Colombia: Why They Kill the Awa

We write these lines overcome by tremendous pain and sadness. We write from the shared rage we feel towards this criminal act, apparently committed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cauca, FARC, whom we condemn for these irreversible horrors and the shedding of innocent blood.

FARC Guerrillas at Training Camp

We write these lines overcome by tremendous pain and sadness. We write from the shared rage we feel towards this criminal act, apparently committed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cauca, FARC, whom we condemn for these irreversible horrors and the shedding of innocent blood.

As we write, the Colombian Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, is arriving in the Department of Nariño to conduct the military operations that constitute the government’s response to the massacres and terror these indigenous communities are now facing. Referring to the difficulty the government authorities are having in obtaining the cooperation of the indigenous peoples, Minister Santos stated to the media: “We hope we can convince [the Awá] that the best position, the best attitude they can have is to collaborate with the authorities, with the Armed Forces.”

“Kick them while they’re down” is the phrase that best describes the government’s reaction to these terrible circumstances, basing its response on the supposition that, according to the information available, the FARC committed the massacre. The result is that the atrocity—this massacre, the ongoing massive displacement, and disappearances, all faced by the indigenous communities caught in the middle of this terror—is blamed on the victims. It is their fault, implies the Minister, because they refused to collaborate with the Armed Forces. He tries to convince us that, if the Armed Forces had been in the territory, the violence would not have happened. As a consequence, the complete militarization of the territory is underway with the pretext of protecting the Awá, who in turn run to the forests while some of their leaders, seeing no other option, call for the help of the Armed Forces. The Colombian corporate media, the government coalition and their spokespeople all echo these calls, and Colombians -terrified by the horror of this ongoing genocide, in turn call for the same.

United in calling for the protection of these people and for justice to be served, we denounce the assassins, whoever they may be; in this case, we denounce the FARC, who in carrying out these actions have confirmed a terrible truth: they have evolved into one more agent of terror against the people. These perverse acts are the same as those carried out by the paramilitaries, the Armed Forces, and all others who use violent force to subjugate Colombia’s peoples and communities. We have denounced them before, and we denounce them now: at its core, terror is used as a means for achieving certain ends that ought to be acknowledged. If these ends are ignored, the only expected result is atrocity; without objectives, massacre and terror have no motive. They would be ends in themselves – terror for terror’s sake. But terrorism, from wherever it comes, is a mechanism to achieve objectives other than those stated; that is why the truth demands a different reaction, one that comes from the entire Colombian population, from indigenous peoples and organizations, and one that is backed by governments and peoples of the world.

The truth can be found in the answer to a necessary question: Why do they massacre the Awá? It is absolutely critical to ask this and to react coherently and firmly in consequence. To do otherwise is to allow the terror of this massacre to serve as an excuse to commit further massacres, as a mechanism to displace the people from their territory, culture, and way of life, and to make them disappear in a premeditated genocide. If this happens, those who have sacrificed to defend their lives, cultures and territories will have fought for nothing. Once again, we will have allowed ourselves to be convinced that these massacres against the Awá in Nariño have nothing to do with the massacres in San José de Apartadó, Urabá, Catatumbo, Amazonía, Cauca and across the country. That these massacres have nothing to do with the murders of women, trade unionists, peasants, human rights activists, and the entire package that accompanies acts of terror, no matter who the perpetrators are [1].

Because we understand terrorism to be a perverse means to achieve perverse ends, we refuse to forget, we point out the crimes, and we denounce and condemn the FARC with pain and rage, not only for this latest crime in which they have sown pain, death and misery, but also for contributing to the pillage that forces indigenous peoples from their communities and lands.

