Thursday, October 2, 2008

Realization of “Threats” Put Colombian Popular Movement in State of High Alert

Recent events in Cauca and elsewhere point to a new wave of terror against social protest

By Mario A. Murillo (Bogotá, Colombia; October 2, 2008)

In Colombia, there’s no such thing as an empty threat.

Marino Dagua doesn’t need any convincing of this. He’s the governor of the council, or cabildo, of Canoas, a small indigenous reserve in northern Cauca, where an ominous wave of attacks against the community has occurred in the last several weeks.

On Tuesday, September 30th, Dagua was to be the latest victim of this dirty war, ultimately spared, were it not for the courageous stand taken by an indigenous delivery-man, who after being stopped on his motorcycle during one of his rounds, refused to provide any information regarding Dagua’s whereabouts to three armed thugs, who beat him and left him for dead. The beating victim and the governor, as well as indigenous authorities represented by the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, say the would-be assassins are members of paramilitary groups tied to local landowners, who are waging a war of terror against the indigenous and peasant leadership in the department.

After this latest incident, the community of Canoas assembled in what they call a “permanent assembly,” to plan an “emergency strategy of resistance” to confront the ongoing threats against the leadership, their territories and the life plan of the communities. By all indications, they are not overreacting.

Just two days earlier, on Sunday afternoon, the indigenous governor of the cabildo Peñón, from the municipality of Sotará, was assassinated in cold blood in his own home, which is located further south in the city of Popayán, Cauca’s departmental capital. Raúl Mendoza was a former member of the council of chiefs of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, CRIC, and ex-president of the Association of Cabildos of Tierradentro, Nasa Uus. In the weeks prior to being killed, Mendoza had made several public pronouncements to government authorities about the ongoing threats against his life and the community as a whole, but to no avail.

Mendoza was one of the most visible leaders spearheading the campaign to recuperate lands for the Nasa communities displaced by a 1994 earthquake and mudslide in Tierradentro. In August, public security forces tried to forcibly dislodge the indigenous community from the area they had peacefully occupied for the last three years, where they had been demanding that the government return lands to them after years of neglect in the wake of the natural disaster.

The murder of Mendoza, and the near miss for Dagua, came just days after two other peasant activists working alongside the indigenous movement in Cauca were killed. On September 19th, Ever González, leader of the Integration Committee of the Macizo Colombiano, CIMA, was shot to death, and the next day, César Marín, a peasant leader working with the National Association of Peasant Farmers, ANUC, was brutally stabbed in the municipality of El Tambo.

Coinciding with these assassinations were a number of military and police confrontations with local indigenous activists in Huellas, Caloto and Toribio, as well as what eyewitnesses described as “suspicious activity” by “unmarked vehicles” that had been circulating throughout the territory for several days.

These disturbing events began to unfold within a month after ACIN and CRIC received a seven-page missive laced with hostile language and direct threats against the entire indigenous community. The August 11th email message was signed by the previously unknown “Campesinos Embejucados del Cauca,” or Furious Peasants of Cauca, CEC. The authors of the email threat denounced the indigenous movement’s ongoing land recuperation campaign in the department, claiming that it was being spearheaded by “former CRIC leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.” (See “Colombia’s Double Realities,” August 17th, 2008; http://mamaradio.blogspot.com/2008/08/colombias-double-realities.html).

The latest assassinations of indigenous leaders should not come as a surprise, if one considers that they were announced in the above-mentioned threatening email:

“Don’t be surprised when …(you) are found dead and a significant number of your members have disappeared. …We want Popayán, Cali and Bogotá free of Indians because that is where their lair and greatest concentration of leaders are.”

The ACIN and CRIC leadership say these developments are part of a growing pattern of intimidation that has been directed against the broader indigenous and popular movement in recent years, as they continue to confront the economic development and military-security program of President Uribe. As they pointed out in a recent communiqué, it is a manifestation of a broader strategy to target popular protest at a time when the government faces its most complicated political crisis, relating to the so-called “para-política” scandal, and it is coming from the highest reaches of power:

“For example, (Uribe’s) offer of rewards to break the unity of the indigenous communities of Cauca, and his claim in a Community Council he held on September 27, where he linked the just struggles of the sugar cane workers, now on strike for over two weeks, with the guerillas of FARC.”

In response to these continuous attacks, the Public Defender’s Office in Cauca said that it was working alongside other organisms of the state to implement measures to guarantee the security of the indigenous governors and other leaders of the community in areas of high conflict. Víctor Meléndez, the Public Defender, told the regional newspaper El Liberal, that together with the national office, they have been able to compile considerable information about the origin of the recent threats against members of the indigenous communities of the department, and that investigations are underway to try to put a stop to them.

Which is not too comforting for ACIN and its constituents. Marino Dagua, and the indigenous delivery-man who played a key role in saving his life, are both convinced that the thugs that were looking for him on Tuesday night were “working closely with members of the local police force.” Their claims should not be so easily written off, given the track record of para-military death squads working hand in hand with so-called legitimate security forces over the years throughout Colombia.

Right now, as the entire indigenous movement remains in a state of high alert, popular organizations on a departmental and a national level are preparing for a massive mobilization on October 12-13th in cities throughout Colombia in protest of the Uribe government, and its perceived double standard when it comes to security for the Colombian people.

Stay tuned for more information about these and other developments.

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