Toribío, COLOMBIA -- This dusty agricultural village in southwestern Colombia has been attacked more than 500 times in 10 years as guerrillas and the army have fought for control of the town. But when a fresh spate of violence broke out last week, the residents revolted. Armed with little more than ceremonial staffs and a few machetes, hundreds of Nasa Indians have been facing down heavily armed guerillas, destroying fortified police positions and pushing the army out of their mountaintop barracks.
Their hope is that if they rid the region of the two armed factions — the state and guerrillas — they can bring peace to this area for the first time in more than 40 years.
Even as the government has packed the city with troops and turned streets into bunkers, the civilian body count has climbed, said Luís Alberto Mensa, the regional head of the unarmed Indigenous Guard. With 1,500 active members in northern Cauca province and more than 150 in Toribío, Mensa said his force can control the area better than the government troops.
“The military can’t protect us and the guerrillas don’t represent us,” Mensa said, as he cradled the tasseled staff that identifies the volunteer guard. “All of them need to leave this area and let us live in peace.”
The push comes as Toribío and surrounding villages in northern Cauca have been beset by more than a week of fighting that has left at least two dead, 11 civilians injured and more than 120 homes damaged. The frustration spilled over on Sunday, when a guerrilla mortar landed on Toribío´s community clinic, wounding four medics.
President Juan Manuel Santos called an emergency cabinet meeting in Toribío on Wednesday to try to calm the community. But the visit only underscored the problem. Despite thousands of additional troops in the area to provide presidential security, helicopter gunships took fire from the hills and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, blocked roads into town.
At one guerrilla checkpoint, less than five minutes from the city center, a group of burly men stopped passing vehicles.
“This is FARC territory,” said a heavily-armed man as he stuck his head into the car. “Tell Santos that the 6th Front [a guerrilla unit] sends him greetings.”
On Thursday, the International Red Cross recovered the bodies of two pilots who went down Wednesday in a Super Tucano fighter jet near the village of Jambaló. The government is investigating the incident and has said it was likely mechanical failure, but eyewitnesses said the aircraft had been taking guerrilla fire all day.
Even before Santos had finished the emergency meeting, the community had decided to take matters into its own hands. One group confronted the FARC at the roadblocks and another walked more than two hours to a barren mountaintop army battalion that overlooks Toribío.
After a short standoff with troops, about 200 people swarmed the base and began toppling sandbagged bunkers and filling in foxholes. As troops looked on helplessly, soldiers begged for more time to pack their belongings before their barracks were torn down.
“Please don’t do that,” one officer shouted. “My men need a place to sleep.”
It had taken Angelina Musique, a 66-year-old grandmother, two hours to reach the battalion from the community of San Francisco.