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
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
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,
“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
“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
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
“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
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
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,
“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
“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,”
“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
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,
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.