TORIBÍO, Colombia -- The day after some 200 members of Colombia’s Nasa community occupied and partially destroyed a mountaintop army base without a single shot being fired, Alfredo “Lucho” Acosta tried to explain the power behind their methods.
“If we had gone up there with guns they would have shot at us, but we went up there with our sticks and they respected us,” said Acosta, 39, as he held the tasseled staff that identifies him as a member of the Indigenous Guard. “It took us less than a day to accomplish what the guerrillas have been trying to do for 50 years.”
Last month, the nation watched indigenous Nasa communities use largely peaceful means to try to force the army and the country’s largest guerrilla group out of their war-torn territory. Led by the Indigenous Guard, a volunteer force that uses little more than wooden batons to enforce its will, the Nasa dismantled guerrilla roadblocks, seized their arsenals and captured four of their members. They also went after the government — physically dragging soldiers out of a fortified hilltop position and destroying police barricades in this southwestern town.
Weary of decades of fighting that has left hundreds of civilian dead, the community is hoping it can bring peace to the area if it can expel the armed factions and let the Indigenous Guard control the area.
It’s a controversial hypothesis. The government is negotiating with indigenous leaders, but President Juan Manuel Santos said a military withdrawal is “not negotiable.” More troops have poured into the region. Soldiers recaptured the hilltop base a few days later, and at least two Nasa have died and dozens have been injured in clashes with police.
The Nasa also seem to have lost the nation’s goodwill. After local media flooded the airwaves with pictures of the Indigenous Guard manhandling soldiers — who did not use their weapons on the civilian crowd — many have vilified the Nasa. A poll last week in Semana Magazine found only 23 percent support the indigenous cause.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón went a step further, suggesting the community is in league with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the guerrillas that control the area.
“Let’s not be naïve,” he said last month. “We have to recognize that in some cases these social movements have been infiltrated by criminals and terrorists.”
Standing in a bullet-pocked plaza, Arquimedes Vitonas, the former mayor of Toribío and one of the founding members of the Indigenous Guard, said Colombia’s indigenous groups have always been seen as the enemy.
The nation’s 50-year conflict has been particularly brutal on this part of the country. Toribío has been attacked more than 500 times in the last decade and the FARC has overrun it on at least four occasions.
The Indigenous Guard is a product of the crisis. In 2001, the community was trapped between right-wing paramilitary groups and the leftist FARC. Both factions accused the town of being sympathetic to the other party, and villagers were murdered by the hundreds.
In response, the Nasa formalized the guard as a sort of neighborhood watch to patrol the territory and report suspicious activity. Volunteers are given basic training, red and green bandanas and bastones de mando, or “command sticks,” that are often more symbolic than threatening.