Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Threats Mount Against the Indigenous Social Movement in Northern Cauca as Campaign of Resistance Continues

An interview with Rafael Coicué, Nasa leader, and member of the cabildo of Carinto-López Adentro, Cauca, Colombia.

By Mario A. Murillo

(August 30, 2008 – Santander de Qulichao, Cauca.)

Rafael Coicué may be soft spoken, but when it is his turn to talk in meetings and indigenous assemblies, the people listen carefully for his deliberate insight and precise analysis. Today, he is one of the most respected young leaders of the contemporary indigenous movement in northern Cauca.

This is why there was universal condemnation of the actions taken by state security forces on July 3rd, 2008 during an indigenous mobilization in his native Corinto, where he was shot, losing all the functions of his left eye in the process. The incident occurred on the road just outside of Corinto, where he was confronted by heavily armed, special-forces commandoes, dispatched to disperse a land recuperation effort by local indigenous activists. Coicué is convinced it was not a random act that almost killed him, but a direct attempt on his life because of the work he’s involved in.

“As a representative of the cabildo, (indigenous council), and as part of the indigenous authority, I was charged with setting up the logistics for an emergency public assembly that we were scheduling for July 4th in Corinto, where we were going to denounce the recent actions taken against the communities by local landowners, the army and the national police,” he said.

A few weeks earlier in Corinto, two young, indigenous activists were killed by the Army during another land recuperation effort. Community leaders say the victims were then dressed up as guerillas to cover up the action, a tactic apparently being used increasingly by government forces to demonstrate progress in their war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC. The use of so-called “false positives” was documented in recent studies by Amnesty International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and reported in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

“This part of northern Cauca is being disputed heavily right now. The territory of Corinto is extremely fertile, and there are a lot of interests trying to gain control of the area by pushing us out,” he said. “They had been accusing us of being drug-traffickers, as being linked with the guerillas, as a way to de-legitimize our struggle, and the situation was becoming increasingly tense.”

These developments were among the issues to be discussed in the assembly Coicué was putting together with his cabildo in early July. Unfortunately he never made it to the assembly, forced instead to recover in an emergency room from the wounds to his eye.

The Liberation of Mother Earth

Coicué has been at the forefront of the campaign for the “Liberation of Mother Earth,” which was launched by the indigenous communities of Cauca in 2005. This land recuperation and resistance effort was organized by the leadership in response to the government’s failure to fulfill its obligations to the victims of the December 16, 1991 massacre of 20 indigenous people from the Huellas community, including five women and four children, who were murdered as they met to discuss a struggle over land rights in the El Nilo estate.

That tragic night, some 60 hooded gunmen stormed into the building where the community was meeting and opened fire. Initial news reports indicated that the gunmen were drug traffickers who had been seizing land in the region to grow opium poppies to produce heroin, but it soon became apparent that the culprits were not simply narco-traffickers.

The 1991 killings had followed a pattern of harassment and threats against the Nasa community by gunmen loyal to local landowners who were disputing the community’s claim to ownership of the land. The Special Investigations Unit of the Office of the Attorney General, which handled the first stages of the investigation, uncovered evidence of the involvement of members of the National Police, both before and during the execution of the massacre.

As a result, the government had agreed to return 15,600 hectares to the community that had been targeted by the assassins. The Inter-American Court for Human Rights of the Organization of American States upheld this sentence, and also called on the government to financially compensate the family members of the victims of the massacre. In 1998, then President Ernesto Samper publicly apologized for the role the state had played in this atrocity, and promised to compensate the victims.

Yet Samper’s public apologies contrasted considerably with the announcement in 2002 by the government of President Alvaro Uribe that there were simply no more resources available from the state to provide any more lands to the indigenous communities affected by the massacre.

After years of government foot-dragging, the “Liberation of Mother Earth” campaign demonstrated to the country that the community was going to take matters into their own hands and return to a strategy that had all but been abandoned in the years after the reform of the Colombian Constitution. The campaign involves dramatic land invasions and occupations of private holdings, mostly controlled by the large-scale sugar cane growers. Once inside these lands, the indigenous farmers begin chopping down the cane, in turn growing and cultivating crops based on the sustainable agricultural practices of the indigenous communities. It has led to bitter confrontations over the last several years. Rafael Coicué, who lost a brother in the Nilo massacre, says despite having lost an eye just two short months back, he will not rest until justice is served, and the communities recuperate their lands.

