CAUCA: AUTONOMY UNDER THE GUN
Colombia's Nasa Indians Caught in the Crossfire in Uribe's New
by Bill Weinberg
"Things are tranquil here when there is no army or poice. But when they
come, things are tense here."
So says Don Tomas Poto, a traditional Nasa Indian elder in the small
mountain village of Toribio, high in the Cordillera Central of Colombia's
conflicted southern department of Cauca. A small and wiry man with a
nearly-permanent shy smile, he had come to Toribio's central village on a
motorbike from the outlying hamlet where he lives to speak with me and my
photographer. We were now talking in the house of Alejandra Llano, a
social worker from Cali who serves as an advisor on issues of domestic
violence to Toribio's municipal government. Don Tomas' words are
self-evident, as earlier that day, Toribio had been occupied by a large
force of army and National Police. They established themselves in the
village square, then fanned out through the streets, knocking on doors and
questioning residents. The tension was palpable.
Just as Don Tomas spoke those words, came the knock on our door, right on
cue. Three National Police troops were there, in green fatigues, lugging
M-16s, the words "ANTI-GUERILLA" emblazoned on their caps. The biggest of
the lot introduced himself as a colonel of the Special Anti-Guerilla
Police and asked what we were doing there. Alejandra answered that we work
with the Indians. "Ah, the indigenous, very good," the colonel replied.
"We want to work with every sector in this important struggle." One of his
sidekicks demanded my passport, and I passed it over across the threshold.
As he examined it, Alejandra inquired of the colonel how long the troops
would remain in Toribio.
"We have come to stay," came the reply. "In the name of President Alavro
Uribe, we have come to bring peace to this village!"
At precisely that moment, a loud popping noise came from out on the
unpaved street. "ÁBuenas tardes!" Alejandra exclaimed suddenly to the
colonel, then to me: "Close the door!" The police were raising their
rifles towards the popping sounds and scrambling; it suddenly dawned on me
that they were under fire from guerillas. I held out my hand to the one
who had my passport. He looked at me blankly, but, much to my relief,
handed it back to me. I slammed the door shut and we all dove under the
bed, giggling hysterically to releive the tension. The rhythm of the
popping sounds outside quickened; so did our nervous giggling. The popping
was coming from both sides of the house now. Only Don Tomas continued to
"It's too bad we don't have the right herbs," he told me under the bed.
"You take some coca leaf, some hierba alegre, and some aguardiente. You
drink a little, and bathe with the rest, and you can escape any enemy."
Yes, too bad we don't have any, I agreed.
After around fifteen minutes, the popping noises faded up the hill as the
police and soldiers chased the guerillas into the mountains. When it had
been quiet for several minutes, we figured it was safe to emerge. We
started walking back down towards the village center. Fortunately, it
looked like nobody had been hit. Kids were hanging out in the street,
kicking around a soccer ball in a small park off the central plaza, as if
nothing had happened. It was surreal. "The population here is used to it,"
When the police and army are not in Toribio, the guerillas of the
Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) maintain an open presence in
the town, patronizing the local eateries and patrolling the plaza--just as
the soldiers were at this moment. Graffiti reading "MB" appears on several
of Toribio's walls--for the Bolivarian Movement, the FARC's new
post-Communist ideological pretension.
But now it was Sept. 9, and the previous night President Uribe had gone on
national televsion to announce a new offensive against the rebels--which
the army had ominously dubbed "Operacion Depredador": Operation Pillage.
The soldiers now occupying the village were not the frightened campesino
conscripts I was used to dealing with at highway checkpoints. These were
obviously elite crack troops, battle-hardened veterans. They were
gigantic, with huge biceps and intimidating glowers. They wore grease on
their faces and Rambo-style green headbands over their hair. When we
climbed an outlying hill to survey the occupied village, I looked around
in vain for the vehicles they had arrived in--it soon became clear that
they had not come up the road from Cauca's central valley and the
Panamerican Highway, but had marched for several days over the mountains
from the east. (The smaller National Police contingent had probably come
up the road to meet them, as they looked much fresher.)
