On July 11, the indigenous Nasa of Cauca, Colombia began confronting armed groups face to face and peacefully asking them to leave Nasa territories. They removed police trenches from the urban center and disassembled homemade FARC missiles found on their lands. Four hundred Nasa members occupied and observed army soldiers on the sacred indigenous site of El Berlin outside of Toribío, where the army is protecting private cell phone company towers.
On July 16, when the military had yet to retreat from indigenous lands by the proposed deadline of the previous day, the Nasa forcibly removed troops from El Berlin’s mountaintop base. Dramatic photos of the event splashed across national and international news, some featuring members of the Nasa indigenous community surrounding several soldiers, picking them up, and moving them away from their posts and others featuring crying Colombian officer Sergeant Garcia, retreating from the encampment.
The municipality of Toribío in the Colombian department of Cauca has become emblematic of complexities in the war that continues to plague the country. Toribío is one of 19 indigenous communities that make up the Pueblo Nasa, the very well organized and pacifist indigenous community located in the North of Cauca. The Nasa’s ancestral lands are rich in natural resources exploited by multinationals as well as located in a strategic corridor for both illegal and legal trade, which both recently and historically have put the civilian population in the midst of the armed conflict; Toribío alone has been hit with combat over 500 times in the last ten years and the FARC guerrillas attacked 12 times in the first half of July alone. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has issued protective measures for the Nasa reservation.
“The community of Toribío has learned how to live in the midst of conflict,” relates a recent Nasa communication. “They have survived both FARC and army attacks. The children have learned to pass through police blockades on their way to school.” The investigative journalist site Silla Vacia pointed out, “The Nasa have been urging respect from armed actors for twenty years, but not from Bogota or any other large city like most of us do, no, but rather face to face.”
The constant threat from armed groups reached a breaking point at the start of July. After a week of intense battles between the armed forces and the FARC in the town of Toribío, all amidst the indigenous and civilian populations, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) called for an end to fighting between the security forces and the FARC. They published an open letter to all armed actors, calling for them to leave the indigenous territories.
The indigenous right to self-governance is constitutionally recognized in Colombia and the Nasa are protected by the Indigenous Guard, a community self-defense movement authorized by the autonomous community which holds their own internal justice processes and provides peaceful security to inhabitants. The Indigenous Guard is armed with ceremonial staffs. Under Colombian and international law, the construction of military bases within indigenous territories requires free, prior and informed consent from the community, a requirement that the Nasa claim was not respected.
The ACIN’s open letter, published on July 8, demanded the departure of all combating armed groups: “We declare ourselves in permanent resistance until all armed groups and armies leave our homelands… we are not going to leave; those who need to leave are the legal and illegal armed groups who continue to sow death in our territory.”
The letter cited displacement, injuries, death, threats, impunity, mined crops, lost crops, rapes, disrespect and disruption to civil society as a few of the reasons why the ACIN reached a point where they are calling for no more war or armed groups in the territory and an end to the invasion of their ancestral lands. The open letter continued, “We will not stand with our arms crossed watching as they kill us and destroy our territories, communities, life, and autonomous organization,” and outlined the plan of the indigenous population to peacefully confront the different armed groups and ask them to leave until there is harmony throughout their lands.
The same day the Nasa occupied the army encampment in El Berlin, President Juan Manuel Santos visited Toribío to reassure the local and national population of the army’s control of the region and the security they provide all citizens there. The visit wasn’t entirely successful. Despite the president’s heavy security and additional militarization that accompanied his visit, the FARC managed to mount two separate road blockades on the Pan-American highway less than three miles from where the president spoke. Guerrillas stopped cars on their way to the event, including press vehicles. As the political magazine Semana reported, FARC gunmen said to the drivers, “Tell the president that in order to get to Toribío you had to pass through a blockade of the FARC’s 6th Front.”
FARC troops shot at army helicopters flying overhead, heard in the background of the televised version of the president’s speech about security in the region. The crowd reportedly booed the president when he asserted he would not order the military to vacate the nine towns that the Nasa requested they leave. The government rejected any possibility of a troop pullout. Instead, it is reorganizing military forces in the region to operate as a joint command with 5,000 troops for three southwestern provinces affected by leftist rebels, drug traffickers and paramilitaries. Two of these forces will be in Cauca. After the President’s visit, the ACIN lamented that, “it has become clear the response of the national government is to continue to implement its war strategy in spite of our indigenous communities’ pleas and resistance to this.”
On July 14, the ACIN declared northern Cauca to be in a humanitarian emergency, citing serious effects the war is having on civilians in indigenous territories due to “constant infractions of international human rights law that both the State as well as the FARC commit.” ACIN claims that the war has escalated this year with 118 human rights violations in their territory between January 1 and June 30. It also detailed the recent mass displacement of civilians by prolonged combat in the middle of populated areas and the forced involvement of civilians in the war. Denouncing both the FARC and the armed forces, ACIN details the violence that led to the state of emergency.
