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How a Native Colombian Tribe Is Trying to Kick the Army and Rebel Forces Off Its Lands

The indigenous Nasa tribe has overtaken a government military base, captured armed rebels and incinerated guerillas' weapons.
 
 
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An indigenous tribe incinerates weapons they captured from armed rebels.
Photo Credit: Sarah Kinosian

 
 
 
 

For 40 years, the indigenous Nasa tribe has watched hundreds of its people die in the crossfire between the Colombian government and leftist guerrillas. And now, they've had enough.

The FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Latin America’s longest-standing rebel group, has been locked in a bloody war with the Colombian government since 1964. FARC claims to fight for the rural marginalized masses and promotes social revolution throughout the country.

Violence has surged in recent weeks between the government and the FARC on Nasa ancestral lands in Cauca, a province in the country’s southwest that is a historic rebel stronghold and a key hub for the production and trafficking of cocaine.

Fed up with enduring decades of bloodshed, the indigenous community of 115,000 in Colombia’s southwest Cauca department has launched a peaceful fight to get war off its land. The community has organized a series of sizable protests, including overtaking a military base, to drive all armed actors out of the region.

Tensions between government security forces and the indigenous population around the town of Toribio in northern Cauca, the epicenter of the conflict, have grown over the past three weeks following a pledge from Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos that the armed forces were “here to stay.”

“The only thing the FARC, the police and army has done is kill people here. For that, we are tired,” says Felicano Valencia, a national spokesman for Colombia's Nasa tribe. Now reaching a peak, the Nasa's non-violent resistance is posing a serious challenge to President Juan Manuel Santos' security policy, which critics have labeled “soft on terrorism.”

The Nasa's efforts climaxed on July 21 when its guard, an unarmed group that includes women, children and the elderly, stormed a military base, 7,500 feet up a mountain outside Toribio. The tribe had given soldiers a deadline by which to leave a few days earlier and when some failed to comply, the guard marched to the camp and forcibly manhandled the remaining soldiers from the camp. The commanding officer knew the guard was coming and ordered his men not to respond with force. But facing humiliation, security force commanders sent riot police to violently reclaim the base the following day with guns and tear gas, injuring around 30 Nasa.

Elsewhere, a soldier accidentally shot dead a young Nasa man at a nearby checkpoint, prompting the Nasa to capture 15 soldiers from the shooter’s platoon, who were released later that night.

That same day the indigenous guard also targeted the government's opposition, capturing three FARC rebels and a 16-year-old accomplice just outside Toribio with a stockpile of weapons. Charged with disrupting the peace and putting the tribe at risk, hundreds of Nasa gathered at a local high school three days later to sentence them by show of hands.

The four men, all local to the area, looked on while community members decided between traditional punishments, known to the Nasa as “remedies.” These “remedies” included burying the rebels in the ground up to their necks for 24 hours, hanging them from their feet for several hours, or lashing them with a leather whip, a traditional Nasa penalty given to community members accused of crimes such as rape and domestic violence.

The teenager’s family cried out as he fell to the ground, wincing in pain after just two lashes. Their pleas for the flogging to end were joined by other voices in the crowd, asking those demanding more whippings, “Do you have sons? Savages!” At the behest of the crowd, none of the captives received their punishment in full.