Unarmed Indigenous Mobilisation in Cauca met with Violence

News from Colombia | on: Thursday, 19 July 2012

Indigenous student killed

On Tuesday 17th July indigenous people forced army troops off the Cerro Berlin hill just outside the town of Toribio in Cauca department. The indigenous people had been encamped at the base since July 11th when President Santos visited the town and was asked to withdraw troops from Nasa territory and remove the police bases from several municipalities. The military bases are often the targets of guerrilla attacks and in the fighting homes and civilian infrastructure are routinely damaged and destroyed. According to Cauca social organisations locals have been subjected to years of unacceptable treatment which has resulted in the recent mobilisations.

In a statement the council of Cauca social organisations stated that “everything has its limit. The long list of deaths, of those mutilated and wounded, of the displaced and expropriated, of children and youths without schools or health centres, and of humble people who have been left without homes to shelter in and without lands to subsist upon must stop. The poorly named ‘heroes of the fatherland’ [which is what the armed forces call themselves] who occupy and use the goods belonging to the people, and who use them as human shields, must cease.”

Until today local communities have stoically endured “innumerable aggressions” that for years were channelled into legal cases, reports to local and national authorities, and efforts to open spaces for dialogue with the government. In many cases the indigenous and peasant communities are victimised by troops and police who see them as guerrilla sympathisers, an attitude that is evident in recent statements by army officers, the Minister of Defence and President Santos himself.

The indigenous and peasant communities of the region are demanding the relocation of police bases in El Mango, El Palo and Calendaima, and the demilitarisation of the region by government forces, as well as the withdrawal of guerrilla columns. “We demand that they all go, that we don’t want them, that we are tired of death, that they are wrong, that they leave us to live in peace!” one indigenous leader explained.

The indigenous demands have not been limited to words, and on the 17th up to 4 thousand local indigenous people had mobilised to begin destroying military and police trenches in and around their communities. Others marched to guerrilla camps where they demanded that the guerrillas leave the region too. Some 2 thousand indigenous then descended upon the military base on the Cerro Berlin hill, which housed around 600 troops from the Apollo task force. Hundreds of indigenous had been blockading the base since the 11th, but on the 17th they decided to move. After negotiations with the troops’ commander, all but 6 of the men came down off the hill, assisted by indigenous people who carried much of their equipment to the bottom. However, 6 soldiers under the command of a sergeant refused to do so, and were eventually manhandled off the summit by members of the indigenous guard. The photos of the event have gone round the world.

The event caused mayhem among the establishment. President Santos had already rejected the withdrawal of troops from the region, saying that “not one centimetre” of the national territory would be demilitarised. With the expulsion of the troops he called the indigenous actions “criminal, inadmissible and unacceptable” while promising to prosecute those involved. The photographs also provoked former president Uribe into a series of outbursts on twitter “how can the massacre of our troops be allowed! How can security be expected if our troops are allowed to be intimidated!” and “Why is the torture [sic] of our soldiers permitted? Where is the authority? What happened to order?” Meanwhile, in accusations that were widely repeated in the national and international media, the local army commander alleged that the indigenous people had burned their supplies, had beaten the soldiers and that the FARC had fired on the troops as they withdrew. Indigenous sources accuse the troops of burning some mattresses themselves, and stated that the firing came from the soldiers refusing to leave the base. In stark contrast to government inaction on the dozens of cases of abuses by state forces registered in the region, President Santos has promised that the indigenous involved in the clearance of the hill will be prosecuted and could face up to 8 years in prison.

On the following day 600 of the notorious ESMAD riot police were deployed to clear the indigenous people off Cerro Berlin. “I don’t want a single indigenous inside a military base” said President Santos. Amid tear gas and stun grenades the hill, sacred to the Nasa indigenous people, was cleared with a toll of 23 wounded. Three of the wounded are in serious condition according to local sources. That same morning troops at a checkpoint in nearby Caldono killed a young indigenous man in a vivid illustration of the daily reality lived by local people. Fabian Gueto, 22, was shot in the forehead the day government sources accused FARC guerrillas of being behind the mobilisations. Such stigmatisation is routine in Colombia, with the latest ‘evidence’ being pulled from yet another alleged FARC email. The accusations were categorised as “irresponsible comments that put us at high risk.” The same day a convoy of cars brought protestors to the offices of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, who proceeded to chant racist slogans and shout “viva Uribe!”

While the indigenous action has been condemned by the authorities, the indigenous organisations claim the legitimacy of their actions, tired of the “abstract legality and indolence” of the state in regard to the abuses that they suffer at the hands of the military, and of the lack of social infrastructure provided by the state. According to the Cauca social organisations the Santos government is merely continuing the state abandonment of our department, and hopes to resolve everything with its new Plan Cauca. However, they reject the new plan saying that it merely means more war and more opportunities for big business. According to them the government “plans for social investment over a land that has been laid waste.”

The Patriotic March social movement has accused the government of criminalising what it calls a mobilisation for peace, and says that while talking peace for 2 years the government has the war. The indigenous mobilisation has occurred because people are tired of a war by military forces “in our name and supposedly for our security when it is the military policy itself that creates most insecurity.” Meanwhile the government has given command of the region to a new task force of 5,000 men, who will be under central military command.

Similar mobilisations have now spread to the Southern region of Putumayo where peasants are protesting the militarisation of the region, the constant use of fumigations, and the recent designation of the region as a “mining district.” Mining is one of the Santos government’s “Five motors” of the economy.

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