The Facts: 1. Terror as a Tool

“We are People of the Mountain, children of the wild forest, and for these reasons they are going to have to take our lives” was the premonitory statement of Eder Burgos, coordinator of Camawari, of August 10, 2008. It was made during the hearing to review the critical situation of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Rights Law (IHL) faced by the Awá people. The hearing took place in the presence of officials from various levels of the Colombian government, watchdog officers, UN representatives, and NGOs from the Human Rights sector, under the watchful eye of over seventy people from indigenous groups, most of them members of this people who had mobilized in southern Colombia. According to the communiqué from the National Organization of Indigenous People of Colombia (ONIC, by its Spanish acronym), “during the hearing, authorities and representatives of the Awa people submitted a report obtained through grassroots consultation, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Ombudsman’s Office and SAT”. Both the hearing [2] and the report evidence the dramatic developments of the pillage for land by all the armed participants against the indigenous population. The communiqué points out that communities in the townships of Tumaco, Barbacoas, Roberto Payan, Samaniego and Ricaurte have brought forward specific abuses, such as “‘three days of bombardments, including places where the displaced population [was] coming together in the town of Ricaurte, specifically in the indigenous reserves of Magui and Imbima,’ as had already been made clear by the regional Ombudsman for the Department of Nariño to his superior in a letter dated today”. These are the territories where the community is currently being massacred.

Both the Resolution and the Report denounce and give clear evidence of the presence of terror in that territory, the dirty war against the civilian population that implicates the Armed Forces as well as illegal armed actors, supporting the claims that terror is being used against the indigenous communities as a strategy for submission and to deprive them of their land [3].

The evidence contained in the Report, the Hearing and the Resolution, put together, demonstrate the groundlessness of the allegations made by the Minister of Defense. The Armed Forces have been and currently are spreading terror against the Awá; therefore, far from being a warrantor against abuse and the violation of Human Rights, they are a direct threat against its application. All the armed actors are exercising violence against the Awá.

2. Greed and Megaprojects

a. Agribusiness and plantations: The Colombian Pacific Coast and the lowlands, all of which include the ancestral territories of the Awá now suffering massacres and forced displacement, are zones of strategic interest for projects of capital accumulation, both legal and illegal, including monocrop operations of rubber, and palm oil, as well as the cultivation of coca and laboratories for the processing of coca leaves. As is the case for the rest of the country, these agribusiness projects demand the use of, and rely upon terror inflicted against the ancestral inhabitants of these lands [4]. Their displacement coincides with the theft of their land [5] [6].

b. Mining and Vital Resources:

As the Situation Bulletin on Human Rights and IHL in Nariño concludes, “The geographical resources in Nariño have brought about investment analyses by multinational corporations to explore the viability of projects for strategic resources such as uranium and gold” [7]. As reported by the national agency for the mining industry, INGEOMINAS, Sociedad Kedahda S.A., a division of Anglo Gold Ashanti, submitted 110 applications for mining contracts in Nariño in July of 2007.

These applications are disturbing based on this corporation’s history of intervention: there is a strong correlation between the activity of this corporation and the violation of Human Rights. Resources among the 37 municipalities in Nariño for which Kedahda S.A. has submitted applications are as follows: for the municipalities of Taminango, Leiva, Rosario, Policarpa, Cumbitara, Samaniego, and Barbacoas there is a wealth of gold, zinc, copper, silver, platinum, molibdenum and other minerals, and it is in these townships that there has been a notorious presence of Armed Forces and illegal armed groups that has produced grave Human Rights situations and violations of IHL against the civilian population, which has been subjected to cruelty, degradation and inhumane treatment. The abundance of water and wood resources, biodiversity, biotechnology, hydrocarbons and oxygen in this region is outstanding. The ancestral lands of the Awá are under threat from the interest expressed by the great transnational extractive industry.

c. Infrastructure:

The Multimodal Axis of the Amazon [8] of the Project for Integration of Regional South American Infrastructure (IIRSA by its Spanish acronym) runs across the lands of the Awá, starting from the Colombian Pacific Coast. The 284 kilometers of highway running between the Colombian cities of Pasto and Tumaco cut through targeted Awá lands and are a part of the multimodal corridor stretching along Tumaco – Puerto Asis – Belem do Para (the latter in Brazil) that will communicate the Pacific and Atlantic coasts across South America and through the Amazon region. Beyond the benefits that these modern and expensive highways may generate, not to mention the enormously destructive environmental impact they will bring, these roads are being laid with the clear intention of opening new territories for the extraction of vast resources to be privately exploited by transnational corporations. The roads are to be managed under a private operator scheme. Their existence, construction and use impose the submission, forced displacement and destruction of the peoples who live in its path and the areas it will affect. The Awá live in the midst of this planned infrastructural mega-project and have thus become dispensable. The disappearance or subjugation of the Awá serves the interests of those who seek to obtain benefits from this mega-project, one that threatens and diminishes all peoples who claim rights over the territories that stand in its way [9].