I confess that I didn't look at the soliders very much, generally trying
to give them as wide a berth as possible. But my photographer, Maria
Anguera, kept getting closer, discretely snapping shots of them. Later she
told me that one group stayed apart from the rest in the village square,
not talking to the locals. They were larger than the others, and some of
them seemed fair-skinned under their face grease. Could they have been a
detatchment of US Green Berets--the ones which Washington denies are sent
into conflict zones?
We milled around the square wondering what to do. Things didn't seem safe,
but there would be no transport down the mountain until morning. As I was
pondering our options, two loud explosions rent the air. Twin columns of
smoke rose just a few blocks from square. The guerillas were attacking
again--this time with their trademark pipe-bombs.
Now the populace was starting to show signs of panic--although the kids in
the park still didn't stop their football game. Women, children and older
folks cleared off the square and huddled under the eaves of the municipal
building, or alcaldia. They eyed the soldiers who were running towards the
smoke columns and taking fighting positions in the surrounding streets.
They eyed the alcaldia, but it was clear there wasn't enough room for us
all in the small building--and in any case, there were soldiers there too,
which meant it was no haven. Some of us briefly took shelter in the
church, which was painted with murals depicting martyred Indian leaders
along with Christ and the Virgin, and prayers in the Nasa language.
Thankfully, it started to rain, and both the soldiers and guerillas called
it quits for a little while. Don Tomas took the motorbike back to his
hamlet. Alejandra, Maria and I made it back to the home of another social
worker with whom we were staying, and holed up for the night. We made
spaghetti and drank wine and danced to salsa CDs, as intermittent
skirmishes could still be heard on the fringes of the village. Finally, my
colleagues dropped off to sleep--putting the mattrasses on the floor lest
a stray bullet penetrate the house. But I kept waking up, listening in the
darkness. The sound of gunfire in the mountains continued long into the
HISTORY UNDER FIRE
Earlier in the day, as the troops established themselves in the village
square, Luis Evelio Ipia, one of the cabildos who leads Project Nasa, the
local indigenous-based development initiative, sat us down in front a
chalkboard in the group's office (just adjacent to the alcaldia) and drew
us an historical outline of the Nasa autonomy struggle--from the very
beginning. As he talks, the geography and nature of the current conflict
"The Nasa people have always resisted," says Luis. "And we are still
At 200,000, the Nasa (called the Paez by the Spanish, a name still
frequently used) are one of Colombia's largest indigenous groups. The
greatest number are in Cauca, but many are also found in the neighboring
departments of Valle de Cauca, Huila, Caqueta and Tolima.
Toribio municipality includes three Nasa reservations, or "resguardos":
Toribio (the land surrounding the village center), San Francisco and
Tacueyo. The resguardos are made up of communally-held land, with official
indigenous jurisdiction under the 1991 constitutional reform. Each
resguardo includes several "veredas," or unincorporated hamlets, each with
its own traditional indigenous leaders known as cabildos. But we are all
aware of the irony of discussing constitutionally-protected autonomy as
the village is under military occupation.
Ipia begins his story with the 1542 New Laws of the Indies, instated by
the Spanish crown in response to reports of atrocities against the
indigenous inhabitants of New Spain, and which became the basis for the
establishment of the first resguardos in Nueva Grenada (as the Spanish
called what is now Colombia). "The Laws of the Indies were very beautiful,
but they didn't mean anything," says Ipia. "Like the constitution today."
In 1637, the first Spanish arrived on Nasa land--led by the conquistador
Pedro de Anazco, who immediately demanded that the Indians pay tribute to
him as representative of the crown. When he had one Nasa man killed for
refusing to submit, the man's mother became the woman warrior who led an
armed resistance movement against the Spanish. Known as La Gaitana, she
succeeded in capturing Anazco, and had him put to death--first poking out
his eyes, the story goes.
What Ipia calls the first "political resistance" emerged in 1670, under
Juan Tama, who petitioned the crown for the establishment of the first
five Nasa resguardos--known as the Territorio de los Cinco Pueblos. In
1701, Toribio, Tacueyo and San Francisco resguardos were established as
the Territorio de los Tres Pueblos following a campaign by the Nasa leader
Manuel Quilo y Ciclos. The indigenous authorities known as cabildos were
then first officially recognized--but not always in actual practice, as
the land-holdings of local oligarchs encroached onto the resguardos.
