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Report: Indigenous in danger of disappearing

Early in the morning of Aug. 9, World Indigenous Day, nine heavily armed men wearing masks raided the tiny village of Altaquer, Colombia, seizing five Awa leaders. This group of indigenous people had already been displaced from their homes due to heavy combat between government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish) guerrillas; the Awa were awaiting notification of the promise of return by government authorities.

They weren’t around to hear the response (which didn’t come, anyway).

Sometime later that same day, the five leaders from the Chagui Chinbuza Reservation were executed. According to a press statement issued by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC in Spanish), the killers were dressed in a manner similar to those of the “private military,” otherwise known as the paramilitaries.

The presence of these three forces in this tragedy illustrates the predicament of Colombia’s Native peoples: caught in a crossfire that has been getting steadily worse, again. All of Colombia’s 80 indigenous groups have been affected, close to 1 million people.

In the report titled “Political Violence Against Indigenous Peoples in Colombia 1974-2004,” the Center for Indigenous Cooperation (CECOIN in Spanish) laid out the history of the recent conflicts and put special emphasis on the lethal momentum the war has gathered since 1997. In the tables and graphs of the report, the numbers tell part of the story.

“This aspect has become explicit since 1997 when the intensity of the conflict began to take on a new direction. The different armies now mobilized in order to control vast territories determined by their strategic positions and the indigenous populations and their territories found themselves in the middle of this,” the report stated.

In CECOIN’s Graph 2, the increased acts of violence against Native people can be seen most dramatically after 1997, when violent acts by the state were listed at 30, by paramilitaries at 69 and insurgents at 68; seven years later, in 2004, the numbers are 197 for the state, 166 for paramilitaries and 65 for insurgents. However, human rights activists in Colombia and from the international community agree that the CECOIN numbers are low estimates. The total numbers and total misery are worse.

In each of the report’s sections describing violence against the Native peoples, all three of the main combatants are listed: government, paramilitaries and revolutionaries. While the government has supported some of the paramilitaries, there is no clear evidence that all of these groups have had state assistance.

Similarly, the revolutionary category includes six groups, and there is no compelling proof that they are always working in cahoots, although there has been cooperation in a number of incidents. But what the three have in common is that they have killed, tortured and persecuted Native peoples; the grim results include massive displacement. In Graph 2, the statistics bear this out. From 1986 to 1996, the estimated number of displaced indigenous people came to 2,660. From 1997 to 2004, the number jumped to 40,555. The incidences of violence and displacement have been so frequent that the U.N. High Commission on Refugees warned last year that “indigenous groups in Colombia are in danger of disappearing.”

That UNHCR report (April 22, 2005) stated: “Forced displacement has affected them in a disproportionate way: although indigenous people make up just 2-3 percent of the country’s population, as many as 8 percent of all internally displaced people. Virtually all indigenous groups in Colombia have been victims of forced displacement or are at serious risk of being displaced from their ancestral lands.”

Another common denominator in the report, aside from the increase in hostilities after 1997, is the negative influence of the U.S.-designed Plan Colombia and the policies of President Alvaro Uribe Velez, elected first in 2002 and re-elected this year.

“These figures [Graph 1, “Political Violence Against Indigenous Peoples in Colombia 1997-2004”] demonstrate a government policy of supporting the armed forces in actions against the social movement, an absence of action against the paramilitaries and an official position that does not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants,” the report continued. “During the first two years of the Uribe Velez government, this policy led to individual cases of … murders, injuries, torture, rape, disappearances, kidnappings and arbitrary detentions increasing by 66 percent.”

And like the thousands of other Native peoples killed by political violence in Colombia, these recent “statistics” were people with families in yet another indigenous community furthered ripped apart by the sudden loss of parents, siblings, spouses and friends.

Each of the five executed Awas were leaders of different types in their communities, which is another common factor: The vast majority of indigenous people targeted for political violence are leaders, and their murders or subjugations affect various projects as well as weaken the communities themselves. In fact, the ONIC press statement noted that the current governor of the Chagui reservation, Doris Puchana, was not present during the Aug. 9 raid: “And being so visible from the displacement of her people a month ago, for this we give thanks to God that she was not there.”

The CECOIN report explained the consequences of these targeted assaults on leaders in the indigenous communities: “For indigenous peoples, kinship functions as a deep sub-stratum on which community alliances and institutions are based such that family, clan or lineage often also relates to the community. Acts of violence can therefore rarely be understood or experienced as a private affair. In this context, phenomena such as recruitment, murders or displacements have an immediate effect on all socio-political structures.”

The total number of victims is very difficult to tally. The UNHCR asserts why in the same report from last April: “Indigenous people often become displaced within their region of origin, to try to preserve their ties to their ancestral territories, or flee towards remote areas where they cannot be easily detected, and this is a contributing factor in making their tragedy invisible.”

In the wake of the Awa murders, Amazon Watch, American Friends Service Committee, U’Wa Defense Project and the Washington Office on Latin America have called on Congress to make the cessation of violence against indigenous people a priority issue and for the Colombian government to conduct a formal and impartial investigation into the murders of the Awa leaders.

<i>Rick Kearns, Boricua, a writer on Latin American Native issues, teaches at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania.