Colombian tribes hit by all sides in civil war

Attacks by paramilitaries, government, guerrillas

April 24, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TORIBIO, Colombia - One recent morning, just as the sun was coming up, guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by their Spanish acronym FARC, made an announcement to this largely indigenous town via bullhorn: Vacate the premises because we are about to attack.

The fighting that followed continues and has left at least five policemen, two soldiers and a 9-year-old village boy dead, as well as 23 people injured and dozens of houses in ruin.

The attack, which started week before last, was FARC's second assault in two years on this town and highlighted the difficulty Indian villages feel throughout this region.

In Toribio, long the home to Paez or Nasa Indians, FARC rebels have killed six Nasa in the past year. And FARC's arch-enemies, right-wing paramilitaries, have killed five Nasa leaders in Cauca province since January. Many other Indian deaths go unreported, community leaders said when a reporter visited the region before the guerrilla assault on Toribio.

The violence makes Cauca the worst place in Colombia to be an Indian. But the trend is similar nationwide. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia estimates that 156 Indians were killed in 2004 in the war, three times the national average. Thousands more were displaced by the violence.

"Because of the rich lands the indigenous groups occupy, we're running the risk of disappearing," said Daniel Pinaque, a Nasa assemblyman in the Cauca provincial government.

After Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Indigenous, made an emergency visit to Colombia last year, he told the media that several Colombian tribes are "on the verge of extinction."

Colombia has 700,000 indigenous people from 84 tribes, out of a total population of 45 million. They're spread throughout the country but are concentrated in remote, often conflictive areas where guerrillas and paramilitaries seek to control illegal arms and drug shipments that feed this four-decades-old war.

Toribio is wedged into the central Andean mountain range, one of three that split this country into rugged territories that authorities find difficult to control. FARC dominates most of this region, allegedly using it as a transit and storage point for supplies and illegal drugs.

A military offensive in this region that includes the deployment of 120 policemen to Toribio has succeeded only in pushing the guerrillas into the surrounding mountains, from where sharpshooters regularly take potshots at officers patrolling the village square.

Last month, a FARC fighter sneaked into town and gunned down a patrolman. Then came the attack. In the days afterward, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe visited Toribio by helicopter and promised to slow the guerrilla offensive. But FARC has since blocked the only two roads entering the village, and most of the population has fled the area.

Caught between these fighting factions in Cauca are the Nasa, a powerful and well-organized tribe that numbers close to 115,000 throughout the country.

In the 1980s, the Nasa took up arms against both government and FARC forces and formed a fighting group called Quintin Lame. The group demobilized in 1991 after peace talks with the government, but conflicts with the guerrillas and the paramilitaries continued.

In the late 1990s the Nasa reshaped an old tradition known as the Indigenous Guard, in which Indians bearing short wooden sticks decorated with tassels that are signs of tribal authority keep watch over their territories.

Nasa leaders say the Indigenous Guard has about 7,000 members now, spread throughout dozens of remote Indian villages such as Toribio, which became a one of the centers of operation. And the organization has had some success thwarting rebel and military incursions.

When FARC kidnapped Toribio Mayor Arquimedes Vitonas last September, 500 Indigenous Guards piled into several of Colombia's colorfully painted Chiva buses and rode toward the place where rebels had captured him. Along the way, they got the news that he had been released.

Vitonas said that a FARC leader had told him, "Many people have come for you, and many more are on the way."

"If they kill us, they have to respond to the community," the diminutive Nasa mayor said. Despite the Indigenous Guards' success and Vitonas confidence, however, violence continues to lash this community and others. Sometimes, as in the case of the Vitonas kidnapping, it appears that Nasa leaders are targeted specifically because they are Indians.

"This is a fight over control," he said. "The Indian leaders say they're in charge, but the guerrillas say they are."

But other times, the origin of the violence and the targets of the war are unclear. The latest FARC attack, for instance, seemed aimed at police, but the injured and rubble of the buildings tell a different story.

"We reject this type of guerrilla aggression," Vitonas told the Colombian daily El Tiempo after the assault. "This was a direct attack on the population and their homes."

Last month, rebels gunned down a young Nasa woman on the outskirts of Toribio for allegedly being a spy, and a FARC urban militia member killed a Nasa during a drunken dispute in a bar.

Vitonas says these types of deaths are hard to prevent because they don't seem to be a result of a specific conflict between the Nasa tribe and FARC. Still, he regularly consults with guerrilla leaders to smooth relations. The rebels, he says, often claim they cannot control every member of their organization.

"Afterwards, they asked for our forgiveness," Vitonas said of the barroom shooting, "But what good is that?"

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