Indian upheaval bares Colombia's nagging conflict

AP News
Posted: Jul 21, 2012 7:17 PM
Indian upheaval bares Colombia's nagging conflict

TORIBIO, Colombia (AP) — One of the stiffest blows in years to the prestige of Colombia's military wasn't inflicted by its leftist rebel foes and didn't claim a single soldier's life.

It was dealt by a relatively diminutive people called the Nasa who marched furiously up to the top of a 7,500-foot (2,300-meter) peak last week and forcibly dislodged a clutch of soldiers from a strategic outpost.

These verdant, craggy mountains are the Nasa's ancestral lands, and the Nasa say they are fed up with violent usurpers. They're demanding that the country's military and its rebel foes leave their enclave in the southwestern state of Cauca.

Yet neither side in Colombia's half-century old conflict is heeding the Nasas' wishes to leave them in peace. Their homeland lies on a key corridor that rebels and their chief funding source, cocaine, regularly transit on their way to the Pacific coast.

The government alleges that some of the 115,000 Nasa are allied with rebels of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which authorities say purchases the high-quality marijuana that many indigenous grow.

The Nasa's widely broadcast standoff with government troops has made this past week perhaps the most difficult of Juan Manuel Santos' two-year-old presidency, bringing Colombia's conflict into people's living rooms as it rarely has been in recent years and highlighting his government's inability to control large parts of the countryside. Santos even suffered the indignity of being jeered by the Nasa when he visited Toribio the previous week to announce investments in social programs.

Colombia's conflict plays out far from its sparkling cities. Its victims are its most marginalized.

"We sometimes get the impression that there's hardly any conflict at all, that it is very distant," said Jordi Raich, the International Committee of the Red Cross' country director. "But Colombia's armed conflict continues, and while it may be happening in remote areas, the humanitarian consequences are not lessened."

"Peace is distant," he added.

The conflict claims hundreds if not thousands of lives a year, mostly civilians killed in a dirty war involving right-wing death squads, rebels and the military. Yet in terms of violence, this month's upheaval in Cauca has been comparatively tame. Its damage is, instead, political.

It was clear to everyone during Santos' visit that the government had no control of the area. A FARC commander held court with reporters at a roadblock less than three miles (five kilometers) away.

"This is a political defeat for the Santos government," said Jorge Restrepo, an analyst at Colombia's CERAC think tank. "It puts in question his ability to win re-election."

Santos, a 60-year-old scion of a Bogota newspaper clan, won the presidency on the coattails of Alvaro Uribe, for whom he was defense minister from 2006 to 2009, a time of impressive military gains against the FARC.

Santos has not said whether he will seek re-election in 2014, but his popularity has plummeted as rebel violence mounts.

The insurgents have in recent months reverted to traditional hit-and-run tactics, and stepped up attacks on infrastructure including oil facilities. On Friday, they blew up a bridge in Caqueta state in southern Colombia that was vital to oil companies.

The trigger for the Toribio upheaval came before dawn on July 6 when rebels rained crude mortars and grenades on its town center, aiming for the sandbag-shrouded police station. Such munitions rarely hit their mark, and instead tore big chunks out of the brightly colored brick homes surrounding it. Three days later, when the bombardment ended, six people were wounded and about 100 left homeless, said Toribio's mayor, Ezequiel Vitonas.

Four people were wounded in a separate grenade attack on July 8 on a Toribio medical clinic. The next day, angry indigenous tried to dismantle the sandbag wall protecting the police station.

"We can't take it anymore," said the governor of the local Nasa reserve, Marcos Yule, counting about 1,000 such attacks in the past few years. The worst had come on July 9, 2011, he said, when the FARC exploded a bus bomb a block from Toribio's central plaza, killing three people.

Santos came to town two days after that anniversary, and later accused some "elements" of the Nasa of being in cahoots with the rebels, a charge that Nasa leaders deny.

On Saturday, Nasa elders convicted four alleged FARC rebels "arrested" three days earlier of disturbing public order and had them flogged. Three got 30 lashes and the fourth, a teenager, received five before they were released to their families, said Yule.

Colombia's counter-narcotics police director, Gen. Luis Perez, says the FARC would be pleased to have the military out of the area to lessen the chances of having their harvested marijuana seized.

Perez estimates at least 250 acres (100 hectares) of marijuana plants grow in the Cauca. What is grown on the Nasa indigenous reserve is legally protected from destruction. At night, the hills around Toribio are pitted with lights used by cultivators to accelerate the plants' growth and potency.

As those lights went off at dawn Wednesday, hundreds of Nasa headed for the strategic hilltop, where a small group of soldiers was encamped, charged with protecting communications antennas and keeping an eye on mountain trails regularly used by the FARC.

Among the Indians were "guardians," men and women who carry staffs hewed from palm trees and decorated with brightly colored ribbons. The staffs, says Yule, are instruments of authority only and cannot be used as weapons.

In the ensuing pandemonium, several dozen indigenous encircled six soldiers and forced them off the hilltop. One soldier fired a burst of shots into the air, sending reporters scurrying. But only egos were hurt.

The images, meanwhile, were published around the world.

The mayhem was strangely isolated. While those involved in the struggle kicked up dust, hundreds more Nasa peacefully rested on the grass as other solders gathered their belongings and sheepishly retreated downhill.

The next day, however, the soldiers, accompanied by riot police, were back. Firing tear gas and buckshot, they retook the hilltop. Eight Nasa were injured, none critically, said Luis Angel Penna, Toribio's assistant hospital director.

And the violence wasn't over.

Two local men were killed by gunfire over the next two days in the neighboring towns, one during a demonstration by farmers trying to eject soldiers from their village, another shot for allegedly failing to heed an order to halt at a military roadblock.

The tensions and mistrust are not new.

In May, 39-year-old coffee picker Julio Dagua was killed near Toribio by rebels who had falsely accused him of being an army informant, said his brother Edgar.

"He had been threatened for a long time," he added.

Edgar Dagua said residents won't be intimidated by either side in the conflict. "They're going to have to kill all of us."

Some of Toribio's residents earlier this month joined the more than 2 million Colombians who have been internally displaced by the country's conflict. They are living temporarily in a shelter in the nearby town of Santander de Quilichao.

One is Maria Alejandra Munoz, a garrulous, 38-year-old mother of three who earns her living washing other people's laundry by hand. "You get tired of this conflict."

Her brother, Ruben, said that "what people want most is peace for our town."

But how?

"That's difficult," said Maria Alejandra, leaning against a support in the cramped shelter. "If someone had a formula for it, they'd give it to the presidents."


Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.