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Colombia horror grows: Indians suffer

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Four years ago, the wanton murder in Colombia of widely respected Menominee activist Ingrid Washinawatok and two companions shook the Indian world in North America with the reality of the horror in that South American country. Ingrid and companions were executed by the leftist guerrilla movement, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the deed was done in Venezuela.

Now we have the recent news of the Jan. 18, slaying of four elders of the Kuna people. This time, the Colombian horror of violence and mayhem spilled over onto Panama; and in this case it was not the left, but the right-wing, in the form of the death squads known as the Autonomous Defense Units of Colombia (AUC), who committed the horrible crime.

The AUC units crossed the border into Panama from Colombia and without any provocation attacked two Kuna villages. The paramilitary death squad numbered some 150 men. They attacked the villages of Paya and Pucuro, combined population of 560, in the Darien, a heavily forested area in Southern Panama. The paramilitaries asked for the village elders and when these were identified they were taken into the jungle, where they were tortured with machetes and shot in the head. The same AUC unit took three foreign journalists hostage, but later released them. Among the journalists, U.S. reporter Robert Pelton of the Discovery Channel, was cited in the Panamanian press expressing sympathy for his kidnappers, leading to speculation that the journalists intended to link up with the AUC.

The paramilitaries not only killed the four elders, they ransacked the two villages, burning many houses, killing most animals and mining the area. As a result, more than 700 people, mostly women and children, are destitute, some still hiding in the bush from the terror that just invaded their lives. The North American press stories on the release of the journalists did not mention the Kuna Indian villagers' ordeal.

According to spokespeople for the villages attacked, the four murdered indigenous Kuna leaders were medicine men and holders of the principal knowledge of their oral history. They called the four men "poets of truth, knowledgeable in medicine, the holders of our cultural heritage, the soul of our community, the maximum authority of the Paya and Pucuro communities." The murdered elders' names are: Ernesto Ayala, Maximum Authority; San Pascual Ayala, Secondary Authority; Luis Enrique Martinez, Spiritual Leader of the Paya; and Gilberto Vasquez, Maximum Authority of Pucuro.

As always, all the international attention focused on the fate of the three supposedly abducted journalists, who were released safely by the murdering marauders. But on the horrible crime committed against Indian elders of whole communities, nothing was reported. The Panamanian police, who did not respond for days after the massacre, actually announced the sending of patrols to "search for the three missing Americans believed kidnapped by the paramilitary."

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In Latin America, indigenous peoples, as well as many other local communities, are often caught in the crossfire between larger national forces of the left and the right. The Colombian war-without-end is spilling out into other countries. Indian life is cheap in the region these days. A Kuna legislator, Enrique Garrido, called for a break in diplomatic relations with Colombia and for an international force to patrol the border. Only this would protect the Kuna and other border residents from attacks by both the guerrilla and the paramilitaries, he charged. But Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso did not even lodge a formal complaint against Colombia.

President Moscoso must do more. The need for providing security to the Panamanian side of the now conflictive border is paramount. This is a Panamanian responsibility. An army garrison on the border was pulled out in 1998; it is needed now more than ever. Protection for all indigenous leadership, for all indigenous people, is paramount.

Colombia is a geographic hub for South America. It borders Panama, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. Its 40-year old war, long defunct as a fight for justice, is kept alive by the war on drugs. The United States has launched a Plan Colombia, which is meant to eradicate the guerrillas and control the drug trade. But it closely aligns the U.S. with one side of a conflict with no heroes. The organization that murdered the Kuna elders, AUC, is condemned by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. So is the organization that murdered Ingrid Washinawatok. Yet, AUC works in cahoots with the very Colombian military that the U.S. supports. These are the kind of strange bedfellows the U.S. has slept with before, only to lead to the detriment of Indian peoples.

Protect the elders, protect the Indian leaders, we say. We say it to the Organization of American States; we say it to Amnesty International; we say it to the United Nations in this supposed "Decade of the Indigenous People(s)." This was the lesson in both the life and the death of Ingrid Washinawatok. The physical safety of Native leaders was a cause to which Ingrid devoted much effort. In fact, she was a witness-for-peace bodyguard for Guatemalan Maya leader Rigoberta Menchu, during the Nobel Prize winner's early returns to her war-torn country. As with all Native people who are thinking about the future potentials of their generations, Ingrid Washinawatok understood the importance of protecting the elders and the traditional knowledge of the Native communities.

The killing of any of our Indian elders, anywhere in the Hemisphere, those living treasures of our many kindred nations, is an outrage. The Kuna stated, on the death of their four elders: "Four pillars of our community have been killed. If we compare this to Western culture it is to say that our library of congress, our chief justice, our minister of culture, our Nobel Peace Prize winners were killed."

A major war is afoot in Colombia and the U.S. policy in the region has great potential for drawbacks. Let's be alert lest the killing of Indian people in northern South America becomes another, new face of war.