Latest News

In war-torn Colombia, an indigenous revolt hopes to bring peace

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.

“I’m here to get rid of the army,” she said, as she used a stick to push dirt into a foxhole. “We don’t want them here anymore because they make it more dangerous.”

An officer, who was not authorized to talk to the media, said his men couldn’t use force against the community but that they were not going to abandon the post. It was unclear how long the standoff will continue.

“We’re supposed to be here to protect them,” he said, as the crowd waved a green and red indigenous flag from the top of a barricade. “What can we do?”

At the FARC roadblocks, villagers shouted the guerrillas back into the jungle and seized five homemade mortars, called tatucos, similar to the one that injured the medics.

But even the most die-hard community organizers doubt the indigenous uprising will change the local dynamic.

Santos is being hammered by the opposition, who accuse him of being soft on guerrillas amid the perception that violence is on the rise in Colombia. While he pledged to plow more resources into Toribío, Santos said he would not be withdrawing troops.

“We’re also tired of the war,” he said, after crowds had jeered him around the plaza. “But we cannot demilitarize a single centimeter of our national territory.”

And indigenous leaders said that several FARC units, including the Jacobo Arenas and Gabriel Galvis mobile columns, have been congregating in the area.

The FARC have been engaging in hit-and-run operations all year throughout northern Cauca and Valle del Cauca, said Karina Terán, spokeswoman for Tierra de Paz, an organization that works with German-based Diakonie-Katastrophenhilfe to provide emergency services to beleaguered areas.

“The militarization of this region has been one of the factors generating violence, because the guerrillas have been responding,” she said. “And it’s the civilians who are caught in the middle.”

A year ago this month, a bomb-laden bus blew up near Toribío’s police station, killing three and wounding more than 120.

The town of Jambaló, about an hour from Toribío, has been incommunicado since the FARC toppled the mobile phone tower July 3. On Wednesday, the police inspector was shot outside the community clinic, presumably by a guerrilla sniper, just days after a mortar strike injured two children.

Near the town square, Mariano was doing brisk business Thursday at his convenience store as troops stood outside. He said Jambaló is so inured to violence that a bombing or a few gunshots aren’t enough to close business.

While he recognized that the military presence had made the town a target, he feared what would happen if they withdrew.

“The indigenous guard is about as powerful as you can get without having a weapon,” said Mariano, who feared giving his last name. “But you can’t go face the guerrillas with just a stick. Getting rid of the army right now would be madness.”

But for many in these communities, the government has already had its chance.

“The guerrillas will never seize power through force and the government will never get rid of all the guerrillas,” said Feliciano Valencia, an indigenous activist, who recounted a half-century of conflict in the region. “Let’s see how we can create our own peace.”