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60,000 Indians Gather in Cali--Despite Threats and Armed Intimidation

by Bill Weinberg

After marching four days from their communities in Colombia's heavily-indigenous southern department of Cauca, some 60,000 Indians and their supporters arrived in the city of Cali on Sept. 17. The march, in support of demands that all armed groups in Colombia's civil war respect the constitutionally-recognized right of indigenous communities to autonomous self-government, was held in defiance of threats and intimidation by paramilitaries, guerillas and official armed forces alike. Indigenous leaders from Cauca were arrested and abducted in the prelude to the march, but all were released after the marchers arrived in Cali for a massive rally at the city's stadium.

Unprecedented Mobilization

The march was organized by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), and its local affiliates, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN). It began Sept. 13 from La Maria community near Piendamo, a town just north of Cauca's capital, Popayan, and continued up the Panamerican Highway, swelling with contingents that arrived from mountain communities en route. Entitled the Minga for Life, Happiness, Justice and Liberty, the march co-incided with a Sept. 16 national day of protest against President Alvaro Uribe's plans to join the Free Trade Area of the Americas. "Minga" is an indigenous word for a collective work party.

By the time it reached Santander de Quilichao Sept. 14, some 75 kilometers up the highway, it had grown to 40,000. The next night, at the Afro-Colombian community of Villarica, it had reached 50,000. At each stop along the way, community meetings were held, and the proceedings broadcast over Radio Payumat, a transmitter run by Nasa Indians in Santander. Arriving at Cali's Coliseo del Pueblo the final night of the march, it reached perhaps 65,000. Thousands camped out at the stadium and convened an Indigenous and Popular Congress the following day.

From the stadium stage the opening night, President Uribe delivered an openly hostile message via telephone, accusing the marchers of exploiting the autonomy issue on behalf of opposition political parties. "I see no link between the problems that are being brought up and the march," Uribe said. "I see that the march has a political objective and it should be clearly presented as such, instead of putting forth lies."

Leaders Arrested

Nonetheless, the government appeared to bend to the pressure brought by the march. Alcibiades Escue Musicue, a traditional leader from the Nasa reserve of San Francisco in Cauca's Toribio municipality, who had been arrested Sept. 4 in Popayan by a special National Police Anti-Terrorist Unit, was released on Sept. 22. Escue had been arrested on spurious charges of "conspiracy to commit delinquency," and the move was widely seen as government intimidation of the Minga. Upon his release, Escue said, "this was a case of political persecution by President Uribe, not against me, but against all the indigenous movement." Shirley Albor Cardenas, a medical doctor from San Francisco reserve arrested with Escue, is believed to remain in detention.

Intimidation against the Minga also came from outlawed armed groups of both the right and left. Indigenous authorities in the community of Alto Naya reported that some 100 ski-masked paramilitary troops assembled on the road leading from the village as the local contingent prepared to join the Minga.

In last year's elections, Cauca's first governor supported by the indigenous movement, Floro Tunubala, was replaced by Juan Jose Chaux Mosquera, a hardliner and close ally of Uribe--pointing to a still freer hand for paramilitary forces in the department. Cali is the capital of the next department to the north, Valle del Cauca, where the newly elected Governor Angelino Garz—n of the left Polo Democratico threw his public support behind the Minga. On Sept. 14, as the march was making its way towards his city, one of his body-guards was gunned down in broad daylight. "It's a sign for me," Garz—n told the press. On Sept. 28, another of his guards was killed.

Indigenous Guard Confronts FARC

Also in the prelude to the Minga, five indigenous leaders from Cauca's Toribio municipality, a Nasa community high in the mountains, were abducted by leftist guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Their release was also secured through a political mobilization.

The five abducted were Arquimedes Vitonas, Toribio's mayor; Plinio Trochez, governor of Toribio indigenous reserve; Ruben Dario, Toribio's former mayor and currently governor of nearby San Francisco indigenous reserve; Gilberto Munoz, director of Toribio's Nasa-language university; and Herminsul Velasco, the group's driver. The group was headed for a meeting with indigenous leaders at Alta Mira reserve in San Vicente del Caguan, Caqueta department, and were waylaid on the road through the mountains Aug. 22.

In February, Vitonas had received the prestigious Equator Prize from the UN Development Program (UNDP) on behalf of Toribio's indigenous development efforts. Both Vitonas and Munoz are recognized as "Masters of Wisdom" by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for their efforts to preserve indigenous knowledge. The UNDP issued a statement on behalf of the men following their abduction. Vitonas and Munoz appear to have been the targets of the kidnapping, and it is unclear if the other three men were held.

CRIC and ACIN issued a statement demanding the immediate release of the abducted leaders, but opposing any military operation and also demanding that authorities respect their right to seek a resolution "through our autonomous mechanisms of peaceful indigenous resistance." A subsequent CRIC-ACIN statement confimred that the leaders were in the hands of FARC's Southern Bloc.

On Sept. 6, some 400 members of the Nasa Indigenous Guard, armed only with ceremonial staffs, marched from Toribio down into the rainforest of Caqueta where the men were being held. "We are going to tell them to free our comrades," CRIC coordinator Alfredo Acosta told Reuters by telephone. "We carry our staffs of authority, but our only weapon is organization." After a day-long stand-off between the Indigenous Guard and the guerillas, the men were released. "This was a humanitarian rescue staged by the indigenous community," said Acosta.

"Defending Dignity is Political"

Attacks on indigenous leaders who assert their right to independence in Colombia's war are escalating. On Aug. 28 in Riosucio, Caldas department, unidentified armed men abducted and executed two leaders of the Embera Chami community. On Aug. 25, in Coyaima, Tolima department, gunmen assassinated a member of the Pijao Cheche Tunarco indigenous community. According to the human rights database of the Hemera Foundation, 14 Pijao have been murdered in the past three years in Tolima, while over 60 Embera Chami in Caldas have been murdered in the past two years.

In response to Uribe's accusation that the Minga was "political," ACIN issued a statement from the gathering in Cali: "Of course our Minga is political with a capital P, because defending indigenous and collective rights is political... Defending indigenous lands and their autonomous government is political... Opposing the free trade agreement is political; rejecting the murders, forced disappearances, forced displacement, violence and war is political... Defending life and dignity is political."


Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN)

Indymedia Colombia

Colombia Week, Sept. 6

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 5 & 19

InterPress Service, Sept. 20

Special to WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, Oct. 4, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Reprinting permissible with attribution.