The statement also reaffirms the Nasa position of autonomy for their communities, reiterates the need to remove FARC blockades and trenches and armed forces encampments and bases, and urges the two main armed groups to engage in dialogue for peace. They urged the national government to recognize their right to govern themselves, as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples, pointing out that far from providing security, “the army puts the civilian population at risk.” They asked that the armed groups respect the Nasa’s right to demilitarize their lands from the national police and army as well as the insurgent groups.
The Nasa also expressed distress about the mass media’s coverage of the events unfolding in Cauca. “The press promotes a sentiment of racism, segregation, and intransigence for the citizens of Cauca and has slandered the good name of the CRIC as well as violated the right of the public to be well informed, a recurring situation in the Colombian press,” the CRIC said. The organization rightfully accuses the mass media of strengthening rumors and perpetuating a dangerous idea that indigenous people work with the FARC. The way the reporters frame the issues in their territories, CRIC says, paint anyone of the indigenous movement who criticizes the government as in favor of terrorism. We have seen in FOR how the stigmatization of communities in resistance to the war in Colombia can bring grave consequences, particularly when they become public opinion. We are concerned about the media coverage of the unfolding events in Cauca, particularly around the indigenous removal of military from El Berlin.
The media blitz covered the incident with criticisms to the Nasa for the ‘less than peaceful’ removal of the military base. The harshest criticisms and accusations came from the Colombian armed forces and the state. General Jorge Humberto Jerez claimed on national radio that the Nasa had “mistreated the soldiers, burned army rations and held troops hostage with the FARC.”
President Juan Manuel Santos said, “we will not tolerate attacks against those who defend us,” and later posted on his Twitter account, “I don’t want to see a single indigenous person on an army base.” Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said that indigenous groups had been infiltrated by the rebels: “We know that this is what the FARC want, to generate a confrontation, but our army is professional.”
According to ACIN, however, the removal of the army from their lands was not violent. They claim that 2,500 indigenous people participated in the peaceful protest and used legitimate force when six soldiers and one sergeant refused to leave. They explain that there were no individuals from either party hurt, and refuted press reports that the Nasa hit the soldiers with staffs and stones during the removal of the soldiers. They also refute accusations that they burned or destroyed material possessions of the brigade. They went on to say they “deeply regret having to use force to realize a constitutional right,” but maintain that their protest was peaceful. The military temporarily withdrew from the base, but eventually retook the facility using tear gas to disperse the protesters.?
In the aftermath of this dramatic event, not only were there strong statements stigmatizing and delegitimizing the indigenous movement from the press and government, but Colombian soldiers have killed civilians in Cauca. Just days later, the armed forces shot and killed a civilian man when he ignored orders to stop at a nearby military roadblock. On July 18, army soldiers shot and killed eighteen-year-old Nasa man, Eduar Fabian Guetio Vásquez without warning while he was walking home. The commander of the Third Division of the Army was relieved of his post as a result of the second murder. The Nasa have requested that the soldiers responsible for these crimes be tried in a civilian court, but have not received an official response to this request.
Also on July 18, Nasa’s Indigenous Guard detained FARC members in possession of explosives and guns on their land. ACIN urged the FARC’s national commander Timoleón Jiménez to order his troops to leave their land: “As we have always said, we do not accept insurgent forces in our territories. We do not want a FARC presence, nor any presence of any army, because these are our territories since the beginning of time. We do not want your presence because the guerrillas do not bring us tranquility; you attack the civilian population, you disrespect our authority and our justice. Leave the indigenous territories in Cauca. Stop the war. We are all losing.”
The sheer bravery involved in forcibly removing illegal armed groups and the national army from their territories, all in peaceful demonstration and while unarmed, speaks to just how exhausted and overwhelmed the indigenous population of Cauca is with the war ravaging the region. The continued assertion by the government that the armed forces are providing protection and their projected plans to more heavily militarize the zone in the coming weeks, despite the indigenous protest of militarization and repeated calls for peace in their region, shows the disconnect between the state and the civilian population.
International political and human rights organizations such as the Colombian Support Network, Witness for Peace, and political organizations such as WOLA and LAWG have issued statements of support for the ACIN and the Toribío community residents in resistance to militarization. National human rights groups and other communities in resistance, including the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó, have sent letters of support. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has reinforced the right of the Nasa to control their lands, and human rights organizations are urging the Colombian government to respect the Nasa’s constitutional rights as well as the international law regarding the rights of civilians in conflict zones.
Senator Ivan Cepeda rhetorically asked President Santos on July 25 why he opened the legislative session with a homage to Sergeant Garcia, (the commander heavily photographed in the Berlin Hill incident) and forgot to do the same for the indigenous in the region. “The indigenous are the victims and not the victimizers,” Cepeda said.
The government was scheduled to sit down with Nasa indigenous leaders in the last week of July. The whole nation watched to see what would become of their meeting.
This article was originally written for the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA.