Two members of the unarmed self-defence force known as the Indigenous Guard have been killed by Colombia’s infamous riot police, the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD). The two Indigenous Guards, Gersaín Cerón and Marco Aurelio Díaz, were taking part in a nationwide mobilization that has brought together as many as 100,000 Indigenous Peoples Afro-Colombian, farmers, students and truck-drivers across the country. More than three hundred other demonstrators have been injured or imprisoned since the nationwide protests began.
One other indigenous demonstator was killed on May 30, during an indigenous blockade on the road to Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest Pacific port. According to reports, 26 year old Embera demonstrator Willington Quibarecama Nequirucama of the La Delfina reservation died when he was rammed off a bridge by a police vehicle.
The following days saw protests multiply. On June 2, police fired bullets, tear gas, and improvised bombs at indigenous Nasa demonstrators in Cauca. Evelio Hurtado of the reservation of Pioya was hit at 9:40am, and indigenous guard Gersaín Cerón of the reservation of Mercedes was then fatally hit in the the upper chest. The second indigenous guard, Marco Aurelio Díaz of the reservation of La Aguada, was then hit twice on his left side. He died shortly thereafter.
Members of the Indigenous Guard are defended only by their mandate of office, a baton decorated with ribbons that they are presented with on the day that they are selected to serve their communities. Tasked with defending indigenous lives and territories, the Indigenouos Guard has lost several other members to attacks by paramilitary groups, FARC guerrillas, and the state.
Gersaín Cerón left two children; 9 years old Yoiner Estiben and 11 years old Yeifer Felipe. Marco Aurelio Díaz left a baby son of 8 months old.
According to the autopsy conducted by the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science, both men died from wounds caused by projectiles “which correspond to unconventional, handmade materials… The authorities don’t have these types of arms. These are handmade, modified arms.”
The ESMAD have frequently modified gas grenades by coating them with glue and packing the surface with marbles and ball-bearings, creating rudimentary bombs that can be fired from police grenade launchers. Nasa musician Carlos Garcia fell into a coma in April last year after being hit by such a device during demonstrations over land-ownership in Cauca, demonstrations that also saw a young Nasa demonstrator shot dead by the Police. The ESMAD have also been recorded using three-man catapults to fire rocks at previous indigenous demonstrators in Cauca. Some claim that the number of those killed by the ESMAD since it was established in 1999 exceeds a hundred.
Luis Fernando Arias of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) urged international organizations, the United Nations and the Red Cross to guarantee the right to protest.
The mobilization or “minga” (a collective work in the public interest) of resitance is centered on a proposal from the Farmers’ Popular and Ethnic Agrarian Summit that calls on the government to enhance protections for the environment and natural resources; cease supporting the narrow interests of mining, finance and international trade; and fulfill the rights of education and health for Afro-Colombians, indigenous and farming communities. The demonstrators are also demanding that President Santos fulfill the promises he made to end the earlier farmers’ strike of 2013 (which itself saw 12 protesters killed).
The president has seen his already low approval ratings decline as the economy has been hit by low commodity prices. Although his peace process with the FARC guerrillas is opposed by his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, the two have cooperated to pass legislation curtailing demonstrations and opening up huge tracts of rural land to be purchased for large-scale agriculture.
Protesters at La Delfina were attacked again on June 3 by forces from the riot police, army, and regular police. The fuerza publica (state security forces) launched teargas, unconventional weapons, and fired rifles at demonstrators, hitting the governor of the Quipara reservation in his ear and another demonstrator, Sebastián Velásquez, in the leg.
That same day, Colombian Congressman Alirio Uribe argued for the disbanding of the squadron for committing “hundreds of outrages”, pointing to research by the Jesuit-founded Center of Popular Education and Investigation (CINEP) that has registered 448 instances in which the ESMAD were aggressive to civilians, and cataloged the causing of physical injuries, detentions, sexual assaults, and threats against “248 farmers (campesinos), 94 children, 50 miners, 35 students, 21 journalists, 17 social leaders, 15 workers and eight drivers.”
On June 4, the Ministry of Defense authorized the eviction by air and land of blockades on the panamerican highway in Cauca, prompting the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca to ask: “Who in the state is assuming responsibility for the present deaths and violations? Or does the right to life and integrity for the indigenous, farmers and Afro-Colombians not exist in Colombia? The order [to evict] by air and land implies the violation of human rights, the infringing of the International Declaration of Human Rights, and the attacking of communities. This order implies that those who have mobilized are like guerrillas, as if they were attacking the people. Remember Señor Minister that the International Criminal Court applies to all of the criminals of war and is a binding treaty in Colombia.”
At 9pm on June 7, the ESMAD, army and police fired gas and bullets at demonstrators in the southern department of Huila, who had blocked the road between Pitalito and Mocoa and were publicizing the demands of the minga. The same night the government announced reaching an accord with the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca which addresses the points of the strike, but due to the widespread distrust of the government, its negotiators will remain in the Nasa reservation of La Maria Piendamo, Cauca, until means for the enforcement of the government’s promises have been agreed.
Elements of the deal include promises that the army, police, and ESMAD will abandon the places where Afro-Colombian, indigenous and farming demonstrators have congregated, and that a “swift, transparent, and just” investigation will take place into the deaths of the two indigenous guards and Embera protester. Demonstrators remain in place along many roadsides throughout Colombia, including alongside the Panamerican Highway, until the government fulfills its promises.