Uribe’s “Counter-Guerilla” Campaign Targets Indigenous Models for Demilitarization

by Bill Weinberg

The carnage in Iraq has pushed several other US military commitments from the headlines. Afghanistan, with 18,000 US troops, jumps to mind. But nearly forgotten is Colombia, where the US has 800 military troops and 600 more private contractors on the ground. The troops, largely advisors from Army Special Forces, are ostensibly barred from combat missions, but they intimately direct Colombian army operations. And the parallels with Iraq are increasingly obvious for those who care to look.

As in Iraq, US forces have been implicated in torture and attacks on civilian communities. As in Iraq, US-backed forces and increasingly ruthless insurgents alike are making life unsustainable for local people caught between both sides. And perhaps even more so than in Iraq, civilian initiatives for peace and local autonomy are themselves being targeted by all sides in the conflict.

In recent weeks, the government of President Alvaro Uribe has launched a major counter-guerilla offensive, a showcase of his Orwellian “democratic security” program. The offensive itself is called the Patriot Plan, in apparent emulation of the US anti-terrorist legislation. One frontline in this contest is Toribio, a Nasa Indian village in the mountains of conflicted Cauca department, where residents have proclaimed their own right not to participate in the war.

Toribio maintained a precarious autonomy until it was occupied by government troops in August 2003, and secured from guerilla attempts to take the town after several weeks of fighting. This April, the guerillas again mounted an offensive to drive the army from Toribio, and the town has since been a war zone once again.

Ezequiel Vitonas, a former mayor of Toribio and a leading voice in the Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (ACIN), was in New York City in May for the annual meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “We have a policy of not involving ourselves in the conflict of country,” Vitonas says. “We seek to protect our form of self-government and self-determination. We have our own forms of participation in which everyone in the community is consulted. We have our own health and education systems, and solidarity economics based on collective work. But this project is not liked by either the left or the right. Our community process doesn’t fit their ideologies and interests.”

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked Toribio on April 14, and the government sent in the new US-trained High Mountain Battalion, an elite force of battle-hardened troops, backed up by a larger force of regular troops from the army’s Third Brigade based in Cali. Military planes and helicopters circled above. On the following day, Uribe himself arrived in Toribio, accompanied by Cauca governor Juan Jose Chaux Mosquera–the latest in a series of grand-standing moves to govern from the war zones.

Over the next two weeks, bullets flew through the village intermittently. A young child was killed, some 20 residents wounded and as many homes destroyed. Hundreds of residents have been forced to flee, and many are now being held in public buildings converted into makeshift refugee centers in Santander de Quilichao, a town some 50 kilometers down winding mountain roads on the Pan-American Highway. Vitonas claims residents saw North American soldiers in camouflage directing the Colombian troops on the operations.

Residents also reported mysterious black-uniformed troops–probably special anti-guerilla units of the National Police in the fighting. And the neighboring villages of Silvia, Jambaló, Caloto were also occupied by government forces.

Despite guarantees for indigenous self-government in the Colombian constitution, the Nasa’s model for autonomy is under attack by the government nearly explicitly. Toibio’s indigenous-language community station, Radio Nasa, was ordered closed by the government last August. Army troops invaded the premises and took away the equipment. A narrow bureaucratic rationale was used, but Vitonas has no doubt of the real reasons.

Says Vitonas: “The government demands we broadcast army statements with their war language. We refuse, and they threaten us. And then the armed insurgents do the same and demand that we present their position, instead of respecting our position. So we also refuse to do that. We don’t want to express their views, we want to express our own and expect them to support that. And this brings about the difficulties.”

The move also came three weeks before last September’s historic cross-country march of 60,000 Indians and their supporters on Cali to demand armed groups respect their autonomy. But indigenous technicians devised mobile bicycle-powered transmitters that actually broadcast live from the march, with the signal bounced throughout the region by Radio Payumat, a bilingual Spanish-Nasa community station in Santander de Quilichao. (Payumat is a Nasa salutation.) Then, students in Cali put the live transmissions on the Internet.

The march called for the establishment of a popular congress, with representatives from indigenous and campesino councils from throughout the country to determine a way our of the war and advance a new economic model. Uribe has staked his future to Colombia’s entry into the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), with concomitant privatization of the nation’s oil, mineral and energy sectors. Uribe accused the marchers of “putting forth lies” and having a hidden “political objective”–a barely-veiled reference to the guerillas.

In early March, indigenous communities in Cauca held a consulta, or series of community meetings, in which they overwhelmingly rejected FTAA. This move precipitated further tension over the Nasas’ independent radio initiative. Uribe’s agriculture minister, Andres Felipe Arias Leiva, again responded to the consulta with a veiled accusation that it originated with the guerillas: “certain sectors are taking advantage of fears,” and thereby undermining “our struggle against terrorism.”