“The response of the government to our latest, non-violent land recuperation efforts has been to send in the public security forces to confront us head on, brutally,” said Coicué during a break at a recent meeting of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN. “They send in the army, the national police, the ESMAD (Special Forces Police), the local police, all with the instructions to hit us hard, as if we were some violent actors, or as if we were armed guerillas.”

False Accusations Against Indigenous Leadership

The strong-arm tactics described by Coicué are consistent with President Uribe’s position regarding the alternative social programs of indigenous communities throughout the country, which on more than one occasion the Prsident has described as illegal in its pronunciations of autonomy from the state.

It is reflected also in comments from officials like General Jaime Esguerra, the current commander of the Army’s Third Brigade, who in May 2008, accused the indigenous leadership of working directly with FARC in its land recuperation efforts. This belligerent rhetoric is a reflection of a long tradition of public officials trying to discredit the legitimate claims of the indigenous communities in the eyes of Colombian public opinion, in order to justify the government’s repressive actions on their territories.

More importantly, in the current context, the attitude reflected in these ongoing accusations is the basis of a systematic and pervasive backlash against the indigenous movement’s capacity to mobilize in defense of its guaranteed rights, a backlash that is being spearheaded by a complex alliance of reactionary domestic political and economic forces that are at once sustained and promoted by international actors that have a lot to lose if the trend at counter-reform in Colombia does not continue to move in their favor.

The threats against the unity and strength of the indigenous movement in northern Cauca range from direct military confrontation and intimidation by armed actors, to the seemingly peaceful incursion into the communities of evangelical Christian groups, who use the vast economic resources they have at their disposal to attract some of the most marginalized Nasa into their congregations by promising salvation and support, when and if the people surrender the authority of the cabildo for that of the church. Combined with the short and long-term strategic objectives of the Colombian government, under the auspices of the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, the cohesion of the organization and the communities as a whole is under serious threat.

The Uribe government has made it clear that it intends to apply even more pressure in the coming years to finally dislodge the guerillas from their former strongholds in the northern Cauca region. The potential for prolonged stalemate is very real. The government’s strategy is to implement some of the same military tactics that were apparently successful against the guerillas in the southern departments of Putumayo and Caquetá to the northern Cauca theater, making the next phase of the war that much more complicated, particularly for indigenous communities.

It is already visible in the permanent occupation of places like Toribio and Tacueyó, where heavily armed members of the National Police patrol the streets and neighborhoods, and in the confrontations in places like Corinto. Coicué and others in the community are convinced that this reality is not going to change any time soon, and most likely will get more intense as the government focuses more of its attention in the region.

“Throughout Northern Cauca, and one sees it in Corinto, there is an extremely large presence of military forces. There are mobile brigades, special forces, military intelligence, high-altitude battalions operating in the mountainside, all supposed to confront the guerillas, but impacting us directly,” said Coicué. “In this aspect, the confrontations have increased, the bombardments, the attacks from helicopters. These confrontations have caused deaths, have destroyed houses and schools, have killed animals. As a result, the community finds itself in constant high risk, because the weapons used by both the guerillas and the army don’t discriminate, they are not precise. So we have declared ourselves in a state of high emergency.”

It appears that much of the attacks against the indigenous movement are indeed systematic.

Colombian human rights groups like the Center for Investigation and Popular Education, CINEP, as well as the Center for Indigenous Cooperation, CECOIN, point out that while the number of overall violations against indigenous communities has increased in the first four years of Uribe’s government, the number of acts attributable to the state security forces has also increased.

From 1998-2002, they registered 298 cases in which state actors were directly responsible, whereas from 2002-2006, that number reached 672 cases. State-sponsored political assassinations rose from 26 in the previous presidential period to 62 under the first Uribe term. Increases were noted in all other areas of rights violations as well.

It is no coincidence that Cauca has been one of the departments most affected by this wave of repression, along with places like Putumayo, and Chocó. Between 2002-2006, CECOIN registered 212 cases of arbitrary detentions against indigenous communities, 61 cases of targeted assassinations, 30 cases of personal threats, and over 114 wounded, mostly Nasa, Kokonuco and Yanacona.

Along with these acts, one must consider the over 200 “orders of detention” that have been issued, yet have not been carried out by state security forces. These orders of detention came about as a result of the clashes between the Army and FARC in Toribio over the last several years, clashes that resulted in military officials accusing indigenous leaders of collaborating with the guerillas. Not surprisingly, these orders of capture were directed at the leaders of the community most associated with the struggle for the defense of indigenous rights.

Expansion of Conflict in Cauca

In February 2007, the Department of National Planning (DNP), through its office of Justice and Security, released the document Strategy to Strengthen Democracy and Social Development (2007-2013). Based on the premise that under Uribe’s “democratic security strategy” the government has recuperated the confidence of the national and international community, the DNP’s missive described the next phases of implementation of that strategy. In essence, it was the second phase of Plan Colombia, which would be executed through the President’s own Center for Coordination of Integral Action, or CCAI, supported by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Southern Command in conjunction with various ministries of the Colombian government.

In introducing the project to the Colombian press, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos made it clear that, following on the apparent successes of Uribe’s first term, the next several years would be dedicated to the “final recuperation of those zones where there is a persistent presence of terrorist groups and narco-traffickers.”

It is a multi-faceted approach that includes a permanent inter-agency coordination of civilian and military functions, under close cooperation with the United States government. Modeled after the Pentagon’s strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, the idea is to accompany aggressive military operations in areas of strategic importance with the softer hand of the state, allowing for security forces to “win the confidence” of the local community by assisting with various social projects.

However, in a place like northern Cauca, where the communities have an inherently different perspective from the state regarding economic development, security and democratic participation, the results have led to profound contradictions. The civilian-oriented social projects that are penetrating indigenous territories, with unlimited resources, are deliberately calling to question the authority of the cabildos, forcing the communities to choose between remaining loyal to the long-term organizational process of ACIN and the indigenous movement, or accepting attractive assistance packages that have considerable political and ideological strings attached. It is a classic strategy of divide and conquer, meant to destroy one of the strongest social movements in the country.

Furthermore, the ongoing clashes between FARC and government forces in northern Cauca continue to have serious repercussions for the communities themselves. The perpetual confrontation in the region has hampered the cabildos’ ability to execute their community development plans – Planes de vida - due to the almost constant state of emergency the people are forced to endure, and the pervasive militarization of their territories.

For the indigenous organization as a whole, the resulting tensions inevitably sidetrack their comprehensive efforts to confront the many other serious challenges they face within the current political context. The conflict provides false justifications for the powers that be to continue to hold down a hard line when it comes to dealing with the indigenous leadership, who despite being independent of FARC, are still seen as a problem for Uribe precisely because of their oppositional stances on so many issues.

For example, as ACIN and other indigenous organizations mobilize against the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and denounce the wave of counter-reform measures that the government has tried to push through the Congress in order to make the FTA possible, the movement is repeatedly targeted as working in alliance with the guerillas.

In carrying out direct actions like the “Liberation of Mother Earth” campaign to recuperate lands promised to them by previous governments, the indigenous leadership is consistently accused by the military of being tools of the insurgency. The land occupations carried out by the community over the last few years are seen as illegal, running counter to the so-called democratic lawfulness that is supposed to come with a stronger state presence in the region. As a result, the indigenous movement has experienced a new wave of repression that is reminiscent of the dirty war years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed, the democratic security policy of Uribe has not only, not arrived for the indigenous people of Colombia, but it is being used directly against their collective interests. Both the guerillas and the government have mutually benefited from the resulting chaos.

All of these issues are converging dramatically in northern Cauca, although they are manifest in many other parts of the country, from Chocó, to la Guajira, Santa Marta to the Middle Magdalena region, not coincidentally areas with large indigenous populations. The contemporary historical juncture is characterized by a political and social crisis without precedent in Colombia, and of utmost urgency for the country’s indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian people.

