Sticks vs. guns: The rise of Colombia’s Indigenous Guard

Born amid the nation’s 50-year conflict, Colombia’s Indigenous Guard has been using little more than wooden batons to take on guerrillas and the army.

08/07/2012 5:00 AM

08/07/2012 7:59 PM

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.

The community policing strategy proved so effective that it has been adopted by about 70 percent of Colombia’s ethnic groups, said Fucai, a non-profit that works in the region. The organization has no age limits or gender requirements, and children as young as 14 can be seen carrying the arm-length sticks , which, in theory, are only used in self defense.

Nonviolence in a country armed to the teeth wasn’t a philosophical choice but a pragmatic gamble, Vitonas said

During the 1980s, some Nasa joined an armed self-defense group called Quintín Lame. But the force eventually went on the offensive, becoming another guerrilla actor in the nation’s bloody conflict.

“That was not a positive experience for us,” Vitonas said. “Having weapons only generated more bloodshed and we realized that arms were not the solution. We decided to fight for our rights within the Constitution and be part of the democratic process.”

Quintín Lame demobilized in 1991 in exchange for a role in the Constitutional Assembly, which gave the Nasa and other indigenous communities limited autonomy, and recognition of their tribal leadership and justice system. The four alleged FARC members captured last month, for example, were tried by an assembly of Nasa governors and sentenced to flogging.

The guard’s power caught national attention in 2004 when Vitonas and other leaders were kidnapped by the FARC. About 400 members of the guard gave chase. Acosta, who was part of the rescue party, remembers sleeping against trees and going hungry as they punched deep into the jungle. Soldiers made fun of them for venturing into FARC territory armed with nothing but sticks.

But eventually, about 150 guard members made it to the guerrilla encampment and freed the hostages. They pulled it off in less than 20 days and nobody was hurt — noteworthy in Colombia, where FARC hostages have been held for more than 13 years and rescue efforts often involve casualties.

Overwhelming force is part of the Indigenous Guard strategy, Acosta said.

“That day we went with 400 people,” he said. “But if that didn’t work, we would have come back with 10,000.”

That same year, the Indigenous Guard won Colombia’s prestigious National Peace Prize, sponsored by the United Nations, among others.

“It’s not a police structure, but a humanitarian mechanism of civil resistance,” the judges wrote. “It was created to defend the communities from all the parties that threaten them.”

The most recent threat came in early July, when the FARC’s 6th Front stepped up attacks on police and military installations inside Toribío. Stained-glass windows in the church were shot out when guerrillas missed the nearby police barracks. A wayward mortar landed in the community clinic seriously wounding four medics.

But the media only noticed when the Nasa began pushing out the police and military to keep from being caught in the crossfire, said Ruth Consuelo Chaparro with the Fucai non-profit.

“All they are trying to do is protect their lives and their territory,” she said. “But the media is painting them out to be a group of savages and terrorists who are threatening the military.”

Chaparro said the 1991 Constitution gives the Nasa the right to control their territory through the Indigenous Guard — something the government disputes.

The Nasa themselves are divided. Indigenous leaders in the beleaguered town of Miranda have said they don’t want soldiers to leave. And even residents of Toribío fear they would be overrun by guerrillas and criminals if the Indigenous Guard only used sticks to defend it.

“The Nasa are a very small David facing a huge Goliath,” said Antonio Bonanomi, a Catholic priest who worked in Toribío for two decades. “They know they can’t force the police or the guerrillas out right now. But the fact that they’ve raised their voice and are attracting attention is something of a miracle.”

As Acosta sat on a curbside monitoring a radio, news came that a member of the Indigenous Guard had been wounded in a nearby town. Over the last decade, at least 16 guard members have been killed. He said the red and green tassels on their bastones are a constant reminder: Green is for the land they defend and red is for the blood they’ve spilled.

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