Despite military assault against indigenous protesters, mobilizations continue in Colombia

Rick Kearns, Today correspondent
10/31/08

MINGA DEL PUEBLO, Colombia – Indigenous protesters throughout Latin America staged events and protests Oct. 12 to celebrate the Day of Indigenous Resistance, which included actions in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia.

But it was one of the gatherings in Colombia that garnered international attention. The Minga del Pueblo in Colombia was marred by a violent attack against the protesters by Colombian armed forces Oct. 14 and 15.

Colombian military and police forces fired into a crowd of more than 10,000 indigenous protesters on those two days, according to press statements from the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia (ONIC) and the Association of Indigenous Townships of Northern Cauca (ACIN). International human rights organizations are beginning to respond to the urgent appeals sent by indigenous activists; they will be looking into all of the reports of violence, which include estimates of 132 wounded and 13 killed. (For instance, the U.N. Human Rights office was scheduled to send observers to Colombia at the end of October.)

The Oct. 12 mobilization of indigenous peoples of Colombia – a “Commotion of the Peoples,” as organizers called it – started off as a nationwide protest against the militarization of their lands, the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement (Plan Colombia) and the failure of the government of President Alvaro Uribe to honor many accords with indigenous people.

It ended up being prelude to yet more assaults of Native people by official forces, in addition to the two activists murdered the night before the mobilization. While there were marches in U’Wa territories and many other parts of the country, the epicenter of the largest conflict was in the Cauca region in western Colombia.

The largest effort in the mobilization was also in Cauca. Indigenous leaders throughout the country and those from the area had been seeking a meeting with Uribe to discuss a variety of issues. Their four main points are the following:

“1. We reject the free trade agreements that have been negotiated with the United States, Canada and the European nations. These treaties are part of a nefarious strategy on the part of major global economic powers. The process of negotiation and the results of these agreements are a threat to our cultures and our territories, our sovereignty. They surrender our collective resources to corporate interests and trans-nationals, and directly threaten our Mother Earth. These are not treaties between people, but against people.

“2. No more war, no more terror; we reject the government’s so-called ‘Democratic Security Strategy,’ Plan Colombia, the dirty war, para-politics, the militarization of society and the criminalization of popular protest. We call on truth, justice and reparations for the crimes committed against the people. War is not the answer. And those people who have committed crimes against the people, such as former Cauca Gov. Juan José Chaux Mosquera, should be judged so that their bad examples will never again be repeated and the victims will be compensated.

“3. No to the constitutional counter-reforms and legislation of displacement that has been implemented under the current government, measures that surrender our rights to private interests, and that submit us to silence and forced labor, to exclusion and ultimately death.

“4. The creation of mechanisms of sovereignty, peace and coexistence in order to develop and make reality our agenda through a permanent Congress of the Peoples.”

ACIN leaders spearheaded the organizing with support from the larger ONIC and other Native organizations. In an effort to compel a meeting with the president, demonstrators blocked a portion of the Pan-American Highway that connects the nearby cities of Popayan and Santander de Quilichao.

The official response was to send various squads of soldiers and anti-riot police who, as of Oct. 14, had surrounded the 10,000 protesters gathered on and along the highway. Some of the marchers carried clubs and sticks, whereas the military and police officers came heavily armed and were accompanied by tanks and helicopters. By Oct. 15, the nearly 1,000 soldiers and police officers were hurling tear gas bombs and hand grenades into the crowd, along with firing shots from rifles.

Colombian officials denied the use of live fire against the protesters. Immediately after the main struggle in Cauca, government representatives stated that the indigenous demonstrators attacked the heavily armed soldiers and police. Colombian TV then aired several reports showing soldiers firing in the direction of the crowd. A few days later, Uribe then took to the airwaves to denounce the protests further, claiming that “dark forces” have been influencing the events.

“Some men came from outside of Colombia,” he said Oct. 18, “violating the Migration Statute … they come and mix with the terrorists and take advantage of the indigenous protest … to create problems for public order.”

Uribe went on to say that after these unnamed outside agitators have participated in “these types of activities in the country,” they go to the international community and say, “Colombia is mistreating the rights of indigenous peoples.”

“Here they are,” he continued, “apologists for these crimes and outside they are distorting the truth … they should be in jail.”

Up until Oct. 21, neither the president nor any of his ministers had acknowledged specific complaints coming from indigenous people in Colombia. (Indigenous response to these belated comments was still emerging as of press time.)

Indigenous leaders have, on several occasions, denounced attacks on their communities by the FARC as well as the paramilitaries that have extensive ties to the Uribe administration. They have also proven that all of their leaders come from Colombia. Despite the numerous accusations by the Uribe administration in the mainstream Colombian press, and the decisions by these media to not allow indigenous response, the indigenous leadership is still attempting to publicize their positions.

Feliciano Valencia, a Nasa leader from the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca (CRIC), said the following at a press conference Oct. 16 in nearby La Maria Piendamo: “We invited the president to a dialogue and he responded with a military assault. We don’t have a government in Colombia.”

In the movement’s Official Proposal of the Indigenous and Popular Mobilization, issued on the same day as the Valencia speech, indigenous leaders addressed a few of the president’s statements.

“According to the president, who gave the order for the brutal attack against us, his government has complied with everything related to the indigenous communities. From his perspective, we are savages; we are dumb; we are irrational. Mr. President, not only have you not fulfilled your obligations to the people, but there are several other fundamental issues that we are raising that you can no longer ignore. We are not liars; we are not savages; we are not irrational.”

The statement also included the following: “Let us be clear: If there are Indians involved in the insurgency, or any other armed group, it is a personal decision of theirs that goes against our organizational and community process. Stop shooting, stop robbing, stop burning and lying. Stop using your public power to exercise terror against the people. You’re wrong. Respect and listen. It is the only way.”

In the meantime, organizers continue their protest. The latest effort will feature a new march to the city of Cali with at least 20,000 people that had started by Oct. 20. Indigenous leaders and their allies, including more than 20,000 sugarcane cutters who have been on strike for a month, will be trying again to address life and death issues in the coming weeks. This time, however, they have backing from the International Federation of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, among others.

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