On March 9, Arias Leiva arrived at Radio Payumat to tell the “truth” about the FTAA. The station responded with a letter from the indigenous councils demanding an apology and retraction for his earlier statements. The statement also noted that the councils had invited government representatives to debate on the FTAA since the September march on Cali, to no avail. Arias Leiva refused to back down, and Radio Payumat refused to grant him access to their airwaves.

Violence continues in Toribio and surrounding communities. On May 21, DAS–the Administrative Security Department, or secret police–raided home of Vicente Otero, ex-mayor of Caldono village and a key organizer of the consulta that rejected the FTAA. Otero wasn’t home, but his home was roughly searched, a child there threatened–and some 20 other residents of Caldono arrested on suspicion of guerilla collaboration. They are now being held by the Third Brigade in Cali. DAS has announced it has arrest orders for some 200 residents of Caldono.

Vitonas brought three demands to UN in May. The first was for international recognition of the indigenous guard, an unarmed civil defense body made up of village residents. In the prelude to the September march, Toribio’s Mayor Arquimedes Vitonas–Ezequiel’s cousin, who has been officially honored by the UNDP for his efforts to preserve indigenous knowledge–was kidnapped by the FARC with other Nasa leaders. They were released days later when hundreds of indigenous guard members marched on the guerilla camp where they were being held.

His other demands were for a UN special rapporteur to monitor indigenous rights in Colombia, and Colombian government reparations for war damage to indigenous communities.

Peasant peace initiatives are under attack throughout Colombia. In February, eight civilians, including community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra and three children, were massacred in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, a village in northern Uraba region which eight years ago declared its lands as a neutral and demilitarized zone. Witnesses identified the killers as members of the Colombian military, and peace community members saw the army’s 17th and 11th Brigades in the area around the time of the murders.

Since the massacre, Uribe’s administration has done little to investigate the murders, but the president wasted no time in accusing the peace community leaders of being “auxiliaries of the FARC.” Army and National Police forces have flooded San Jose. All but five of the 100 families that formed the Peace Community have been forced to abandon their homes and land. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is helping to manage a camp which has been formed by displaced residents.

Uribe has still not replied to demands from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to secure the safety of San Jose’s residents. Statements such as Uribe’s make the residents a target not only for the army, but its own (ostensibly outlawed) paramilitary auxiliaries. Gloria Cuartas, an advocate for the peace community and ex-mayor of the local municipality of Apartado, reports receiving threatening telephone messages since she has been publicly demanding justice for the massacre. On May 23, Colombia’s attorney general did announce charges against four army commanders for failure to prevent paramilitary incursions into San Jose de Apartado. Paramilitaries have carried out numerous attacks on village residents over the past two years.

After the massacre, SOA Watch, the group that monitors the US Army’s School of the Americas (now officially the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), reported that the commander of the 17th Brigade of the Colombian army received training at the SOA. Gen. Hector Jaime Fandiño Rincon attended the “Small-Unit Infantry Tactics” course in 1976.

Tolemaida, a key military base outside Bogota, has taken on a reputation as Colombia’s Abu Ghraib. The Bogota daily El Espectador reported claims January 8 that last October US military officers and private contractors had overseen a session at the base in which three young girls from a nearby village were tortured and raped. The sessions were apparently videotaped, and the tapes then distributed in the local village of Melgar, where the girls were from. They were subsequently ostracized and forced to flee the village with their families. The most disturbing thing about the allegations is that the girls were not even suspected of anything; they had been lured to the base in exchange for money and a promise of visas to enter the US, and apparently used in a simple torture demonstration.

El Espectador wrote in an editorial: “The recording of these acts of sadism and the public diffusion of the images is part of the message the invaders must establish that the subjugated people are inferior and deserve any kind of inhuman treatment.” The piece also noted that even if Uribe were to pursue the case, Colombia has no recourse to the International Criminal Court, having signed on to an agreement with the United States not to recognize its jurisdiction over any US personnel.

“The marginal of the planet must find a way to unite to promote our own methods of development,” Ezequiel Vitonas says. But this is becoming a greater challenge every day as Colombia’s war escalates, with Pentagon direction, in a strategy which seeks to polarize and eliminate any political space not beholden to armed factions.


Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (ACIN)

Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado

SOA Watch on the San Jose de Apartado massacre

El Espectador on torture at Tolemaida

See also:

“Colombia: Peace Community Under Occupation” by Virginia McGlone, WW4 REPORT #108 /peacesanjosedeapartado

For more on Gen. Fandiño Rincon see WW4 REPORT #107


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution