Indigenous guards of the Cauca region of western Colombia took steps to evict both the Colombian Army and the FARC guerrillas from their territory last week.
While the Colombian forces were only out of the area for a day, the dramatic action has compelled national and international attention on the besieged indigenous community that is seeking autonomy and is tired of being caught in the crossfire.
First, on July 17th, the mostly Nasa guards forced out 100 Colombian soldiers from a sacred site near the city of Toribio. Leaders of the Nasa community had sent an open letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos a week before, urging him to recognize the community’s autonomy by withdrawing their troops, and listing the many problems caused by official policies and military actions.
“From the increasing militarization, the guerilla hostage taking has not abated, civilian deaths from combat and anti-personnel mines are constant, and the murders outside of combat are numerous. The army has turned increasingly to indiscriminate bombing with no precision, destroying civilian property daily…In summary, security as a result of militarization is an illusion, and above all it ends up being a systematic violation of human rights.”
Near the end of the 12-page letter, the indigenous leaders re-iterated their desire to help negotiate peace between the various armed actors.
President Santos did not officially reply to the letter but did arrive for negotiations a few days after the siege and then re-taking of Toribio by Colombian military.
In a press conference on July 18th, President Santos stated that he “was seeking clarification of positions and to find solutions,” but that “…the presence of the armed force is not negotiable.”
Santos also commended the soldiers for their “composure and disciplined” response to the actions of the indigenous guard who even carried a few of the soldiers off of the site.
On July 19th Colombian officials were there to free approximately 30 soldiers who were being detained by a group of Nasa residents for their alleged role in the shooting death of Eduar Fabian Gueitio, a young Nasa activist who was killed during a military operation on July 11th.
As a result of the killing of Gueitio and other reports of violence committed against the indigenous residents, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a press statement regarding their ongoing work in Colombia and urging the government to honor it’s agreement to provide protective measures for the Nasa people who have been victimized recently.
In March 2012, the Commission had already condemned the death of members of the Nasa people, as well as the violation of the physical integrity of three children who were injured by explosive devices found in the school in Jambalo. In that opportunity, the Commission expressed “particular concern on the information received regarding armed clashes that reportedly took place on March 23, 2012, between the National Police, the National Army, and members of illegal armed groups in rural and urban areas of the Jambalo Reserve, events that reportedly left at least two persons injured.” The IACHR press release dated March 30, 2012, urged “the Colombian State to prevent armed actions that could jeopardize the life or integrity of the civilian population.”
The other Nasa action that received some notice happened on July 18th when the Indigenous Guard went to the nearby village of Belen and apprehended “4 guerrilla fighters and confiscated arms, ammunition and explosive devices” according to a press statement sent by the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (AICNC).
In the Association’s press statement of July 19, they referred to their communications with the FARC guerrillas, and the warnings they made to the guerrillas.
“To be clear, we are against all the armed actors because none of them respect us. That’s why we’ve detained these members of the FARC. The community has already warned the guerrilla that if they are caught using explosives, we will confiscate them. We are simply following through.
“We’re sick of the violence, fighting and hostilities directed against us,” the press statement continues. “The people here will decide if they agree with the presence of the public forces in our territories because they will be the ones most affected by the fighting, it will be their homes that are destroyed by those actions.”
As of press time, no information had been released about the negotiations between the government and the Cauca community.