BOGOTA - "Fight your war somewhere else!" The cry rings out in the southwestern Colombian Department of Cauca, where the Nasa Indians are demanding that the army and guerrilla factions they are fighting leave their territory.
Violent clashes are now pitting the army against the Nasa people in the Andean village of Toribio whilst talks have begun between indigenous leaders, officials and delegates from the United Nations in an attempt to resolve the situation.
The day before, a 22-year-old indigenous person had been killed "by mistake" at an army roadblock in the neighboring village of Calaoto, and locals detained those responsible for the blunder for several hours. The Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca have declared themselves to be in a state of 'permanent resistance.'
"You can see the army isn't here to protect us," sighs indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia. "What's worse, its presence itself puts us, and our wives and children, in danger."
The indigenous population, marginalized and poor, is paying a heavy price because of the armed conflict in Colombia, which is half a century old and largely confined to rural regions. "We don't want to pay anymore for a war that isn't ours," Feliciano declares.
The Nasa people are convinced that the Indigenous Guard, armed with simple wooden sticks or batons, can guarantee the safety of the territory, which the Indians have laid claim to for centuries. After guerrilleros from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked Toribio's police station yet again in early July, the Indigenous Guard started to rally troops in the form of an insurgency.
Fighting lasted three days with a dozen Indians injured, including a woman who lost both of her legs. Exasperated, the Indians issued an ultimatum for the army, demanding that they leave the village before midnight, July 16. Out of the question, responded Juan Manuel Santos, the Head of State who has ruled out demilitarizing even "one square centimeter" of national territory.
Last Tuesday, more than 1,000 Indians armed with their batons and pacifist beliefs, stormed the Cerro Berlin barracks. Authorities say that the indigenous people attacked soldiers with catapults and machetes. However, a video, filmed by the Nasa people, shows soldiers firing into the air to scare a number of the indigenous people, determined but unarmed, before leaving the scene. One photo was picked up again and again by the media: young Indians, in caps and t-shirts, dragging one of the soldiers. He is in tears.
For the right-wing military, which has former President Alvaro Uribe as its mentor, this image was seen as a symbol of the "humiliation of the army" and the failure of the Santos government to maintain civil order. But for Colombian novelist Hector Abad, seeing the Colombian army refusing to shoot at civilians: "it's not a humiliation, it's a victory." Last Wednesday, the police took control of Cerro Berlin, by using tear gas.
An old guerrilla stronghold
Meanwhile, the Nasa people captured four guerrilleros. "They will be put on trial and sentenced according the indigenous law that is recognized by the Colombian Constitution," announced Feliciano Valencia. This is the same constitution that the government uses to claim maintaining a military presence in Indian territory is not negotiable.
The government has a duty to defend the population throughout the country, President Santos says. This problem of sovereignty is all the more sensitive now that the FARC are particularly active in Cauca, one of their old strongholds, where they control part of their illicit crop of coca plants and opium poppies. According to the authorities, there are more 600 rebel fighters in this region.
Fearing the national army's aviation squad, which has bombed jungle camps and inflicted severe losses, the FARC are retreating into the Andes to fight in the mountains. The Department of Cauca has become a strategic location and the scene of more than 150 battles since the start of the year.
In an effort to address the Nasa people's anger, the government has announced an ambitious investment program in the region of $280 million, and the reinforcement of public forces. "Nothing new," consider the indigenous leaders, who believe that the only promise the government is keeping is to send "more soldiers." Yet, says Feliciano Valencia, "the army is not a solution, it is a part of the problem."
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Photo - *DulCeCAriTo*