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Colombia's Nasa Indians caught in the crossfire

"We have come to stay," announced the colonel of the Special Anti-Guerilla Forces. "In the name of President Alvaro Uribe, we have come to bring peace to this village!"

At precisely that moment a loud popping noise rang out in the streets of Toribio, high in the Cordillera Central of Colombia's conflicted southern department of Cauca. The police raised their rifles and scrambled towards the popping sounds.

It was suddenly apparent we were under fire from the guerillas. I slammed the door shut and my housemates and I all dove under the bed, giggling hysterically to relieve the tension. The rhythm of the gunfire quickened.

The popping was coming from both sides of the house now. Only Don Tomas Poto, a member of the local Nasa Indian community, continued to smile serenely.

"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."

Earlier that day, as the army troops established themselves in the village square, Luis Evelio Ipia, a leader of Project Nasa, the indigenous-based development initiative, sat down with me. "The Nasa people have always resisted," said Luis. "And we are still resisting today."

At 200,000, the Nasa are one of Colombia's largest indigenous groups. Toribio municipality includes three Nasa reservations, or "resguardos." 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."

Each of Toribio municipality's 62 veredas has a cabildo, and the three resguardos each has a governor. Don Tomas Poto is the former governor of San Francisco resguardo. The cabildos make up a Permanent Assembly for each resguardo, with commissions of health, education, economy and culture.

Ipia said 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," he said, "they don't come back."

This is part of a general tentative political opening - now imperiled by the escalating war. In 1995, the first indigenous-supported mayor 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 Silva resguardo, was elected governor of Cauca on the ticket of a new group not linked to the traditional parties, the Alternative Social Bloc. The Bloc first came together to develop an indigenous-based alternative to Plan Colombia.

Tunubala's election was part of a regional trend, as five other neighboring departments also elected governors from independent political movements, in what became known as the "Alliance of the South."

"When they speak of Colombia, they speak of the narco traffic, they speak of war and violence," said Luis Evelio Ipia. "They don't speak of the new political process we are building." He cites Radio Nasa, Project Nasa's own micro-transmitter, which has been broadcasting since 1996.

Autonomy is protected under the constitution, but that doesn't mean much in a village under military occupation. As Colombia's civil war grinds on, the Nasa continue to oppose both communist guerillas and the government's militarization of their lands. Ipia said the Nasa oppose reconstruction of Toribio's National Police station, which had been destroyed in a battle with guerillas months earlier. He said the Nasa also reject the national government's privatization of resources and the rush to join the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Ipia is especially concerned with corporate designs on the region's rich water resources. He 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 said. "They want to change the country with bullets, and that is not our position."

Days after leaving Toribio, I received an e-mail from my friends there. Confrontations between the army and the guerillas were continuing on a daily basis. There was no sign that the army or police intended to pull out.

Watching TV one night in Popayan, Cauca's capital, Toribio was in the news. One of the National Police officers I had met and been questioned by spoke to the camera in front of the ruins of the police station. He pledged it would be rebuilt. No Nasas were interviewed.