History Repeats Itself For Indigenous Communities in Colombia

Bogotá, Colombia—As I write this, over 12,000 indigenous activists and representatives of other popular and social sectors of southern Colombia are urgently congregating in the "Territory of Peace and Coexistence" in La Maria Piendamó, in Cauca, confronting a massive presence of state security forces who have been ordered to dislodge them.

Mass Mobilization Facing Government Backlash in Northern Cauca Amidst "State of Internal Commotion"

Bogotá, Colombia—As I write this, over 12,000 indigenous activists and representatives of other popular and social sectors of southern Colombia are urgently congregating in the "Territory of Peace and Coexistence" in La Maria Piendamó, in Cauca, confronting a massive presence of state security forces who have been ordered to dislodge them.

The popular mobilization began on Oct. 12, and was called to protest the militarization of their territories, the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the failure of the government of President Alvaro Uribe to fulfill various accords with the indigenous communities relating to land, education, and health.

On Monday, as expected, the communities participating in the indigenous protest blocked a portion of the Pan American Highway that connects the cities of Popayán and Santander de Quilichao, in the department of Cauca, in an act of civil disobedience meant to force the government to meet with them to discuss some of their demands.

Instead, what we’ve seen over the last two days are serious confrontations between special-forces police units and the communities assembled, with several indigenous activists severely wounded, one possibly fatally, in the ensuing clashes. These unfolding developments come just days after two other Nasa Indians – Nicolás Valencia Lemus and Celestino Rivera – were assassinated by unidentified gunmen late Saturday night and into Sunday morning, a few hours before the start of the mobilization, bringing the total number of indigenous activists killed in the last three weeks throughout Colombia to 11.

Dirty War with Many Sources

Eyewitnesses say the assassins of Lemus and Rivera were members of the Aguilas Negras, or Black Eagles, a newly formed paramilitary group that has emerged throughout Colombia in recent months.

The 39-year-old Lemus, the brother of two well-known Nasa activists, was driving his car on the road from the town of El Palo to the indigenous reserve of Toribio, in the mountainous region of northern Cauca. He was accompanied by his wife and son. According to eyewitnesses, Lemus was ordered to stop and get out of his car by two hooded gunmen, who proceeded to drill him with bullets in front of his family. The assassins, before leaving the site of the attack, wrote "Águilas Negras" on the window of Valencia Lemus’ vehicle.

However, the current governor of Cauca, Guillermo Alberto Gonzalez, denies there are any new paramilitary groups operating in the department.

Regardless, it appears that a dirty war against the indigenous and popular movement in Colombia is well underway, and it is emanating from many different sources.

On Saturday, the Council of Chiefs of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, CRIC, received a call from the office of Cauca’s governor, informing them of intelligence reports that provide evidence that the Teófilo Forero column of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, intended to assassinate the well-known indigenous leader and member of the CRIC’s council of Chiefs, Feliciano Valencia. On Friday, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, received a faxed letter from FARC, warning of a campaign of extermination against alleged government collaborators within the indigenous cabildos of Toribio and Jambaló.

It is no coincidence that while government officials repeatedly accuse the indigenous leadership of being manipulated by FARC guerillas in their protests and mobilizations, FARC is quick to return the favor, unilaterally targeting so-called sapos, or collaborators, from within the indigenous communities. For the indigenous communities, the results are tragically the same, despite years of declaring their autonomy from all armed actors in the conflict.

Indeed, since receiving a seven-page email threat from a group that described itself as "Angry Peasants of Cauca," CEC, on Aug. 11, five indigenous people in Nariño, three in Riosucio, Caldas, and now three in Cauca have been assassinated. The Governor of the indigenous cabildo of Canoas, also in Cauca, was saved only by the courageous act of a member of his community, who refused to provide details of his whereabouts to armed gunmen who were looking for him two weeks ago.

It should be pointed out that indigenous activists are not the only victims of this latest wave of political violence. Along with the above-mentioned murders, an Afro-Colombian leader in Tumaco, two non-indigenous peasant activists in Cauca, and Olga Luz Vergara, a woman’s rights leader from the organization Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres in Medellín, have also been assassinated within the last month.

Latest Clashes and the "State of Internal Commotion"

Before the Oct. 12 mobilization began, indigenous leaders in Cauca and on a national level had warned about the potential for a repressive backlash against the indigenous movement on the part of the state security forces, as well as other armed actors in their territory.

That President Uribe had declared a "state of internal commotion" on the eve of the protests gave the indigenous leadership considerable reason to be alarmed, despite the President’s assurances that the extraordinary measure was invoked to address the growing crisis in the judicial system, crippled by a four week strike of judicial workers throughout the country.

As stipulated in the 1991 Constitution, the "state of internal commotion," allows the president to govern without the oversight of the legislature, giving the president unprecedented powers, particularly in the area of security and "public order." In announcing his decision to invoke this measure, Uribe pointed to the 2,600 so-called "delinquents" who have been released as a result of the 42-day judicial workers strike, saying that something needed to be done to reign them in and resolve the crisis facing the country’s legal system. The "state of internal commotion" and Uribe’s increasingly authoritative approach to domestic affairs, therefore, was once again justified in the name of security. Now that the government and the judicial workers union, ASONAL, seemed to have reached a tentative deal on a new contract on Tuesday, the big question is whether or not the President will deactivate the measure, criticized by many constitutional scholars as unnecessary, if not altogether undemocratic.

