World

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.

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.

Following the assembly, the guerillas' confiscated weapons were incinerated along with parts of the combatants’ uniforms and the commanding insurgent’s motorcycle. The accused were sent home with relatives, as government officials said they planned to investigate each family to determine the young fighters’ motivations for joining the rebels.

Nasa leaders say they are aware their actions against both the FARC and the government might provoke a hostile response, but that the tribe is ready to die defending its territory.

“There will always be backlash, be it from the army, the guerrillas or the paramilitaries. Its pains me to say it, but I think the community is not scared. I have never seen fear in them. They asked the spirits to protect them in this fight for justice,” said Isadora Cruz, a representative from the Association of Indigenous Councils in Northern Cauca.

The capture and trial, along with enraged shouts from the crowd to “kill the guerrillas” during proceedings, appear to contradict Colombian government and paramilitary accusations that the Nasa is allied with the FARC -- a claim they vehemently deny, saying the population has suffered at the hands of all armed combatants.

“It is completely false that the indigenous are infiltrated by the guerrillas. We are not for one side or the other. We want everyone out. This is not our war,” said Edgar Tumiño, an indigenous Guard leader.

In a press conference following the army base recapture, President Santos quoted emails seized from the FARC in an operation last May ordering regional guerrilla units to “spread propaganda in the municipalities of northern Cauca so that people would require the forces to withdraw from populated areas.” Santos went on to say that while not all Nasa were FARC sympathizers, “there are elements where we know there are direct links," and that the government would prosecute accordingly.

One of 35,000 soldiers recently sent to the region, who wished to remain unnamed, believes several community members are influenced by the FARC, who authorities say purchase the marijuana and coca that local farmers produce. He admits that innocent third parties getting killed is “unfair” but “part of life,” and that he’s there to “protect the greatest amount of people and follow orders.”

Ana Silvia Secue, spokeswoman for the Multicultural Organization of Colombian Indigenous People (OPIC), also claims the local population is influenced by the FARC. She alleges that the Indigenous Authority of Northern Cauca (ACIN) and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), the two main groups representing indigenous interests in peace talks, have an agreement with the FARC to drive security forces out of the region.

But there is reason to question these allegations as OPIC has been accused of being a front for government interests. Created in 2009 under then-president Alvaro Uribe, the group was the only indigenous organization to promote Uribe’s controversial military-based security policy, Plan Colombia, and is not recognized by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, the country’s principal indigenous rights group.

The claims linking the Nasa with the FARC are serious accusation that put the entire population at risk. A pamphlet delivered in three Cauca municipalities by paramilitaries July 27 warned that a “social cleansing” of left-wing guerillas and their sympathizers would be carried out in the next few days, specifically against the Nasa, who they claim are “led by a bunch of sons of whores who have links to the FARC.”

The message came from the Black Eagles, a network of neo-paramilitary groups, or illegal right-wing armed organizations that fight leftist rebels and government forces to protect their economic, social and political interests.

President Santos has emphasized the military’s orders to protect the population, saying that “these soldiers are trained to fight, but they are also trained to obey orders, to have restraint, to have discipline.” However, many residents do not feel protected.

“The army shot at 50 people in the center of town, splitting a girl's chest and destroying her uterus so she can't have children--that's a humiliation for the townspeople. They talk about respecting human rights, but they don't do that. They humiliate the spirit of the land and the Nasa people,” said Tumiño.

The town of Toribio has been hit over 500 times during the last decade, with an estimated 30 attacks just this year. Various reports coming out of the region suggest that fighting between security forces and the guerrillas has driven anywhere between 300 and 3,000 people from their homes in recent months.

Santos has kept his word to increase the military presence and "not cede a single centimeter of Cauca or of the national territory." Speaking in Toribio on July 11, President Santos, amid ample boos and public protest, announced “Plan Cauca.” The plan is a roughly $2.8 million security initiative that intends to curb FARC presence in the department through increased military presence and investment in social development projects. More than 30,000 troops have been dispatched to the department since the recent disturbances broke out.

Talks between Nasa leaders and the government fell apart July 27 after the interior minister and defense minister did not appear at the meeting. The Nasa said they refused to meet with officials who were not authorized to make decisions, although both ministers claimed they had never promised to attend.

The Nasa has cited three main demands: they want the government to withdraw all troops from the region, stop making “unfounded accusations against indigenous communities and their alleged links with illegal armed groups,” and to give the wounded guarantees of survival.

According to both the Colombian Constitution and a UN agreement signed by the government, the Santos administration may not dispatch military units to indigenous territory without the local population’s consent. What happens should the government refuse the indigenous demands? “Hasta luego, go back to Bogota and we will continue the fight,” says Valencia, an ACIN leader.

As yet, no formal talks have been scheduled with the FARC, though Nasa representatives have been in contact with the group, according to Valencia. On July 25, top FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko,” issued a statement on the group's Web site saying the guerrillas will leave the area when security forces and neoparamilitary groups exit the region.

“When the military, the police and the [neo]-paramilitaries leave Cauca, when they end their war against the indigenous, peasants, miners and the people in general, we won’t have any problem with leaving too,” the statement reads.

The worsening security situation in Cauca is a huge political challenge for the Santos administration, highlighting the government’s inability to control large swathes of the countryside -- areas key to the FARC’s narcotrafficking operations and fundamental to its support base.

“It is a political defeat for the Santos government," said Jorge Restrepo, an analyst at Colombia's CERAC think-tank. "It puts in question his ability to win reelection." President Santos has remained silent on whether or not he will seek a second term in 2014.

Santos was elected to office after serving as defense minister under Alvaro Uribe from 2006 to 2009, a period heralded as the government’s most successful campaign against the FARC -- progress that many, including Santos’ predecessor who has proven to be his sharpest critic, seem to think is being reversed.

Speaking from the same military encampment, another soldier who also did not wish to give his name said, “Uribe did a better job with the security forces, the statistics speak for themselves.” The soldier was referring to a 57 percent rise in illegal armed group attacks in the first three months of 2012, compared to the same period last year.

Since taking office in 2010, Santos has received varying reviews. Internationally, Santos has been largely regarded as a success, lauded for finalizing a neoliberal trade agreement with the United States and thawing relations with Venezuela and Ecuador. Domestically, he has put ambitious initiatives into motion with good intentions. However, many of his plans have yet to deliver, particularly in outlying regions.

A recently failed attempt at judicial reform, combined with the resurgence in guerrilla attacks, has caused the president’s domestic approval ratings to slide. The latest Gallup poll indicated 48 percent approval in June -- a long jump from the 76 per cent he garnered in late 2010 following the assassination of the FARC’s then-military commander, Mono Jojoy.

A solution to the conflict will prove difficult in a situation where all sides are prepared to die for their cause. After living in fear for years, the indigenous say they are not willing to negotiate.

Speaking for the Nasa people, Valencia claims the indigenous recognize the danger of being consigned to an inconvenient pawn in the government’s 64-year fight against the leftist insurgency. “Yes, we are afraid, but we can’t stay cornered by fear. We are doing what we have to do as a community.”

Sarah Kinosian is an American freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. She currently works for news website Colombia Reports.