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Indigenous governor assassinated in Colombia

Indigenous Colombian leader Robert DeJesus Gaucheta was beaten to death by unidentified assailants near his home in the southwestern territory of Cauca May 18, several months after he and other officials had requested protection due to receiving numerous death threats.

Gaucheta was the vice governor of the Nasa Reservation of Honduras which extends more than 93,860 acres and includes approximately 7,000 Nasa people. His predecessor, Vice Governor Jose Goyes Santa Cruz, survived an assassination attempt June 8, 2008 in Gaucheta’s home town of Morales. Gaucheta was well-known for his leadership during the large scale national protests called the Minga, or commotion of the peoples in Colombia last year.

According to press statements sent by Vicente Otero, press liaison for the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, Gaucheta had long been a vocal critic of the government’s plans to hand over indigenous land to mining interests, and recently spoke out against attempts by unnamed groups to start growing illicit crops.

Sources in CRIC and in the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia reported that since December 2008, Gaucheta and other indigenous leaders had been receiving threats through text messages and phone calls, and they were attributing the threats to the “Black Eagles,” famous in Colombia for being ex-paramilitaries with ties to the drug trade. Otero said indigenous broadcasters, including Alfredo Campo of the “Our Stereo Voice of Morales” radio show, have been and continue to be threatened.

CRIC and other indigenous officials approached the Colombian Interior Ministry and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the threats in September 2008. IACHR also approached Colombian authorities to request protection for Gaucheta and 20 other indigenous leaders. According to all of the indigenous sources no protection plans were ever realized.

Indigenous and allied organizations throughout Colombia are renewing their calls for protection, focusing not only on the unsolved beating death of Gaucheta, but also the killing of indigenous resident Nilvany Cruz Zambrano who also lived in Morales. Zambrano was shot to death the day after Gaucheta’s funeral; indigenous sources reported that she was caught in the crossfire between national police and “illegal actors.”

“The Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca joins in the mourning by all indigenous communities of the death of the traditional indigenous leader, Robert DeJesus Gaucheta,” the release said. “…and reiterates its call to the national and international community on behalf of the indigenous communities of Agua Negra, Chimborazo and Honduras. … to urge the cessation of threats by paramilitary groups and to urge the Colombian government to stop avoiding its responsibility and provide sufficient guarantees that are needed to defend the lives and human rights of traditional indigenous authorities and their families, many of whom find themselves in a situation of forced displacement.”

Counting Zambrano’s murder, ONIC says 1,255 indigenous were killed by paramilitaries, drug traffickers and official forces since January 2002, although the Colombian government refuses to acknowledge that official forces have ever assassinated any of the victims. According to the official government tally, 40 indigenous were killed in 2007 and 66 in 2008.