Colombia's Indigenous Self-Defense Troops Go Without Guns

Rural communities that have lost leaders to targeted killings have taken to protecting themselves, and without the use of firearms.

The indigenous guard of Cauca
The indigenous guard of Cauca
Edinson Arley Bolaños

BOGOTA — It happens again and again in Colombia. Community leaders and activists are murdered, often having received death threats beforehand. And in each case, we ask ourselves afterwards if there was some way the person could have been protected. Why, if they'd already been threatened, didn't they have bodyguards?

Since the government signed its Peace Accord in 2016 with the now disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), there has been a marked increase in such killings. In that span, the Defensoría del Pueblo, Colombia's national ombudsman's office, has so far counted 562 murders of community advocates.

In addition, more than 3,600 activists currently receive some kind of protection from the state: in some cases a bullet-proof jacket, armored car and two bodyguards; in others a phone with a panic button. But according to some of the most affected groups, the best form of protection comes from within the communities themselves. Collective protection, they say, works better than whatever kind of security measures the state can provide.

In the northern part of the Cauca department, increasing violence and the arrival, early this century, of paramilitaries, prompted residents to organize a Guardia Indígena, a unit of unarmed indigenous guards that recruits locals to defend the community and serve as "carers of life and the territory," as they're known in the area's native language.

With an increase in paramilitary violence, the guard increasingly took on humanitarian tasks, serving as peacemakers and helping dispense indigenous justice. After 2007, the communities also faced pressure from the FARC. These days, the guardians are facing a new wave of violence as armed men seek to block its work and progress.

Edwin Mauricio Capaz, human rights coordinator for the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, or ACIN, in Spanish, points out that last year, nine native guard members were killed. "The guard's strategy, once the FARC left its territories, was to fill those spaces," he explains. "The communities ordered the removal of armed actors from ancestral zones. That immediately led to an explosion of different armed parties accusing guardsmen of working for military intelligence or rival armed gangs."

As the Indigenous Guard is civil in nature and armed with nothing but canes or poles, many of its leaders have lately required armed protection, though inside native territory the aim is to employ only the unarmed guardians to keep the peace, so that communities can live in a space that's gun free.

Currently, some 2,000 guards check movements in and out of communities and patrol the main highways. The overall idea is to continue developing a self-protection strategy in keeping with the local and national context.

"The guard also seeks out armed actors, both legal and illegal ones, to demand that they respect the autonomy and harmony of our territories," explains ACIN's Capaz.

Another group based in the northern part of the Cauca department, in its western mountain range, is the Guardía Cimarrona (Maroon Guard), a traditional Afro-Colombian body. The Maroons have some 2,000 guard members and are a renewal of a traditional body originally from the northern district of San Basilio de Palenque. Its revival began in August 2013 at the Congress of Black Peoples held in Quibdó, in Chocó department.

One Black community leader, Javier Antonio Peña, said Maroon guardians escort local leaders and advocates to meetings with Black communities or to government premises, check the identities of those attending community assemblies and patrol rural roads.

We maintain neutrality to avoid any misunderstanding.

In some central and southern parts of the Cauca department, peasants have replicated this model of communal security as well. The Organization for Urban and Peasant Development — ORDEURCA, for short — has 200 guard members in six districts. The guards are tasked with patrolling and checking on security by sectors, and ensuring local communities are not destabilized.

"The Peasant Guard is neither police nor allied to any armed group," says Wálter Quiñónez, an ORDEURCA spokesperson. "We maintain neutrality to avoid any misunderstanding. We are a body of guards to protect community leaders, keep peace in the territory and safeguard human rights."

While the peasant and Afro-Colombian initiatives follow the model of the Indigenous Guard, each community has adapted things to its particular, organizational structures. Today the three communities are working together to ensure the government will address their age-old request for help in protecting the communities, but without the use of weapons.

The Ombudsman's office has identified the first half of 2020 as a particularly violent period with regards to attacks on activists and community leaders. In 2016, there were 33 such murders. This year, just between the months of January and June, there were nearly three times as many (91), with another 51 cases undergoing verification, the office reports.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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