Colombia Reports | Monday, 20 October 2008
Colombia’s bad indians’ uprising: meeting with Cauca indigenous
On October 13, 516 years to the day that First Nation originarios discovered Christopher Columbus, 12,000 indigenous Colombians marched onto the Pan-American highway in Cauca, and refused to lift their blockade until their demands for land, liberty, and life were met by the state.
Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, already facing widespread strikes by sugar-cane cutters, judicial workers, and university students, declared a national state of emergency and sent in the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Riot Squad to break up the highway blockade.
The resulting clashes between protesters and police killed at least two indigenous Colombians, and wounded at least 70 more.
This week the indigenous rights groups will march to Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia, to press their demands.
We recently returned from ten weeks in Colombia as international accompaniment delegates with the human rights organizations Witness For Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams and Justicia y Paz. We traveled to and met at-risk communities in rural Cauca, Chocó, Santander, and Bolívar, as well as in Bogotá and Medellín.
In the departmental capital of Popayán, we met with the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and heard their perspective, platforms, and prescriptions first-hand.
“In the movies of today that we call news, we are shown that the bad guys are Indians and the good guys are cowboys,” said CRIC member Jorge Caballero.
“Uribe is shown as the good cowboy, and the rest of us are just the bad Indians.”
CRIC is a coalition of First Nation originarios with a collective history more than ten thousand years old. CRIC, and other groups like the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), and the National Indigenous Organization of Cauca (ONIC), began organizing in the contemporary context in the 1970s, to defend themselves against a brutal dirty war waged by Colombia’s power-elite to break up las resguardas indigenas, indigenous territories.
“As indigenous people, we live on collectively-titled land,” said Aida Quilcue, spokeswoman for the CRIC council of elders, who carries a traditional tribal baton symbolizing authority.
“Historically we have conserved our natural resources and worked collectively to preserve the resources for future generations,” she said. “No one owns the water, but we live on the land and are willing to protect it.”
Quintín Lame, an indigenous guerilla group from Cauca, demobilized in 1990 and joined the peaceful political process as a bloc in the constituent assembly, a move that helped lead to a recognition of cultural, social, and economic rights in the 1991 Colombian Constitution.
The 1991 Colombian Constitution, International Labor Organization Convention 169, and Colombian national law 21 all protect the cultural and territorial rights of indigenous people.
According to Francisco Ramírez Cuellar, a mining union lawyer who has survived seven attempts on his life, and the author of “The Profits of Extermination: How U.S. Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia:
Colombia’s 1991 Constitution defines the country as an “estado social de derecho” or “social state of law”. This progressive language means that the State is defined as functioning under the rule of law and promoting the political, social, and economic rights of all its citizens. It defines the role of the state in protecting social rights and economic rights more broadly than does traditional liberal thought of the nineteenth century, or neoliberal policy of the late twentieth.
Unfortunately, the indigenous rights outlined in the 1991 Colombian Constitution, and subsequent statutes, are rarely upheld. On December 16, 1991, at least 40 indigenous men, women, and children from the Nasa tribe were massacred in the Huella community in northern Cauca by a bloc of the AUC paramilitary organization on the payroll of local landowners and drug-traffickers. The Fiscalia, Colombia’s version of the Chief Prosecutor, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, and the Inter-American Court for Human Rights have all denounced state involvement with the atrocities.
3,000 Nasa were displaced from the area by the AUC in 2001.
The Samper Administration signed a treaty with the indigenous people to return 15,600 hectares of land stolen from them by right-wing paramilitary death-squads. But current Colombian President Alvaro Uribe refuses to fulfill this obligation, citing the need for rural economic development and transnational investment to prepare for the passing of the free trade agreement with the United States.
“The Uribe government has not fulfilled its obligations to us,” Quilcue said. “The agreements that have been signed have not been honored.”
Since 2005, CRIC and other indigenous communities have engaged in a civil resistance and land recuperation project that they call “Liberar la Madre Tierra”, or “Liberate Mother Earth”, to reclaim and recuperate the traditional lands that have slowly been taken from them ever since the time of the Spanish conquistadores.
On June 13, 300 indigenous youth were attacked by the Colombian National Police’s Mobile Anti-Riot squad on a hacienda they were occupying outside of Caloto in northern Cauca. The police fired gas canisters filled with glass and rocks, and one youth was shot in the leg by a round of live ammunition. An indigenous forum in 2006 was also repressed by state security forces using live ammunition. On November 27, 2007, four indigenous community members were seriously wounded when National Police and other men wearing civilian clothing fired on them with tear gas and pistols.
Since January, dozens of indigenous youth in Cauca have been murdered by state security forces, many of them so-called “false-positive” killings because the bodies were dressed up and presented as if they were guerillas killed in combat.
On July 3, indigenous movement leader Rafael Coicue was assaulted by masked gunmen and shot in the left eye in his home in Corinto, Cauca. Fortunately, he survived the attack.
On August 11, the ACIN received a seven-page letter written by a newly reformed paramilitary organization threatening them and CRIC with death as “a consequence of their disrespect”. The letter, signed by the “angry farmers” of Cauca, is widely believed to be the work of wealthy landowners whose interests are threatened by the indigenous land recuperation projects.