When local authorities broke from the Spanish crown in 1810, this actually
represented a step back for the Nasa, as the independence leadership moved
to destroy the resguardos completely--this time in the name of progress.
"They said all the same things," says Ipia. "The indigenous cannot govern
themselves, they speak the language of the Devil, their lands aren't being
As new haciendas were established on Nasa lands, a system called "terraje"
emerged, in which the Indians were given plots to work for themselves in
exchange for paying rent in the form of labor on the more extensive lands
of the patron. They become "terrajeros"--debt laborers on what had once
been their own land.
After finally winning centralized power in 1820, Simon Bolivar ordered the
haciendas to withdraw from the resguardos, and also exempted the Indians
from military service. In 1890, Law 89 was passed in Bogota, reiterating
indigenous ownership of the resguardos. But, again, these official
policies from distant authorities had little impact on the ground in Nasa
country, where the terraje system persisted. In the chaotic
Liberal-Conservative wars of the 19th century, local caudillos (mostly
Conservatives) often had more control in Cauca than the national
The contemporary Nasa autonomy movement has its roots in a campaign
launched in 1910 by Manuel Quintin Lame, a terrajero from Paniquita
resguardo who had fought as a soldier in the 1899-1903 Thousand Day's War.
Quintin Lame called for a program to reclaim the land for the resguardos
and empower the cabildos, under the slogan "no pago de terraje"--don't pay
The 1917 Nasa rebellion led by Lame, "La Quintinada," was mostly unarmed,
consisting of mass land occupations. It was also partly successful,
bringing many traditional lands back under Nasa control in Cauca, Tolima
and neighborging departments.
The backlash came in 1948, when Colombia was again plunged into civil
war--the terrible period known as La Violencia. "The civil war of 1948 was
really a war to take the land of the indigenous people," says Ipia. "At
least here in Cauca." With renewed war in Cauca and Tolima, a militia
group called Los Pajaros backed by the Conservatives--the forerunner of
today's paramilitaries--began attacking indigenous communities, delivering
recovered land back into the hands of the big landlords. In response, many
Nasa joined the Liberal guerillas who resisted the Pajaros and the
military dictatorship that took power in 1953.
1956 saw a bloody confrontation between Nasa guerillas and the army in
Tacueyo. In 1958 came the locally-famous "Quema de Santo Domingo," in
which Santo Domingo vereda in Tacueyo--where landowners and their military
pals were having a fiesta on usurped Nasa lands--was put to the torch by
Indian guerillas. But Quintin Lame, in Tolima, dissented from the guerilla
war, warning that the Liberals did not represent the true interests of the
With the return of at least formalistic democracy in the 1960s, Indians
largely abandoned the guerilla struggle and started petitioning for the
return of usurped lands through the new agrarain reform
bureaucracy--although Communist guerillas, who would eventually become the
FARC, remained in arms.
In 1968, Quintin Lame died in Tolima. But his program was resurrected by a
new organization founded in 1971 at a February assembly in Toribio--the
Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), representing all of the
department's indigenous groups.
"The church leaders didn't even allow Quintin Lame to be buried in a
Christian cemetary," says Ipia. "But the position of the church began to
change in '70s, with the emergence of Liberation Theology." In 1975, Padre
Alvaro Ulcue, a Nasa, became the priest of Toribio. He began to convene
meetings in veredas to discuss land recuperation and empowering the
cabildos. At first these meetings took place late at night or in the
mountains to avoid repression. But in September 1980, the first open
assembly was held in San Francisco, and Project Nasa was officially
launched--led by Padre Alvaro and local cabildos, including Don Tomas
Project Nasa's first work was to draw up an indigenous-based development
proposal for the region. Says Ipia: "The development of savage capitalism,
in which the ends justify the means--this we don't want. We don't want
destructive development, as in the US. We want development that comes from
the base and represents our own traditions. We don't hold the land in a
capitalist sense. We hold it in the spirit that we are a part of it."
