‘We Believe in Our Communites’: an Interview with the Indigenous Peacemakers of Cauca, Colombia

Activists Manuel and German, members of the Indigenous Guard formed by the Nasa
Activists Manuel and German, members of the Indigenous Guard formed by the Nasa ethnic group. Photo by Elizabeth Palmberg.

The photos from rural Cauca, Colombia are so dramatic they’ve repeatedly made the international news: indigenous Colombian activists--bearing sticks, community spirit, and a whole lot of moxie--demanding that heavily-armed FARC guerrillas and government armed forces alike leave their territory. As the war between the FARC and the government heats up again in Cauca, civilians are — as usual — getting caught in the crossfire; the town of Toribío has been attacked 14 times this year, according to the BBC.

In response, Nasa activists last week shouted FARC guerrillas from their roadblocks back into the jungle, overran a hilltop government military outpost, and booed Colombian President Manuel Santos when he went to Toribío to hold a saber-rattling emergency cabinet meeting. (Yesterday, government forces used tear gas to drive out activists and re-occupy the post).

Last summer, in Cauca with Witness for Peace, I was able to interview two of those activists, members of the Indigenous Guard formed by the Nasa ethnic group. The Indigenous Guard , armed only with beribboned ceremonial staffs of office, has been standing up against armed groups for years--for example, marching into the jungle to successfully demand the release of Toribío’s mayor when the FARC abducted him in 2004. What empowers these activists? Here’s what I learned last year from two Indigenous Guard members, Manuel and German (as translated by Witness for Peace Associate Director Jess Hunter-Bowman)

Standing Up to Death Squads

In too many parts of Colombia, when it comes to a person’s rights, assassination is nine-tenths of the law.

Right-wing paramilitary forces have been responsible for most killings in Colombia’s war—about 80 percent, according to the U.N. (Guerrillas committed 12 percent, and government forces the remaining 8 percent.) The standard operating procedure for paramilitary forces—despite their rhetoric about fighting the FARC and ELN, the guerrilla movement’s two main factions—has been to create a reign of terror among the civilian population, functioning as private armies for private business interests. Colombia leads the world in number of trade unionists murdered, according to Human Rights Watch.

Colombia vies with Sudan for the dubious title “country with the most internally displaced people”—violence has forced as many as 5 million Colombians away from their homes and off land that their families, in many cases, have farmed for generations.

People aren’t easily torn from their homes. Often the separation is forged in blood—a neighbor, a father, a brother, or a whole town killed. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities are especially hard hit. Sometimes it starts with threats painted on a wall or delivered in an anonymous letter; sometimes threats are simply made out loud, by men with guns.

Before the U.S. Congress approved a trade agreement with Colombia in 2011, Sen. Orrin Hatch and others argued that increased trade would “help bring further stability” to a country “emerging from decades of civil strife.” It’s the same logic that caused Congress to continue giving half a billion dollars a year to Colombia, much of it to the military. But it’s dead wrong.

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