On September 28, Raul Mendoza, the governor of the indigenous cabildo Peñon, and former member of CRIC’s council of elders, was assassinated in his home in Popayán. The same day, indigenous movement member Nicolás Valencia Lemus was also murdered.
At least 11 indigenous people have been killed in the last three weeks alone.
A bomb was also recently found inside CRIC’s office in Popayán, but it was removed successfully before it detonated.
“Once again we are being pushed off of our land with bullets and blood,” Quilcue said, her voice quavering with emotion as she tried to choke back tears.
Indigenous CRIC representative Demetrio Moya Obispo said the political struggle in Colombia is integrated with the economic struggle against wealthy landowners and multinational companies. Because of this, Obispo said, the indigenous struggle is interrelated with the struggle of campesinos, labor unions, and Afro-Colombians.
“Our lands are considered territories of peace, but we see that armed conflict is occurring on our lands,” he said.
“In Colombia we are seeing an economic and social crisis. The government says things are improving but that’s not what we’re seeing. The Democratic Security Policy is only helping the upper-class.”
CRIC and other indigenous coalitions in Cauca state that “para-politicians”, in league with multinational corporations, want to exploit and privately own their land for financial profit.
“President Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy, financed by Plan Colombia, is meant to open the door for the free trade agreement,” Quilcue said.
“The new norms in the trade agreement give our water and land away to multinational corporations and directly go against the territorial and cultural rights of indigenous people, as well as against the rights of the civil sector. Our people have to be displaced from our land before the multinationals can exploit it.”
“We see this new type of military action as a new type of colonization of our communities,” Caballero said.
“We are not drug traffickers, not communists, not terrorists, but Uribe frames us as such so he can use a military response against our land liberation actions.”
The FARC have also used threats and intimidation against the indigenous movement in Cauca, claiming that their communities are collaborating with the Uribe government.
“We understand that there is an extermination strategy against us,” Quilcue said. “But we will not just lie down and die.”
The Pan-American highway blockade last week forced President Uribe to agree to one of the indigenous’ demands, to compensate the affected communities for the land that was stolen from them by the paramilitaries. But First-Nation Colombians have been promised compensation before, and other indigenous demands for health-care, education, and security from violence have not been addressed.
Uribe’s claims to have stabilized Colombia may have been premature. Over 2 million of four million internally displaced Colombians have been forced off their land since Uribe took office in 2002, and several prominent human rights organizations have credibly demonstrated that extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions by state security forces have all increased under Uribe’s watch.
The parapolitics scandal in Colombia has implicated over 70 congressmen, 30 of whom are in jail, as well as a number of current and former military officers, government officials, local and regional politicians, and members of Uribe’s political party and inner-circle.
A declassified 1991 report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency states that Uribe had close connections with Pablo Escobar, the Medellin drug cartel, and paramilitary organizations. The report also states he was dedicated at the highest levels of his government to collaboration with these criminal organizations.
The alleged paramilitary demobilization process also appears to have failed (depending on your point of view; those who call it the amnesty and impunity law might say the law did exactly what it was intended to do). Dozens of civil society groups in Antioquia, Bolívar, Cauca, Chocó, and Santander all told us that a new paramilitary group, Las Aguilas Negras, the Black Eagles, has stepped into the vacuum left by the demobilization of some sectors of the AUC. According to El Tiempo, so-called “next generation” paramilitary organizations have re-armed and are operating in at least seven departments around the country. Violence is up 107 percent in Chocó alone.
Uribe’s cross-border raid into Ecuador last March and the fraudulent use of the Red Cross emblem this summer are both war crimes under the Geneva Conventions and contributed to a worrisome destabilization of the region.
The Editorial Board of the International Socialist Review made a compelling argument recently that Plan Colombia and the militarization of Colombia is not only meant to quell a domestic leftwing insurgency, but also to act as a check on left-wing governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Indigenous Colombians, along with campesinos, Afro-Colombians, women, and the urban poor, are among the groups that have suffered the most from Uribe’s Democratic Security policy and the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia. The Permanent People’s Tribunal of Colombia issued a statement in July warning of “the imminent danger of physical and cultural extinction faced by 28 indigenous groups,” in Colombia. The tribunal charges the Colombian government, armed actors, and transnational corporations with “the deployment of strategies that have the objective of expelling indigenous peoples from areas of economic interest...[and]...to facilitate the exploitation of these areas...by transnational corporations,” charges that the tribunal says amount to genocide.
It is in this context then, that we must understand the “Bad Indian Uprising” in Colombia in 2008. International allies of conscience can stand in solidarity with Colombian civil society by demanding that the United States government de-fund Plan Colombia and block passage of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. Wars on drugs and terror should be redirected to a war on poverty. Alternate legislation like the Jubilee Act and the 2008 Trade Act should be supported.
The next President of the United States of America must be held accountable for his policies in Colombia.
Author David Goodner and Megan Felt spent ten weeks in the Colombia, visiting the most vulnerable minorities of the country.