He shows me a quote from a Project Nasa document on the development
program that sums up this indigenous philosophy:
Nacimos de la tierra,
ella nos da de comer
y cuando morimos vamos alla,
entonces para los indigenas es la madre Tierra
y para los ricos es capital
Usurped lands were occupied to create "fincas comunitarias"--communal
farms. "Instead of the rich taking the milk to Cali, we distributed it to
the community," relates Ipia.
The next concern was challenging the entrenched system of paternalism that
made democracy a farce in Cauca's indigenous lands. "The patrons said
`vote this way,' and we did," says Ipia. "It wasn't a decision of the
indigenous." Project Nasa also launched programs of Nasa-Spanish bilingual
education, and self-help healthcare based on traditional herblore. "There
was a new consciousness--that it is not a shame to be indigenous."
Once again, of course, there was backlash. In November 1984, Padre Ulcue
was assassinated in Santander. Nobody was ever convicted in the murder.
The following year, after more assassinations of Nasa leaders, the Quintin
Lame Armed Movement, or MAQL, emerged. Although considered a "guerilla"
group by the Colombian government, it was actually more of an armed
MAQL agreed to disarm in 1989 when a national constituional assembly was
convened with CRIC representation, and formally surrundered its arms in a
pact with President Cesar Gaviria in May 1991 when the new
constitution--officially recognizing jurisdictional autonomy on the
But in December of that same year, some 20 Nasa were killed at Nilo
hacienda in Caloto municipality, when gunmen opened fire on an unarmed
land occupation. The lands in question were colonial-era resguardo lands
which had long since been usurped, and which the Indians were petitioning
the agrarian reform bureaucracy for title to. Survivors claimed that
National Police were among the hired gunmen who carried out the massacre.
Once again, nobody was brought to justice. Two CRIC-hired attorneys who
were investigating the incident were themselves mysteriously murdered.
"There was total impunity," says Ipia.
Progress nonetheless continued on the political front. In 1986, in
response to a national reform limiting power of governors to impose
municipal candidates, the local Movimiento Civico emerged, fronting
candidates who were not part of the official parties. In 1995, the first
indigenous-supported mayor, Gilberto Mu–oz (actually a mestizo, but a
supporter of the Nasa cause), was elected in Toribio. The first Nasa
mayor, Ezekiel Vitonas, was elected in 1998, and the incumbent Mayor
Gabriel Pavi is also Nasa.
In 2000, Floro Alberto Tunubala, a Guambiano Indian from Silvia resguardo
supported by the CRIC, was elected governor of Cauca on the ticket of a
new group not linked to the traditional parties, the Bloque Social
Alternativa. The Bloque first came together to develop an indigenous-based
alternative to Plan Colombia, and represents several Indian and campesino
organizations, including Tunubala's own group, the Indigenous Authorities
of Colombia (AICO). His election, an unprecedented development that was
unthinkable just tens years earlier, was part of a regional trend, as the
neighboring departments of Tolima, Huila, Nari–o, Caqueta and Putumayo all
elected governors from independent political movements, in what became
known as the "Alliance of the South."
Additionally, the resguardos began developing their own parallel
governments under the 1991 constitutional reform. Each of Toribio
municipality's 62 veredas has a cabildo, and the three resguardos of the
municipality each has a governor. (Don Tomas Poto is the former governor
of San Francisco resguardo.) The cabildos make up a Premanent Assembly for
each resguardo, with commissions on health, education, economy and
culture. Ipia says the work of the Permanent Assemblies is to make life
sustainable on the resguardos and halt the exit of the population for the
cities. "When people leave for Cali, they don't come back," he says.
Project Nasa has also had its own micro-transmitter, Radio Nasa, since
1996, which broadcasts throughout the municipality.
Project Nasa is now part of a network of indigenous governance that
extends to the national level. The Project is a member organization of the
Association of Indigenous Cabildos of the North of Cauca (ACIN), which
represents 16 cabildos, and is also known as Cxab Wala Kiwe ("Territory of
the Great People" in the Nasa tongue). ACIN, in turn, is part of CRIC,
which is part of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or
ONIC, founded in 1980 to representat all of Colombia's 84 indigenous
"When they speak of Colombia, they speak of the narco traffic, they speak
of war and violence," says Ipia. "They don't speak of the new political
process we are building."