We can probably find our answer to this question in the way the government is confronting the indigenous mobilization in La Maria, Cauca, where helicopters and heavily armed riot police of the so-called ESMAD are surrounding the communities. In earlier, similar mobilizations organized by the indigenous movement, the government refused to negotiate with the leadership until they lifted their blockade of the Pan American highway. Even then, excessive use of force was applied against the communities, as was the case in November 2005 and October 2006. To this day, the movement’s demands about the return of lands promised to them by previous governments – the essence of their earlier actions – have fallen on deaf ears

In the face of the unfolding crisis, ACIN, along with regional and national indigenous organizations, have communicated directly to Santiago Cantón, the Secretary General of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States, calling on the commission to directly monitor the situation in Cauca. Making matters worse for ACIN, by early Tuesday afternoon, their website was shut down and made unavailable, further complicating its ability to communicate information about the mobilization and subsequent crackdown to the outside.

ImageMain Points of the Indigenous and Popular Protest

The ongoing protests in Cauca are a continuation of the movement’s "Liberation of Mother Earth" campaign, initiated by the indigenous communities in 2005. This land recuperation and resistance effort was organized by the leadership in response to the government’s failure to fulfill its obligations to the victims of the December 16, 1991 massacre of 20 indigenous people from the Huellas community, including five women and four children, who were murdered as they met to discuss a struggle over land rights in the El Nilo estate.

The 1991 massacre had followed a pattern of harassment and threats against the Nasa community by gunmen loyal to local landowners who were disputing the community’s claim to ownership of the land. The Special Investigations Unit of the Office of the Attorney General, which handled the first stages of the investigation, uncovered evidence of the involvement of members of the National Police, both before and during the execution of the massacre.

As a result of these findings, the Colombian government agreed to return 15,600 hectares to the community that had been targeted by the assassins. As was widely reported at the time, in 1998, then President Ernesto Samper publicly apologized for the role the state had played in this atrocity, and promised to compensate the victims. Yet Samper’s public apologies contrasted considerably with the attitude of President Alvaro Uribe, who stated publicly once taking office four years later, in 2002, that there were simply no resources to provide any more lands to the indigenous communities affected by the massacre. This was just the start of a very rocky relationship. In his six years in office, Uribe has followed a strategy of outright defiance against the indigenous community’s demands, not only in Cauca, but throughout the country. He has made it a custom to accuse ACIN, CRIC, and even indigenous members of the Colombian Congress, of being accessories to delinquency and criminality. This week’s mobilizations are part of the movement’s ongoing response to what they perceive to be the government’s intransigence vis a vis indigenous people.

Recognizing the uncanny ability of Uribe to get his message across to the Colombian people through its powerful public relations machine, organizers of the current popular mobilization have been putting out statements of their own for weeks about the nature of their protest. In essence, the indigenous movement, in alliance with other popular sectors, has a comprehensive program that they are promoting within the context of the current political crisis, maintaining an extremely critical view of the Uribe government, while stating unequivocally its independence from the guerillas or any other armed group.

For weeks, members of ACIN’s communication team have been carrying out an education campaign throughout northern Cauca, speaking directly with locals about the current threats facing the indigenous movement in assemblies, workshops and town hall-style meetings, held all over the region everyday leading up to Sunday’s mobilization.

In these so-called barridos, as well as in their many communiqués, the organization consistently says "no to free trade agreements like the ones negotiated behind closed doors with the United States, Canada, the European Union," trade deals that look "to displace us of our rights, our culture, our knowledge and our territory." Tied to this is their vehement opposition to the many constitutional counter-reforms and legislative measures that have been implemented under the current government that have chipped away at the territorial rights of the country’s 85 indigenous communities.

They are also demanding that the government complies with a series of agreements, accords, and conventions that have been signed with the indigenous communities over the past 16 years, but that up to now have been ignored systematically, including the ones relating to the Nilo massacre. And they are calling for an end to the militarization of their territories, whether it is manifest in the widespread presence of state security forces in the area, FARC guerillas, or paramilitary groups working under the auspices of powerful local interests. For CRIC and ACIN and all the indigenous organizations in the country, they are simply making sure history does not repeat itself on their territories, and the blood of their people is not spilled once again with complete impunity.

Ruling on Naya Massacre of 2001

It is ironic that on this, the same day that government forces are directly confronting indigenous protesters who are demanding, among other things, compensation for the massacre of 20 Nasa people in 1991, Colombia’s State council ordered the government to pay $3-million in compensation to 82 family members of at least 40 indigenous Colombians that were massacred by paramilitary forces in Naya, Cauca in 2001.

According to the State Council in a ground-breaking ruling issued on Tuesday, just as the government was complicit in the 1991 attack in Huellas, the Colombian State neglected to prevent the incursion of paramilitary groups that led to the murder of at least 40 people (some reports say the number was closer to 100) and the forced displacement of another 3,000 in Naya ten years later. At the time of the Naya massacre, the government of President Andres Pastrana had ignored repeated warnings by the inter-American Commission on Human Rights about a possible upcoming paramilitary incursion in the area.

In the infamous 2001 attack, 500 men of the Calima Bloc of the paramilitary organization AUC, murdered people with chainsaws in several villages in the Naya area of western Cauca. This is the same Calima Bloc whose founder, the jailed paramilitary commander Ever Veloza, alias H.H., now says was responsible for influencing the gubernatorial elections that brought Uribe-ally and anti-indigenous politician Juan Jose Chaux to power in Cauca in 2003. Chaux recently resigned as Uribe’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic when it was revealed that he had close ties to paramilitary groups in Cauca.

As governor of Cauca, Chaux developed the well-deserved reputation of being one of the most racist, anti-indigenous politicians in the country, regularly employing derogatory language to describe the indigenous movement and its leaders. That same language found its way back in the August 11, 2008 email threat sent to ACIN and CRIC, mentioned above. Events since then remind us that these words were not meant to be taken lightly.

The thousands of protesters in La Maria facing government forces understand this very well.

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of Communication at Hofstra University in New York, and the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia, finishing a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of community media.