Like most Saturdays, Sara Muñoz went to deposit money at the local bank in Toribio, a small town in Cauca province, southern Colombia. While waiting in line with her three small children, she suddenly heard loud explosions from outside. The FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) – leftwing guerrillas who have been fighting the state government since the 1960s – had stormed the town and detonated a car bomb outside the police station. Being only a block away from the blast, the roof of the bank was blown off, trapping Muñoz and her children. ‘It was terrifying. We didn’t know what had happened, we were just stuck there,’ says Muñoz, clearly traumatized by the event.
At the time, her father was working at his meat stall, a couple of blocks away in the local market, in the main square. One of the gas cylinders which the guerrillas used for the homemade bomb was hurled through the local church and hit him in the head. The family’s house next to the police station was completely destroyed. ‘We have no idea what we will do now; we are too scared to stay here,’ Muñoz continues, while trying to comfort her children. She says that they have not been able to sleep since the attack. ‘So many times innocent native people are being caught up in a conflict that we have nothing to do with.’
The same sentiment is echoed throughout Toribio, which is unfortunate to be placed on a key drug smuggling route near FARC territory. While Cauca has remained relatively peaceful in recent years, fighting between the government and guerrillas is on the rise. The government military has stepped up its efforts to flush the FARC out of strategic strongholds. The FARC claims to fight against Colombia’s ruling class and for the people, and was founded on the ideals of Marxism and communism; but it has since been criticized for funding its operations through the drug trade and losing much of its ideology. In response to the rise in government efforts, the FARC has responded by increasing bombings, attacks and assassinations. Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris reported a 10 per cent increase in attacks over last year.
While the FARC and government military battle it out for the rebels’ strategic land, indigenous leaders say they are increasingly caught in the middle
While the FARC and government military battle it out for the rebels’ strategic land, indigenous leaders say they are increasingly caught in the middle. They point to the bombing of Toribio as evidence. The walls of the local police station, a concrete fortress, were left completely intact. Yet around the police station nearly 30 homes were destroyed, 500 damaged, four civilians killed and hundreds injured. With so little damage done to the police station, and the bomb mostly just affecting the local indigenous population, many are asking themselves what the FARC is really trying to achieve.
A week later, in the main square where Muñoz’s father was killed, indigenous leaders from across Cauca came together to find a solution to the increasing suffering of their people. Standing in front of thousands of locals, leaders took it in turns denouncing the violence and the effect it was having on their people. Leaders agreed to demand a complete demilitarization of their territory and asked that the FARC and the government enter into peace negotiations. ‘We hope both sides understand that our objective is humanitarian in essence. We are calling on our friends to help the government and the FARC understand this,’ said the leaders’ statement. ‘We don’t want to give either side a military advantage; what we want is to defend the lives and the autonomy of our communities.’
Civilians under threat
The leaders say they are fed up with the guerrillas’ lack of regard for civilians and explain that the situation is getting worse. Gabriel Pavin, a former mayor of Toribio, says that the civilian population is increasingly being targeted by the guerrillas. Civilians are killed when fighting breaks out, children are coerced into the FARC ranks and indigenous leaders killed when their standing up for autonomy is seen to be a threat. At the same time, the leaders also voiced their frustration with the government for putting military posts and police stations in the centre of towns. This, they say, brings the guerrillas – and violence – into town space. ‘It is against international law,’ argues Pavin. ‘They should be outside of the town.’
‘We don’t want to give either side a military advantage; what we want is to defend the lives and the autonomy of our communities’
While the indigenous leaders stood in Toribio’s square demanding demilitarization of their land, the government was seemingly not paying attention. Six hundred extra troops were being prepared to deploy to Tacqueyo reserve, next door to Cauca. The soldiers form a special high mountain battalion, specifically trained to hunt down FARC chief Alfonso Cano, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains around Tacqueyo. The deployment has terrified local residents.
Caught in the middle
Sitting outside her small shop, high in the mountains in the Tacueyó indigenous reserve, Liliana Alarco tries to hold back tears as she recalls the day her young son was injured. When the military installed a base close to their village in Buenavista, in Cauca province, her family knew something bad was bound to happen. Then one day, as her 13-year-old son was walking home from school, fighting broke out between the FARC and government soldiers. Her son was caught in the middle as the two sides exchanged gun and mortar fire. Suddenly, a large bomb exploded, and her son was hit in the stomach by shrapnel. ‘It was terrible, his entire digestive system was destroyed,’ she says, adding that he was in a coma for a month. Eventually, the family managed to raise the money to get him the treatment he needed, which saved his life. But while his health may be better, the trauma remains, says Alarco. ‘We are terrified of what this deployment will bring to the region.’
Ten days after meeting with other leaders in Toribio’s square and calling for demilitarization, the General Secretary of ACIN received an anonymous death threat
Another major concern for the reserve is the number of people fleeing their territory due to the violence. They are losing many young people, who either go to the cities to find work or are coerced into joining the FARC at a young age. Sitting outside his home halfway up a mountain on the outskirts of Tacueyó, Juan (not his real name) explains how he was recruited to the ranks of the guerrillas at the age of 13: ‘They would constantly call on me and ask me to come to training and tell me I would be a man if I did.’ Then one night he was called by a FARC contact to come to a training session. In the middle of the night, the government forces bombed the area, killing 16 of the 40 or so young people there. According to the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), at least four of the victims were minors, who were ‘supposedly combatants’.
It appears that already the FARC is keen to threaten the indigenous leaders and prevent any progress of the demilitarization campaign. Ten days after meeting with other leaders in Toribio’s square and calling for demilitarization, the General Secretary of ACIN received an anonymous death threat. The female caller asked the General Secretary to speak to whoever was in charge, and when asked to identify herself, said: ‘You have 24 hours to vacate all your offices, or you will face the consequences.’ Then she hung up. The indigenous communities believe that it was the guerrillas, trying to intimidate the leaders for their decision to push FARC and other armed groups out of their territory. The movement is potentially a major blow to the FARC, who will be struggling to get support from the indigenous population as the government military launches its offensive.
Despite the serious risks involved in publicly denouncing the guerrillas, the indigenous leaders remain resolute. They are demanding the armed groups leave or they will take measures. Leaders say that on 21 August they will build the first checkpoint of the Indigenous Guards, which will be located on the main road to Toribio. They are also planning to march to FARC camps to demand the return of child soldiers, and also to government military bases to request their departure. They know it will be no easy feat. They will be going up against forces known to kill and value territorial control over human life. However, according to indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia, they have no other option but to risk their lives to protect their communities. ‘It might be suicide, but we have to do it, for the good of our people.’