CAUGHT BETWEEN ALL SIDES
"We don't want to participate in the war," says Luis Ipia. But no side in
the conflict appears to respect this desire.
The National Police station in Torbio is in ruins from a July 11, 2002
guerilla attack, in which over 100 pipe-bombs were hurled. Ipia sys that
fifty homes damaged in the attack, 16 completely destroyed, and one Nasa
child killed--as well as many guerillas. "We oppose rebuilding it, because
it will just invite further attacks," he says, "and bring more death to
Nasa lands have already seen plenty of death in recent years. In the '70s
and '80s, nearly 100 Nasa were killed in northern Cauca in internal
violence between supporters of the CRIC and the Communist Party. Some 300
more have been killed in targetted assassinations since CRIC was founded
in 1971 by all three major armed groupings--the army, the paramilitaries
and the guerillas. "And that is only the leaders," says Ipia. "Much blood
has been spilled on this land."
In response to growing violence in 2001, the Nasa instated a Guardia
Indigena, a community vigilance and self-defense movement. Every vereda
has ten guardias, who are unarmed except for a traditional baston (staff),
and communicate via walkie-talkie. Women and even children participate in
the Guardia, and the whole community of a vereda can be mobilized to deal
with an emergency. Says Clara Inez Vitonas, a Nasa woman who has served
with the Guardia: "If the guerilla takes a young man, we all go together
to confront them and demand them back."
Unfortunately, the guerillas have a record little better than that of the
army or paramilitaries on Nasa lands. Clara says that in 2001 her brother
Jose Diego Vitonas was killed by the guerillas on an accusation of
paramilitary involvement. She claims Liberal Party loyalists spread gossip
so he would be targetted. "For the army, we are guerillas, and for the
guerillas, we are paramilitaries," she says with resignation.
Clara also says that earlier this year in San Francisco resguardo, a boy
of 17 was killed by the guerillas in front of his mother for desertion.
Alejandra Llano explains how such actions are possible: "Former guerillas
have information, which they fear could fall into the wrong hands. I'm not
justifying it, but they have their own logic."
As we speak in the Project Nasa offices, the National Police, backed up by
army troops, had entered the adjacent alcaldia, demanding to speak to the
mayor. "This is not the first time this has happened," says Ipia. "The
National Police invade the alcaldia--then the guerillas accuse us of
talking to the police. And they kill us for that."
Among the most prominent Nasa leaders assassinated by the guerillas is
Cristobal Secue--a founder of Project Nasa, both a founder and former
president of CRIC, and a former president of ACIN. His face now adorns the
mural in the Toribio church, along with Padre Ulcue and Quintin Lame. He
was killed by the FARC in 2001, Ipia says. When I ask why, I am told: "He
told them we are autonomous and we make our own decision."
As the war grinds on, the Nasa continue to oppose Uribe's neo-liberal
economic program--the privatization of resources, the rush to join the
FTAA. Ipia is especially concerned with corporate designs of the region's
rich water resources. Both of Colombia's major rivers, the Magdalena and
the Cuaca, find their origins in Cauca's central massif, where Colombia's
three cordilleras come together, and corporate encroachment on control of
these waters has alredy begun. In 1999, the Regional Corporation of Cauca
(CRC), a departmental entity, privatized the Salvajina hydro-dam on the
Rio Cauca to a Bogota-based firm, the Pacific Energy Corporation (EPSA).
Ipia fears that under the FTAA, water will be diverted from indigenous
lands to agribusiness interests in the valley below.
"We are opposed to the state, but we don't support the ideology or methods
of the guerillas," Ipia says. "They want to change the country with
bullets, and that is not our position."
UNARMED AUTONOMY: HOW POSSIBLE?
In the morning, we wake up early to catch a brightly-painted chiva bus
down the mountain. A member of the Guardia Indigena accompanies Maria and
I past the army checkpoint at Caloto. We continue to Cali on our own.
