[News] History Repeats Itself For Indigenous Communities in Colombia

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 17 13:01:38 EDT 2008

History Repeats Itself For Indigenous Communities in Colombia

By Mario Murillo

(Bogotá, Colombia; October 14, 2008)

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 October 12th, 
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, newly formed paramilitary groups 
that have 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 August 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 October 12th 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.

Main 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 
heavily armed 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.

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