Indigenous leaders flee Colombia seeking protection

Rick Kearns, Today correspondent
4/9/10

Three indigenous leaders from Colombia fled to Venezuela in early February fearing for their lives after more death threats from paramilitaries and harassment from the Colombian Army, according to supporters in Venezuela and other Colombian and international agencies.

The Wayuu activists are seeking protection for their people who live across northern Colombia and Venezuela. Wayuu communities have been under attack for several years in Colombia, according to Amnesty International.

Karmen Ramirez Boscan, Leonor Viloria and Linnei Ospina of the Force of Wayuu Women Organization (OFMW) are among the most recent group of indigenous activists to apply to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for protection from “armed actors” in their region, specifically from the Colombian Army, paramilitaries and others. The IACHR is an autonomous entity, affiliated with the Organization of American States.

On March 15, IACHR Press Director Maria Rivero confirmed the commission received a petition from the Wayuu seeking “precautionary measures” and that the request was being considered.

The IACHR precautionary measures provision “… states that in serious and urgent cases, and wherever necessary according to the information available, the commission may, on its own initiative or at the request of a party, request that the state concerned adopt precautionary measures to prevent irreparable harm to persons.”

The Wayuu Women’s organization, representing Wayuu people in both countries, issued a detailed press statement in late February, asserting that the three leaders “… have recently been forced to leave their territory in order to protect their lives. Their work in defense of their territory as well as their international denunciations about the operations of transnational companies in their territory have resulted in them being threatened by paramilitaries and the criminalization of their activities. Several members of the Organización Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu have become the target of investigations and extrajudicial followings by the Uribe government in response to their work. This has all become a lot worse in the last few months.”

In the same press statement, the OFMW assert that the Colombian government has accused them of being “linked with groups classified as terrorist” and that the “… fear of losing their freedom or of being killed by armed actors, due to the seriousness of these false accusations has forced these members of the organization to leave their territory. Some remain in Colombia, others have left the country.”

Boscan, one of the OFMW leaders who has participated in various United Nations programs, returned to Colombia. In a March interview, she said the threats against the Wayuu were coming from all sides of the conflict, and that their protests against various gas, water and mining projects is what incurred the wrath of the administration of President Alvaro Uribe.

“The new threats came when the Colombian Armed Forces started to conduct extrajudicial investigations against us,” she said, reiterating that the army was linking them to the guerilla movement, but that “this was not true. Neither Marxist-Leninist ideals nor the perversions of the present day guerillas interest us, nevertheless, both the army and the guerilla attempt to involve us, as well as other armed groups, in the conflict.

“Some accuse us and then the others pressure us. And from all this it results in the paramilitaries threatening us; and all of this happens because we raise our voices to defend our rights.

“We are autonomous. We have nothing to do with the guerillas and our aspirations are mostly cultural and, of course, for the defense of our territory.”

She also explained another way in which the Wayuu, and other peoples, were getting caught in the middle between the government and the guerillas due to the extreme polarization of sides in the conflict.

“If you do not work as part of the structure that the government has created by means of this nefarious policy of ‘democratic security’ to support their military intelligence services, then you are considered part of the guerillas, and on the other hand, if your struggles and objectives are not those of the guerillas, then also you
are persecuted.”

For Boscan, however, it was also their participation in protests over eight “mega-projects” that caused the official persecution. She said the Wayuu’s opposition to the Jepirachi Wind Park, the Caribe Gas Pipeline between Colombia and Venezuela, the Rancheria River dam, and especially to the El Cerrejon mine were the reasons for the official persecution.

“I would also like to mention that the way the Cerrejon has destroyed our environment and the health of the Wayuu is particularly macabre.”

While waiting for IACHR’s response, Boscan and the Wayuu activists intend to continue their efforts; she also sent a message to Native people in this country.

“To our indigenous brothers and sisters in the United States, I would like to ask for your support and solidarity, it would be important to count on the cooperation of organizations and communities to strengthen the efforts of north and south.”

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