Some 400 members of an indigenous community in southwestern Colombia occupied a military base Wednesday, demanding government forces leave the region, which has been plagued by increasing violence recently.
The base is responsible for maintaining communication antennas in the area, and is located two hours from the troubled municipality of Toribio in the department of Cauca, the site of ongoing clashes between Colombia’s Armed Forces and the FARC.
“We will not attack the military(…) We will only ask them to withdraw, as has been done with the guerrillas,” said Toribio’s former Mayor Gabriel Pavi, adding that the occupiers would continue to work to protect the antennaes themselves.
Violence in recent weeks has forced an estimated 600 residents from their homes and prompted a visit from President Juan Manuel Santos Wednesday to discuss “Plan Cauca,” a security strategy aimed at curbing violence.
Community leaders from the Nasa indigenous community in Toribio reiterated they do not welcome Santos’ initiative to militarize the region — he revealed that 2,000 troops have been shipped to Cauca in recent weeks — and will “expel any armed group whether their presence is legal or illegal because the area is in disharmony,” according to Feliciano Valencia, leader of the Association of of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca. He adding that over 1,000 indigenous people would be arriving in the community to demonstrate their support.
Cauca has experienced a rash of violence in recent days, with a motorcycle laden with explosives killing a nine-year-old child and injuring five others in Toribio Tuesday. Authorities pinned responsibility on the FARC’s 60th Front for the attack.
On the same day, a privately-owned helicopter flying over southwestern Colombia suffered a mechanical failure and made an emergency landing, after which suspected FARC guerrillas kidnapped the aircraft’s two crew members, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Explosives were also discovered and removed from a helicopter pad ahead of Santos’ arrival in Toribio Wednesday. Residents raised trenches in the area last week as well that were being used by the Colombian military. “The community found numerous trenches affecting the environment in this area, which is a nature reserve. They therefore decided to cover all the holes to restore the natural balance,” said Pavi.
The head of state traveled to the municipality after weeks of increasing violence between suspected FARC guerrillas and government forces. He reiterated that he would not “for any reason demobilize a single centimeter” of the troubled area, saying that “our forces have the duty to defend. I have the obligation to defend.”
Cauca has been a historical stronghold for the FARC, due to its mixture of mountainous and swampy terrain and easy access to drug smuggling routes.