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'They are bombing us'.

An interview with Lorenzo Muelas Hurtado

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Former Colombian senator and Guambiano elder Lorenzo Muelas Hurtado recently spoke to Indian Country Today about the effect of the Colombian conflict on indigenous people, the role of the United States in the conflict and the need for a negotiated solution.

Indian Country Today: How would you describe the current situation of indigenous people in Colombia?

Lorenzo Muelas Hurtado: First of all, let me say that I was a delegate to the Constituent National Assembly in 1991. Before, we thought the problem was a lack of laws and of legal recognition by the state, and that we were suffering the consequences of this. But 15 years later, even with important legal definitions, the situation of indigenous people has not changed. There has not been a political desire on the part of the government, of the legislators, to develop what the Constitution of 1991 recognized as the rights of marginalized peoples ... not just of the indigenous, but also of Afro descendants and campesinos.

This is why, in the same constitutional assembly, we wanted the armed groups that existed illegally to sit down with us so we could draw up a navigation map for all Colombian people. But they couldn't be present.

The largest armed group, the FARC, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, stayed outside of the constitutional process. Therefore, before the constitutional assembly, we were at war. During the constitutional assembly, we are at war. After the constitutional assembly, we are still at war.

Afterwards, other armed groups arrived, the paramilitaries, and the people who have suffered the consequences are the indigenous peoples. We continue in the periphery of the country, in the countryside, in the margins, and that is where war is taking place; where there is dynamite; where there are guerillas, paramilitaries, bombs.

That is also where there is a product called the coca leaf. The culture of the coca leaf is very important. It is a little leaf that has virtue, power and wisdom. With it, the indigenous spiritual leader connects to his gods, to his spirits. But the foreigner comes along and turns this into cocaine, not only damaging us enormously, but also damaging the other people: the cocaine consumers.

Because of this, the [Colombian] government, along with the North American government, has its impact, with Plan Colombia, a plan that works with the armed forces.

They bomb us under the pretext that first, they are eliminating the guerilla forces and second, they are persecuting drug dealers, but without any consciousness of the existence of us - the indigenous peoples. So they make war, they drop bombs, and many times the indigenous people flee the area, running. This is why we have so many who are displaced in the cities.

ICT: Can you speak about the ''nonviolent zones'' in Colombia, where indigenous people have gotten together and tried to protect certain territories? Is this still happening?

Hurtado: Yes, in Cauca. That is to say, all indigenous people have declared themselves neutral in this war. It is not a war among us; it is a foreign war. We are only the victims. This is why we have declared ''nonviolent zones.'' But many times we are violated; they have not respected us. That is why the violence is still going on, the displacements are still going on, the bombing and eradication of illegal cultivation is still going on. It doesn't look like there is going to be a solution in the near future.

We have always repeated that there needs to be a negotiated solution, a political solution, between the government and the insurgent forces so that we can avoid this displacement, this bloody violence, this disappearance of indigenous peoples.

ICT: You mentioned the United States government. How can the people in the United States, indigenous and non-indigenous, support you?

Hurtado: Recently we have understood that there are political interests as well as economic interests involved. At this level, they make contracts under the pretext of eradicating the guerillas and the coca leaf. They have these contracts with huge economic costs, but also with huge political costs; with huge costs to our identity; with huge costs at all levels.

We know that neither our government nor the government of the United States is going to understand us, but we would like it very much if the national populace, in our country as well as the people of the United States, would raise their voice in protest; would make their voices heard; would make themselves felt. The indigenous people, we are having to choose between life and death. Meanwhile, they are bombing us, they are calling us guerilla supporters, they accuse us of belonging to one group or the other ... there is no life. This is what we are doing. The support that you can give is to ask for the end of support for this war, so that the people can go back to their homes and start their lives again in these territories.