d. Tourism and other interests:

The natural beauty and wealth of resources in the lands of the Awá, both in the Colombian Pacific coast and lowlands of Nariño, are ideal places for the tourism industry, which is frequently used to articulate projects for the exploration, exploitation and private patenting of the life and knowledge of the territory and its peoples. The tourism industry expels or exploits the dispossessed indigenous peoples, raking in enormous profits and seizing autonomous territories and peoples as though they were commodities existing for the sole purpose of accumulation.

Carrot and Stick: Law and Terror

Those who promote and ultimately benefit from death and pillage combine “all forms of struggle” to access the riches and resources they seek. Meanwhile, diverse armed actors, both legal and illegal, carry out the dirty work of terror through criminal war tactics directed against these communities. The strategic, awaited and inevitable result is the privatization and plunder of their territory, a process through which the Colombian government implements policies that provide the legal and institutional framework needed for the exploitation of the land.

The Rural Statute [10] (or Law 1152 of 2007) provides a direct example. The sole paragraph of the law’s Article 123 reads: “procedures involving the establishment, expansion, or reorganization of indigenous reserves shall not be allowed to take effect within the geographical limits determined in Article 2 of Law 70 of 1993, nor in areas of the country that present similar conditions.” Article 2 of Law 70 (1993) delimits the Pacific Basin as a territory located between the Chiles volcano, on the Ecuadorian border, and the Gulf of Urabá, on the Atlantic Coast, to the Pacific Coast. This immense territory spanning mountains, foothills and coasts, includes the Colombian territory of the Awá people of Nariño.

According to the article cited in the Rural Statute, indigenous reserves cannot be established, expanded or reorganized in the Pacific Basin. Thus the Awá people lose, through law, the right to a large part of their current and ancestral territory. As a result, their territory is ‘liberated’ for economic interests that ultimately benefit – whether directly or indirectly – the actors of terror. A total of 27 legal petitions by the Awá community have been suppressed: 4 for the establishment of reserves, 8 for their expansion, and 15 for their reorganization.

Currently, the Constitutional Court is set to issue a ruling regarding the Rural Statute. If this law is declared unconstitutional, as was the Forest Law (Ley Forestal) in April 2008 (for violating the obligation of prior consultation with affected communities) [11], the Awá and the other indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples of the Pacific region might be able to bring forth legal actions to resolve their claims to territorial rights. These necessary legal permits have been impossible to obtain thanks to the actions of those who massacre, displace, confine, and threaten. Meanwhile, new owners of the territories appear with false titles that are legalized all too easily.

Eventually, the inefficiency of the state, laws and terror will have combined to consolidate the pillage and expropriation as an accomplished historical fact. By then, the mega-projects and usurpers of riches will have been established, the territory will have been exploited, and the struggle, sacrifice and suffering of the victims will be buried by the infamy of a history written by thoughtlessness and greed.

The Awá people struggle for their dignity, lives and the life of their territory. They are exterminated for the sake of insatiable greed. Although it is important and urgent to know who committed this terrible and unpardonable massacre, so that justice may be served, to make known the truth and respect those affected and their families, even more important is to understand that they were massacred to strip them from their territories. That is why we must denounce and mobilize to resist the project served by terror against our sisters and brothers. Today, the project kills in order to steal.

An Appeal

First, we join with the ONIC, all indigenous peoples, and all those who feel the commitment and necessity to accompany the victims in solidarity. We call on the Humanitarian Minga to affirm its presence and convert pain into companionship and concrete action.