Directly tied to this are the national policies of President Uribe, who, strengthened by the unconditional support of the Bush Administration, has administered a process of territorial domination and political consolidation of the extreme right, facilitated by the apparent demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, paramilitaries that are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Independent analysts and human rights activists argue this so-called demilitarization process is deliberately designed to push back the rights of indigenous peoples, which, by their nature, stand in the way of the development strategies of the foreign multinationals, powerful domestic corporate capitalists, and large agricultural interests who look to benefit most from the lands that have been usurped by these same paramilitaries.

In July 2008, a commission of indigenous leaders from the entire department met with government officials to discuss ways to resolve the years-long impasse over the issues of land redistribution in Cauca. In participating in the discussions with the Vice Minister of the Interior and Justice, Maria Isabel Nieto, the delegation hoped to reactivate the Commission for the Integral Development of Indigenous Policies in the Department of Cauca, which was created by the government in 1999. The commission also called on the government to stop its repeated verbal attacks against indigenous activists, linking them to the guerillas and accusing them of terrorism. What came out of the meeting, however, was the government’s admission that there were simply no resources in the national budget to redistribute lands to the indigenous communities of Cauca, despite previous agreements to do so. Once again, the people were being told to wait, while other forces were moving forward rapidly with their efforts of counter-reform and consolidation.

As researcher, writer and activist Hector Mondragón repeatedly points out, the main interest of the government is “not to resolve the problems of the unequal distribution of land in the countryside,” something that adversely affects peasants, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities equally, but “to maintain and consolidate the concentration of land in a few hands, and the usurpation of communal holdings under the pretext of favoring a productive, rural development.”

Mondragón has been active in the peasant and indigenous movement for years, and has written extensively about the unequal distribution of land in the countryside, and its impact on development. He has collaborated closely with ACIN in mapping out strategies to confront the wave of repression that has been unleashed against them in the last several years. Which is why it was not surprising that he was mentioned in a recent article that tried to link him with the fallen FARC leader Raul Reyes, killed by a U.S.-backed cross-border air strike into Ecuador by Colombian forces in March 2008.

The news article published in the August 29th edition of El Tiempo, was titled “Links Between Canadian Trade Unions and the Non-Governmental Organization Fensuagro Seen in Money Funneled to FARC.” It read: 'In an email of April 2, 2006, Reyes wrote to a man identified as Hector Mondragón: "I want to introduce you to Comrade Liliany, she works with me and at the same time advises Fensuagro (National Agrarian Workers' Union) in international relations. Naturally she is a Comrade that can
be completely trusted." '

The implication in the article was that “Reyes” wrote this note to Mondragón, an open attempt to tarnish his reputation by linking him to the guerillas’ second in command. ACIN called the article “a perverse fabrication with deliberately bad intentions… designed to stain the good name…of this brilliant teacher and colleague.” It was yet another example of the many efforts to discredit the indigenous movement and its allies.

It is not an exaggeration to say we are returning to the intensity of the 1970s, when the dirty war tactics of the state confronted head on indigenous claims of autonomy and self-determination. The dismantling of the indigenous territories, or resguardos, a principal objective of Colombia’s economic and political elite for centuries, is closer to becoming a reality today than ever before, albeit by other, supposedly more civil means such as new legislation dealing with forests, mining and water rights, and counter-reforms to the Constitution pushed forward by a Congress whose majority is made up of some of the most corrupt, reactionary and violent sectors of the Colombian right wing.

Almost 20 years after the Constitution was altered to include the rights of the country’s indigenous people, these rights are becoming ever more fragile. Against tremendous obstacles, people like Rafael Coicué continue to resist.

“Since this struggle for indigenous rights began back in 1971, many leaders have been assassinated, over 800 leaders have been taken away from us, simply for demanding the rights of their people,” he said. “What I’m saying now is that my work in the community as part of the cabildo, is not done. So about two weeks after losing my eye, I thought to myself, I am not the first, nor will I be the last to be targeted this way. So I forced myself out of bed and went back to work.”

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of communication at Hofstra University in New York. He is currently living in Colombia on a Fulbright Research Grant, where he is finishing up a book about the indigenous movement in northern Cauca and its uses of communication media.


Mícheál said...

Mario: What an excellent post! Thanks for doing the impossible by summing up what's been going on in Northern Cauca over these past few months. I will put a link to your blog on the La Chiva site.
Micheal O Tuathail

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