Caught between an army and guerrillas who have been fighting each other for half a century, the Nasa people have had enough. The indigenous population from the southwest Cauca region of Colombia is demanding that the warring parties go fight somewhere else. Their struggle is resonating around the country, bringing to the surface the intractable components of what seems to be an endless war.
The dust-covered agricultural town of Toribio has become the centre of this fight. Surrounded by mountains, Toribio has been attacked more than 500 times in the last 10 years. Shootings and mortar fire became part of daily life. When a bus bomb exploded last July, killing four and destroying hundreds of houses, indigenous leaders decided it was time to act.
“We decided we didn’t want to pay anymore the price of a war that has nothing to do with us,” said indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia. “We asked to open a dialogue with the government to no avail, so we decided it was time to act.”
It took them over a year to put their decision into practice. The past few weeks saw fresh round of violence that brought more death and destruction. When mortar fire hit the local community clinic, the Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca (ACIN) declared themselves to be in a state of “permanent resistance”.
The government responded to the confrontations with successive increases of the number of soldiers in the area, augmenting the number of troops in the region to 11,400. But even as the government has packed the city with troops, the civilian body count has climbed.
“That hasn’t improved the situation,” Bernando Perez Salazar, an expert on Colombian conflict, explained. “On the contrary, the people feel the number of attacks increased.”
Protecting ancestral lands
The Nasa Indigenous Guard, armed with simple ceremonial staffs, tries to guarantee the safety of their ancestral land without any external help. The Colombian Constitution recognises the Nasa’s autonomous rights over their land.
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The guard began patrolling their surroundings, facing down heavily armed guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), destroying fortified police positions and pushing the army out of their mountaintop barracks.
“The FARC is killing us and the military is not here to protect us,” said Manuel Cruz, an indigenous guard member, while looking for guerrilla fighters in the mountains over Toribio. “The rebels are here for the drugs and the military works for the people who want to steal the riches of our land.”
Both sides of the civil war have since begun retaliating. The national government brought in anti-riot Special Forces to get their barracks back.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called an emergency cabinet meeting in Toribio in an attempt to calm the community. But the visit only highlighted the difficulties. However thousands of additional troops were in the area to provide security, the helicopters took fire from the hills and FARC set up checkpoints a few kilometres from town.
In an effort to address the Nasa people’s anger, Santos has announced a grand investment programme of $280m in the department, but he also promised to send in thousands of new troops and said that the Colombian military would not give up “one centimetre of land”.
The government fears that if the military were to withdraw or even scale down their presence in the area, it could have a serious effect on the regional drug trade, allowing the FARC to increase its revenue from drug trafficking.
Northern Cauca has been a FARC stronghold since the 1960s, with Toribio being among the first towns to be taken by the rebels. Historically, FARC commanders said that this area would be the last that the rebels would ever leave.
That’s because Cauca has always been a hotbed of rebellion – the indigenous movement, the Communist Party and successive insurgent groups have all found a social base here.
“The armed conflict exploded over other conflicts,” said Father Ezio Guadalupe Roattino, a missionary priest who has been in Toribio for the last 30 years. “There is a social conflict and a cultural conflict, both of them unresolved.”
Colonists exploited the indigenous population for centuries. The Nasa claim their lands have been stolen by landlords and armed groups who covet their territory. Many have been pushed higher into the mountains, where it’s harder to grow crops.
“At the beginning, the guerrillas were helping the indigenous in their fight against the landowners,” Roattino explained. “But things have changed dramatically.”
In time, the Cauca region became the link connecting coca-producing plateaus in the south with the Pacific Ocean making it a highly strategic drug trafficking corridor.
The Colombian government claims that indigenous protesters are acting directly on behalf of the insurgents. President Santos released a “caught” email supposedly written in May by a local FARC commander that called for the “spread of propaganda in the municipalities of northern Cauca so that locals demand the withdrawal of security forces”.
“The government is being disingenuous here,” said César Rodríguez Garavito, one of the founders of Dejusticia, a Colombian NGO, and professor of Global Justice at the Universidad de los Andes. “Anybody who has visited these communities knows the truth. The indigenous are the first victims of the FARC. The guerrillas sow landmines in their territory to protect narco trafficking routes. They kill indigenous leaders who oppose them, they demand young family members to recruit.”
The view from Bogota
The issue is rife with polarisation. The media frame it as if the indigenous were being manipulated by the FARC. During the protests, Colombia’s major TV networks – Caracol and RCN – described the Nasa fight as a “disgrace” and “ignominy”.
And on July 17, when more than 1,000 Indians confronted the military in their barrack overlooking Toribio, the networks said the indigenous people attacked the soldiers with catapults and machetes, stealing their consignments.
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None of it was true. Al Jazeera showed soldiers firing in the air and on the ground to scare the unarmed Nasa, but those images never appeared on Colombian television.
Instead, local media incessantly showed a single photo of young Nasas dragging a weeping soldier out of the barracks, leading all the major broadcasters to talk about the “humiliation of the army”.
It’s a tale of two Colombias. While cities live amid an economic renaissance and increased security, those in rural areas continue to face strife in this never-ending conflict.
Since the previous government run by Alvaro Uribe started a full-blown military campaign against the FARC, many Colombians embraced the notion that only war can bring the conflict to an end.
But the Nasa don’t think the government is protecting them and the larger civilian population. In the last 10 years, the Colombian army has been responsible for over 3,000 extrajudicial killings, numerous forced displacements and forced disappearances.
Many of these crimes occurred with impunity.
Nobody seems to have the key to resolve this situation. The Santos government finally accepted negotiations with indigenous leaders with mediation by the United Nations, but it doesn’t seem like a solution will come anytime soon.
The President is being attacked on the right from his once-ally, former President Alvaro Uribe. Uribe claims that Santos is letting the security gains of the last decade slip away. For political reasons, Santos must show strength and use force against the rebellion.
Without expectations of understanding or outside help, the Nasa will continue their fight, convinced that getting rid of the two armed factions is the only way to bring peace to this area for the first time in more than four decades.
“This is the process we have to go through,” said Maribel Lopez Yule, a Nasa indigenous guard holding her ceremonial stick. “We are so exhausted that if we have to die for it, we will.”