Globe, Latin America

Natives in Colombia don’t want the Army in their territory

Tired of asking armed combatants to keep them out of the internal conflict, the indigenous population of Cauca have decided to expel the the Army based on the Berlin Hill, as well as the guerillas that are fighting over the territory. The media have blamed the indigenous peoples, and distorted the facts.

Javier E. Núñez Calderón

To defend their territory and their right to autonomy, the indigenous peoples in Colombia have fought ferocious battles against the colonizers, the landholders and the mining projects fostered by the government. And they have also faced the war that broke out between the army, guerillas, paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs.

The cost in human lives has been very high since the last war started in their lands, especially in the Cauca region, the province with the biggest concentration of indigenous people in the country. It has been the scene in recent weeks of protests by the Nasa people.

The Nasa are tired of asking the armed combatants to keep them out of the conflict, and they decided to expel the soldiers who were based on the Berlin Hill, as well as the guerillas who were fighting them for control of the area.

This area which includes the north of Cauca, has been a strategic corridor for rebels, and gangs involved in drug-trafficking, who use these routes to move narcotics from the centre and east of the country to the Pacific coast, one of the points from which they are sent abroad.

The security situation became more acute at the beginning of 2000 when the then President, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, militarized the zone so as to confront the guerillas. Since then heavy fighting has taken place, in which the indigenous population has suffered the most, because they are used as human shields by both sides.

Because of this the indigenous people issued an ultimatum on July 16th: get the army out of our territory, and stop fighting in civilian areas.

But neither the Colombian Army nor the Ministry of Defence seemed to be listening to them. Then over 1000 members of the guard from the north of Cauca surrounded the hills of the town of Toribio, and forced out at least 100 soldiers from the Berlin Hill. They also arrested 4 guerillas and took away 3 police posts used for the guerrillas.

Feliciano Valencia, the leader of the Nasa people explained to the Colombian magazine Semana, that the purpose of the indigenous protest had been to demand the combatants to respect their lands, and not use them as human shields.

Concerning the expulsion of the soldiers he affirmed: “ We are not forcing them out, what we are saying is that they should not militarize our life, not come into civilian areas or enter houses, not use people, not take over sacred sites, and not remain indefinitely as they are doing in the Berlin Tower, violating our sacred sites.

The eviction of the military base was accomplished without violence, despite the claim by the soldiers that the FARC had infiltrated the indigenous protest, and that several indigenous leaders were collaborating with their guerillas.

Some TV pictures in which it appears that a soldier is crying and another being shoved out by force were interpreted by a sector of the press and public opinion as an act of humiliation against the legitimate forces of the State. And the mainstream media as always, echoed this so that public opinion implicitly blamed the indigenous people.

In response the government sent more soldiers and riot police to retake control of the area. As a result one indigenous man was killed by the forces of law, and over 30 injured. The commander of the operation that the death of the youth was the result of a mistake by the army. A relative of the victim stated that the army opened fire, when the youth didn’t understand an order to stop and stand still where he was.

Even though the forces of the state regained military control of the area, it was necessary to arrange talks between the government and the indigenous people to resolve the crisis and find solutions to the demands of the population. Their demands were mainly centred on the question of guards, and the demilitarization of areas that put the inhabitants in danger.

The sociologist and columnist Alfredo Molano has written an opinion piece in the daily paper El Espectador, in which he attributes the failure of the government to deal with the indigenous people is due to the fact that the former did not fulfil their promises. “On one hand, giving money to projects which end in benefitting the government’s political clients; and on the other crushing demonstrations against abuses committed by the security forces or the failure to implement the agreements”.

Like Molano, many specialists believe that the first thing the government must do to resolve the problem is to open talks with the indigenous people to gain their confidence. But this possibility has become lost as a result of serious human rights violations committed by the security forces, such as the murder of Germán Escué Zapata in 1988. He died not by being caught in the crossfire between the army and the guerillas, but because he was taken form his home by force and then murdered.

The indigenous people are simply demanding that the State as well as illegal armed groups respect the laws established under the National Constitution, which in article 7 says “The State recognizes and protects the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Colombian Nation”. Similarly, the UN Declarationon Indigenous Peoples, in article 30, prohibits military actions in indigenous territories, and that in case it becomes necessary in order to deal with a serious threat, the indigenous communities must be consulted through the correct procedures, respecting their autonomy.

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email:

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