by it as a result of the internal armed conflict."

Luis Guillermo Pérez, a lawyer with the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective estimated in 1997 that of the approximately 10 people assassinated daily in Colombia, one out of ten is killed for political reasons, and seventy percent of killings are extrajudicial executions and massacres.

According to a new video produced by members of the Communications Network, between 2001 and July of 2008, there were 222 assassinations and 25 disappearances among members of the Nasa community. There have been six massacres of their people carried out by paramilitary forces since 1991, the latest took place less than a month ago, when 10 people from the village of El Tumbador were massacred.

There are also instances of killings by the army, known as ‘false positives’, where the victim is later dressed up as and portrayed as a member of FARC. Amparo and Silvio Chaguendo were killed by the Pichincha Battalion of the Colombian Armed Forces on May 29, 2008, while seeking safety from gunshots outside. They were later accused of having been members of FARC, claims that were refuted by family and community members.

Finally, over the last eight years, there have been more than half a dozen assassinations of Nasa people by the FARC.

Liberating the Earth from Occupation

The Nasa campaign to control enough land to sustain their communities is as old as the Spanish conquest. As in other countries like Guatemala, European and Mestizo settlers pushed indigenous peoples from the fertile lowlands into the highlands, where they remain, for the most part, today.

Later, during the period between 1948 and 1956, known in Colombian history as La Violencia, it is estimated that two million people were displaced throughout the country, abandoning 350,000 small farms. The massive displacements in the mid-twentieth century served the large landowners, and in the area around Cauca, large sugar cane plantations came to take up huge tracts of land.

The massacres continue into modern day. Following a 1991 massacre at El Nilo, when more than 20 Nasa were killed, the government promised lands for the Nasa to settle on as reparations, including a farm called La Emperatriz.

La Emperatriz remains to this day planted with sugar cane and other cash crops, and has not been returned to the Nasa. The Nasa have taken direct action in attempt to reclaim these lands, which they call the "Ritual of the Liberation of Mother Earth," cutting down the sugar cane that is destroying the rich soils and planting food crops for community subsistence.

During the latest attempt to "Liberate Mother Earth" at the Emperatriz farm on took place from July 3-5, 2008. Twenty-six people were wounded when the ESMAD (Colombia’s equivalent of a SWAT team) attacked the participants.

Sugar cane is not the only economic interest in the region. A recent wave of mining speculation has seen a number of junior mining companies, together with South African gold mining giant Anglo Gold Ashanti, commence exploration work for gold throughout Colombia. In Cauca, Canadian junior mining companies Latin American Resources and Cosigo Resources are exploring for gold, even amid the conflict.

The roots of the displacement of rural Colombians from the late 90s until today took place in the context of the US financed Plan Colombia. This has today been succeeded by Plan Colombia II, which aims for the social recuperation of territory by the state through a combination of repression and the creation of dependency.

Repression against the civilian population struggling to maintain autonomy and dignity in a conflict zone has long been the norm in Colombia. The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal studied Colombia for three years, and recently recently ruled that "Colombia seems to be, in one sense, like a true institutional political laboratory where the interests of national and international economic actors are fully defended though the state’s abandonment of its functions and its constitutional duty to protect the dignity and life of the population, to which instead the state applies the Colombian version of the doctrine of national security."

Solidarity is not insurgency

Many sectors within Colombia have joined together in support of the Nasa people, contributing what they can to their peaceful struggle for justice, land and autonomy. International solidarity has also played a role in denouncing the gross rights violations taking place in Cauca.

Recently, Héctor Mondragón, a Colombian economist, writer and peace activist who has been a steady companion to Nasa organizations, was claimed to have been linked to the FARC in an article in Colombia’s largest daily El Tiempo. The so-called evidence was unearthed on a laptop confiscated after a bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuador by the Colombian army in early March.

Justin Podur wrote recently, "If the regime is going after Hector Mondragon, then it is not about FARC’s fundraising networks but about the same thing it’s always been about: destroying any social forces and organizations, including – or perhaps especially – the political and unarmed ones that oppose the plunder of the country."

El Tiempo published allegations that social organizations, trade unions and the left in Canada are supporting the FARC financially. There is little doubt that the FARC have outside supporters, but for people in Canada who have worked with social groups who are engaged in peaceful struggles and movements in Colombia, these kinds of sweeping allegations appear to be meant to scare people away from engaging in solidarity on the premise that it could link them to insurgency.

Michèal Ó Tuathail, from Canada-based solidarity group La Chiva, responded to this notion, commenting "This latest campaign of lies tries to ‘link’ Canada-Colombia solidarity to the FARC insurgency… is already underway, and we encourage you to get informed now. We will need your support, as a storm is brewing…"

[1] Translator’s note: a racist slur. Instead of ‘Paez’, another name the indigenous Nasa go by, the author(s) use the word ‘paHECES’. ‘Heces’, in Spanish, means ‘stool’ or ‘human excrement’.

Dawn Paley is a Vancouver based journalist. She volunteers as a translator with La Chiva.