Secondly, we call together those who have been demanding the mobilization of the Social and Community Minga of Resistance. The message is clear: the attempted assassination of Aida Quilcué that left Edwin Legarda, her companion, dead – yet another ‘false positive’ carried out against popular resistance by the National Army under orders from the designers and promoters of the policy of ‘Democratic Security’ – is currently followed by further massacres, this time committed by the FARC, which serve as a means for escalating the pillage before the insensitivity of the society and the world.

This issue is not exclusive to the Awá, nor is it a problem faced only by indigenous peoples or by just one community in Nariño. This act of terror is part of the acceleration of policies of pillage implemented through death. This is Plan Colombia in action, an economic mega-project that hands over our territories and our lives to the greed of global capital.

Facing so much horror, we can no longer watch from afar, waiting for our turn to come. We have to understand why they killed us then, why they kill us now, and why we must rise to stop them, to resist. Now is the time to reject, for once and for all, the horrors committed by the FARC in the name of the people, just as we reject the horrors of the regime.

It is also painfully evident what little use it is to have land, denounce human rights violations and negotiate agreements with an illegitimate government when its development model – which includes agreements and laws that are served by terror, from wherever it comes – means only massacres, displacement and pillage. The obligation to resist the model in its entirety, and as a priority, is paramount. In these conditions, faced with all the terrible facts, what must be recognized above all other concerns (even the political-electoral) is the urgency of an agenda of mobilization and action in a Minga that resists and stops the accelerated course of the pillage, of which this most recent massacre is a part.

We call upon the Social and Community Minga. We are putting forward the agenda to resist the death model that is on the way through the FTA, laws of pillage, broken agreements, terror and in the absence of a people weaving together common struggles for freedom. Let us decide together, in Minga, how to stop the horror of the FARC, the government and the rest of the armed groups in Nariño and Colombia. Let us figure out how we can support the Awá people and, with them, defend their territory. Let us determine how to defend life and our own territories from this assured and approaching death, one that exists so that a few may continue to accumulate.

So that the dead may rest and their families rebuild their lives, so that the dignity of the Awá is restored, so that no one may steal from them their territories, so that those with guns and hate leave us in peace, so that the murderers no longer declare that they fight for the people or that they have come to protect us, so that we have a country of peoples without owners, so that they haven’t been massacred for nothing: the Social and Community Minga. Let us meet in a collective territory and build the Minga from our pain, consciousness and path. The Awá are not alone [12].

Translated from the original Spanish available here: Photo Courtesy of

[1] These victims include civilians massacred by the Armed Forces, then dressed up as guerrillas and shown as proof of the progress in the War on Terror, a tactic known in Colombia as creating ‘false positives’.
[2]Awá deciden y se arriesgan a contar sus amenazas
[3] Declaración Final Preaudencia Nariño y Putumayo
[4] Resolución Defensorial No. 53. Pueblo Awá
[5] Boletín Situacional sobre los Derechos Humanos y el DIH en Nariño
[6] See Eje Multimodal Amazonas de la IIRSA, página 36
[7] Boletín Situacional sobre los Derechos Humanos y el DIH en Nariño
[8] Eje Vial Multimodal Amazonas ¿oportunidad o amenaza para la región?
[9] See Eje Multimodal Amazonas de la IIRSA, página 36
[10] Estatuto Rural, Ley 1152 de 2007.
[11] Sentencia C-030 de Abril de 2008
En esa medida, de acuerdo con el ordenamiento constitucional y en particular con el Convenio 169 de la OIT, que en esta materia hace parte del bloque de constitucionalidad, la adopción de la ley debió haberse consultado con esas comunidades, para buscar aproximaciones sobre la manera de evitar que la misma las afectara negativamente, así como sobre el contenido mismo de las pautas y criterios que, aún cuando de aplicación general, pudiesen tener una repercusión directa sobre los territorios indígenas y tribales, o sobre sus formas de vida.
[12] HOUGHTON, JC, Editor. La Tierra contra la Muerte