Indigenous Revolt in Colombia
An article by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
Cauca, a department located in the south of Colombia is home to a large indigenous population who live cheek by jowl on small plots of land with with the most rancid elements of Colombia's bloody oligargarchy, who unsurprisingly own vast tracts of land that overlook the indigenous lands. Not for the first time they are in open revolt challenging the State on fundamental questions.
Throughout the history of the country, Cauca has been a frequent epicentre of popular resistance to the regime, partly because it was one of the historical centres of colonisation in Colombia and also due to the large numbers of indigenous people who live there. Just over 248,000 indigenous people live in Cauca representing 21.5% of its population of 1,182,000. In 2008 they rose up and fought pitched battles with the police and then marched on Bogotá. In the end, they were defeated on that occasion, but not due to a lack of valour but due to the influence of NGOs. Having refused to take part in secret negotiations they obliged the then president Uribe to attend a public meeting with thousands of indigenous people in their heartland. However, when they got to Bogotá they went into secret meetings, were outwitted and lost.
Now they have risen up again. Their fight is a simple one: they want the military off their lands. During the Uribe regime the militarisation of indigenous lands and peasant highlands expanded at a pace not previously seen. The military place their bases in strategic locations frequently on or beside sacred sites. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, to which Colombia is a signatory is quite clear on the issue, there should be no military activity on indigenous land unless there is an overwhelming imperative for the "greater good" of wider society and in such case this must be consulted with and agreed by the respective ethnic group. None of this has happened of course.
Thus, tired of the army, the beatings, the killings, the rapes, the firefights with the guerrillas the indigenous rose up and took over the bases expelling the soldiers, literally hoisting them on their shoulders or dragging them through the dirt (an apt punishment for an army used to doing just that to locals). The police tried to take back some of the bases taken over and in neighbouring Nariño, also home to a large indigenous population the Awá group tried unsuccessfully to take over a huge military base in El Deviso.
The indigenous are armed only with the short poles, a symbol of authority in their communities, yet en masse, they surrounded the soldiers disarming them and evicting them from the land they have usurped for so long. They have placed the State in a fix. So far the army and the police have murdered two indigenous people, however, they were not killed in the takeover of the bases but a checkpoints some distance from them in what seems to be more an act of revenge. Acts of revenge by the military are not unknown. After the uprising in 2008 the army murdered the husband of Aida Quilcue, the main spokesperson for the revolt, and few months later her 14 year old daughter was the target of a hand grenade attack.
The reaction from the State and the media has not been unsurprising. The media have mobilised depicting the indigenous as little more than savages and showing photos of soldiers crying. Yes, the soldiers cried, but it was due to their impotence, all their weaponry and murderous capability was no match for the will of a group of people who were no longer willing to bow the knee. El Espectador, the "liberal" newspaper in Colombia ran a headline with a photo of the soldier crying with the title Displaced. The irony that it is the Colombian army that has displaced literally millions from their land was not lost on them, it was just ignored. There has been an attempt to portray the army as victims in the situation. International media have come out with headlines "indignation in Colombia at treatment of army", when in fact the indignation is more an invention of the media. It should be borne in mind that what the indigenous are asking for is to exercise full control over their lands in line with the Colombian Constitution.
Were the army to withdraw or their expulsion to be definitive it would give an advantage to the guerrillas, particularly the FARC, which is the group with greatest presence in the area. However, the indigenous have stated that they want the FARC off their lands as well and to that effect have captured four of them and are currently putting them on trial. They have refused to hand over the captured guerrillas to the State. It is telling that the FARC does not enjoy the support of the locals in this area. A guerrilla army that has been in the area for decades should enjoy popular support, that it does not says a lot.
The question of the guerrillas has been used by the media a lot and they have accused the indigenous of being in the pay of the guerrillas. However, whilst the FARC have an historical presence in this part of Cauca, in many areas the guerrillas were not the first armed force to arrive. The presence of the guerrillas has in a number of cases been a reaction to the presence of the army and not the other way around. In the indigenous and black collective areas on the pacific coast of Cauca, the first group to arrive was the army, then the paramilitaries and the drug barons and last but not least the guerrillas.
The issues posed by the indigenous go beyond Cauca, they affect not only all the indigenous and black collective territories but question the very legitimacy of the State's armed forces, which is in itself long overdue, but was pushed off the agenda by human rights NGOs in the pockets of European governments. They say that they have to go easy on the army but that really they think that the army is a bunch of hired killers in the pay of the State. However, what they have really done is push the matter into the background. Reports into killings, massacres, the so called false positives, where the army dressed up even mentally handicapped children in guerrilla uniforms before killing them, all of these issues, start with comments on the legitimacy of the armed forces, their work etc. If one positive thing comes out of this, it will be, perhaps that once again we can state that there is no one in the high command of the Colombian army who cannot be described as a murdering thug.
The government and the indigenous have convened a round table to discuss the matter. Another defeat looms large. It is hard to see what if anything can be gained by dialogue. Recent history proves that every time the indigenous and the peasantry enter into dialogue behind closed doors they are defeated. The government promises and never comes through and the communities back off and turn down the level of struggle whilst they wait for Santa Claus to come early.