A few days later, I return to Cauca--this time to the department capital,
Popayan, to speak with CRIC at their central office. Popayan is an old
colonial city where the most reactionary attitudes were deeply entrenched
until very recently. A colonial-era bridge over a small arm of the Rio
Cauca leading to the city center is locally known as the Bridge of
Humility--because Indians and campesinos were traditionally forbidden to
Eight indigenous groups now make up the CRIC: the Nasas of Cauca's
northeast mountains; the Guambianos to south around Popayan; the Kokonuco
near the towering volcano of Purace; the Yanacona of the central massif;
the Embera-related Eperara-Siapirara along the Pacific coast; the Ingas
across the mountains in Cauca's small stretch of the Amazon basin; and two
small groups that each inhabit just a few mountain villages, the Totoro
The Naya region along the Pacific coast is the most conflicted in the
department. Residents say more than 200 were killed or "disappeared" there
last year--Indians, Afro-Colombians and mestizos--mostly by paramilitaries
(although authorities confirm only 50 killings). But progress towards
meaningful autonomy persists despite the violence. The Nasa-Guambiano
municipalities of Silvia and Jambalo now also have indigenous mayors, like
Toribio. Where indigenous languages survive (those of the Kokonuco,
Pubenences and Yanacona are nearly lost), bilingual eduaction programs are
Jorge Caballero, a mestizo who works in CRIC's information department, has
been tracking the human rights atrocities against Cauca's indigenous
peoples for 10 years. He believes that the atmosphere of impunity suggests
a government hand behind many killings ostensibly carried out by
paramilitary groups or the hired gunmen of big landlords. He calls the
slaying of Padre Ulcue "one of the cases of impunity among more than 300
cases in the indigenous community in Cauca. All evidence suggests he was
killed by the state intelligence services."
He also emphasizes that none of the armed actors in Cauca have clean
hands. "The guerilla also has a hostile attitude towards the indigenous
movement," Caballero says.
But he cites several examples of how real autonomy is possible, even when
threatened by ruthless armed groups. In July, at the Nasa resguardo of
Pioya in Caldono municipality, when a Swiss social worker aiding the
Indians was kidnapped by the guerillas, she was sucessfully freed days
later by the Guardia Indigena. "It was done without arms," Caballero
marvels. "They were just armed with sticks."
In June, when Silvia's Guambiano Mayor Segundo Tombe was kidnapped by the
guerillas, he was similarly freed.
On August 20, at the Guambiano resguardo of La Maria in Piendamo
municipality--which local residents declared a "Territory of
Co-existence, Dialogue and Negotiation" in 1998--a Cauca-wide indigenous
youth meeting was being held when the FARC threw up a roadblock on the
nearby Panamerican Highway. "The whole community mobilized and forced them
to disband the roadblock," Caballero relates.
"Cauca's indigenous communities have used arms in the past, but only in
self-defense," Caballero says. "Now they are trying to exercise unarmed
I point out that all the examples he mentioned were against the
guerillas--not the army or paramilitaries. Caballero admits that
confronting the official security forces and their paramilitary allies
represents a greater challenge. "To struggle against the state is much
more difficult under a government such as we have now," he says.
That day, I received e-mail from my friends back in Toribio.
Confrontations between the army and guerillas were continuing there on a
daily basis. There was no sign that the army and National Police intended
to pull out.
Watching the TV news that night in Popayan, images of Torbio appeared on
the screen. One of the National Police officers who had questioned me
there spoke to the camera in front of the ruins of the destroyed police
station, pledging that it would be rebuilt. No Nasas were interviewed.
Sept. 16, 2003
Photo essay: Colombia 2003, by Maria Angueara de Sojo
Previous reports from Colombia:
AFRICAN RENAISSANCE IN A COLOMBIAN WAR ZONE 9/13
STATE OF SEIGE IN ARAUCA: Indigenous Peoples, Civil Society Under Attack in Colombia's Oil Zone, 9/4
BARRANCABERMEJA: Paramilitary Terror and the Struggle for Colombia's Oil,8/27
BETWEEN DYNCORP AND THE A.U.C:Glyphosate and Paramilitary Terror in Colombia's Cimitarra Valley, 8/27
NONVIOLENCE IN COLOMBIA: A Growing Anti-Militarist Movement Demands Right to "Active Neutrality" in Armed Conflict
URIBE: "FUMIGATIONS WILL CONTINUE" :Despite Court Ruling and Peasant Protest