WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
15 Jul 2011 | Commentary | News

Cauca’s Nasa Indigenous People Caught in the Crossfire

A bus filled with explosives was detonated on the morning of July 9 at 10:30 a.m. in front of a police station in Toribío, Cauca. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s oldest and largest guerrilla group, were responsible for the attack.

Instead of destroying the police station, the explosion wiped out the homes surrounding it and injured several bystanders. The Toribío explosion was the first of a series of attacks in at least five municipalities of northern Cauca, including Corinto, Caldono, Santander de Quilichao and Jambaló. In Toribío alone over 124 people were injured, 3 killed, and 474 homes destroyed as a result of the armed combat between the FARC and the military (see video). The FARC’s indiscriminate attacks clearly violate international humanitarian law and are emblematic of the constant targeting of northern Cauca’s mostly indigenous civilian population.

As armed combat between the Colombian military and the FARC continued throughout the week, local indigenous and human rights organizations reported that both sides utilized civilians’ homes as shields. This blatant disregard for international humanitarian law put many families at serious risk. At one point, the Colombian government considered the possibility of tearing down the homes where FARC attacks allegedly originated. The human rights group Asociación Minga reported that the government decided not to destroy the homes due to heavy criticism from Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman and local organizations. Nevertheless, Asociación Minga said that the military might use ‘eminent domain’ to take over these homes “which is absolutely illegal.”


The aftermath of the explosion in Toribío. Photo courtesy of Asociación Minga.

The Nasa indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by this wave of violence. A statement by the Association of Northern Cauca’s Indigenous Cabildos (ACIN), Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), and the Association of Indigenous Cabildos of Caldono–NASA CXHAB (ICC-NC) rejects the recent violence as an “attack on our life plans (planes de vida), our autonomy, our peaceful existence in the territory, and our survival as indigenous peoples.” Despite indigenous peoples’ legal right to hold collective titles to more than 31 million hectares of land, 66 of Colombia’s 102 indigenous peoples are at risk of extinction. Official Colombian government statistics show that murders of indigenous people between January and May of 2011 have increased 38% compared to the same timeframe in 2010. The situation in northern Cauca is replicated in many other regions of the country where indigenous peoples have lived for hundreds of years.

Many families in Toribío and nearby municipalities are at risk of displacement. Reports from WOLA’s partners in larger towns and cities reveal that many of the transition homes (casas de paso) run by the ACIN are filling up. These transition homes are available for indigenous people who arrive in cities seeking medical attention or fleeing violence. However, in Cali and Santander de Quilichao these transition homes are filled beyond capacity. As of Wednesday evening, no humanitarian aid was available for the affected civilians in Toribío. Colombia’s internally displaced population of over five million people is likely to grow as the attacks continue.

Cauca MapThe attacks in Cauca by the FARC’s 6th Front and “Jacobo Arenas” column come as a response to the Colombian military’s dogged pursuit of the FARC’s leader, ‘Alfonso Cano,’ in a mountainous region about 20 miles east of Toribío. The FARC is eager to demonstrate its strength after losing several of its leaders in the last three years. These attacks are reminiscent of the FARC’s traditional strategy of guerilla warfare (guerra de guerrillas), a far cry from its ability to control towns and sub-regions when its strength was at its late 1990s peak. Nevertheless, the FARC’s continual adaptation to the nature of the conflict continues to threaten and alienate the civilian population while eliciting a strong-handed response from the Colombian government.

The indigenous people of northern Cauca demand their right to autonomy so that they may live peacefully in their collective territories. However, armed combat continuously undermines this right. The continuation of Colombia’s internal armed conflict threatens the survival of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, and their experience is shared by the millions of other Colombians affected by the conflict. According to the ACIN, CRIC, and ICC-NC, “there will not be peace for Colombians, if there is not peace for the indigenous peoples; there will not be peace for the indigenous peoples, if there is not peace in Colombia.”