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Colombia's Nasa Indians Caught in the Crossfire in Uribe's New Counter-Guerilla Offensive
by Bill Weinberg

"Things are tranquil here when there is no army or poice. But when they come, things are tense here."

So says Don Tomas Poto, a traditional Nasa Indian elder in the small mountain village of Toribio, high in the Cordillera Central of Colombia's conflicted southern department of Cauca. A small and wiry man with a nearly-permanent shy smile, he had come to Toribio's central village on a motorbike from the outlying hamlet where he lives to speak with me and my photographer. We were now talking in the house of Alejandra Llano, a social worker from Cali who serves as an advisor on issues of domestic violence to Toribio's municipal government. Don Tomas' words are self-evident, as earlier that day, Toribio had been occupied by a large force of army and National Police. They established themselves in the village square, then fanned out through the streets, knocking on doors and questioning residents. The tension was palpable.

Just as Don Tomas spoke those words, came the knock on our door, right on cue. Three National Police troops were there, in green fatigues, lugging M-16s, the words "ANTI-GUERILLA" emblazoned on their caps. The biggest of the lot introduced himself as a colonel of the Special Anti-Guerilla Police and asked what we were doing there. Alejandra answered that we work with the Indians. "Ah, the indigenous, very good," the colonel replied. "We want to work with every sector in this important struggle." One of his sidekicks demanded my passport, and I passed it over across the threshold. As he examined it, Alejandra inquired of the colonel how long the troops would remain in Toribio.

"We have come to stay," came the reply. "In the name of President Alavro Uribe, we have come to bring peace to this village!"

At precisely that moment, a loud popping noise came from out on the unpaved street. "ÁBuenas tardes!" Alejandra exclaimed suddenly to the colonel, then to me: "Close the door!" The police were raising their rifles towards the popping sounds and scrambling; it suddenly dawned on me that they were under fire from guerillas. I held out my hand to the one who had my passport. He looked at me blankly, but, much to my relief, handed it back to me. I slammed the door shut and we all dove under the bed, giggling hysterically to releive the tension. The rhythm of the popping sounds outside quickened; so did our nervous giggling. The popping was coming from both sides of the house now. Only Don Tomas continued to smile serenely.

"It's too bad we don't have the right herbs," he told me under the bed. "You take some coca leaf, some hierba alegre, and some aguardiente. You drink a little, and bathe with the rest, and you can escape any enemy."

Yes, too bad we don't have any, I agreed.

After around fifteen minutes, the popping noises faded up the hill as the police and soldiers chased the guerillas into the mountains. When it had been quiet for several minutes, we figured it was safe to emerge. We started walking back down towards the village center. Fortunately, it looked like nobody had been hit. Kids were hanging out in the street, kicking around a soccer ball in a small park off the central plaza, as if nothing had happened. It was surreal. "The population here is used to it," said Alejandra.

When the police and army are not in Toribio, the guerillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) maintain an open presence in the town, patronizing the local eateries and patrolling the plaza--just as the soldiers were at this moment. Graffiti reading "MB" appears on several of Toribio's walls--for the Bolivarian Movement, the FARC's new post-Communist ideological pretension.

But now it was Sept. 9, and the previous night President Uribe had gone on national televsion to announce a new offensive against the rebels--which the army had ominously dubbed "Operacion Depredador": Operation Pillage.

The soldiers now occupying the village were not the frightened campesino conscripts I was used to dealing with at highway checkpoints. These were obviously elite crack troops, battle-hardened veterans. They were gigantic, with huge biceps and intimidating glowers. They wore grease on their faces and Rambo-style green headbands over their hair. When we climbed an outlying hill to survey the occupied village, I looked around in vain for the vehicles they had arrived in--it soon became clear that they had not come up the road from Cauca's central valley and the Panamerican Highway, but had marched for several days over the mountains from the east. (The smaller National Police contingent had probably come up the road to meet them, as they looked much fresher.)

I confess that I didn't look at the soliders very much, generally trying to give them as wide a berth as possible. But my photographer, Maria Anguera, kept getting closer, discretely snapping shots of them. Later she told me that one group stayed apart from the rest in the village square, not talking to the locals. They were larger than the others, and some of them seemed fair-skinned under their face grease. Could they have been a detatchment of US Green Berets--the ones which Washington denies are sent into conflict zones?

We milled around the square wondering what to do. Things didn't seem safe, but there would be no transport down the mountain until morning. As I was pondering our options, two loud explosions rent the air. Twin columns of smoke rose just a few blocks from square. The guerillas were attacking again--this time with their trademark pipe-bombs.

Now the populace was starting to show signs of panic--although the kids in the park still didn't stop their football game. Women, children and older folks cleared off the square and huddled under the eaves of the municipal building, or alcaldia. They eyed the soldiers who were running towards the smoke columns and taking fighting positions in the surrounding streets. They eyed the alcaldia, but it was clear there wasn't enough room for us all in the small building--and in any case, there were soldiers there too, which meant it was no haven. Some of us briefly took shelter in the church, which was painted with murals depicting martyred Indian leaders along with Christ and the Virgin, and prayers in the Nasa language.

Thankfully, it started to rain, and both the soldiers and guerillas called it quits for a little while. Don Tomas took the motorbike back to his hamlet. Alejandra, Maria and I made it back to the home of another social worker with whom we were staying, and holed up for the night. We made spaghetti and drank wine and danced to salsa CDs, as intermittent skirmishes could still be heard on the fringes of the village. Finally, my colleagues dropped off to sleep--putting the mattrasses on the floor lest a stray bullet penetrate the house. But I kept waking up, listening in the darkness. The sound of gunfire in the mountains continued long into the night.


Earlier in the day, as the troops established themselves in the village square, Luis Evelio Ipia, one of the cabildos who leads Project Nasa, the local indigenous-based development initiative, sat us down in front a chalkboard in the group's office (just adjacent to the alcaldia) and drew us an historical outline of the Nasa autonomy struggle--from the very beginning. As he talks, the geography and nature of the current conflict become clearer.

"The Nasa people have always resisted," says Luis. "And we are still resisting today."

At 200,000, the Nasa (called the Paez by the Spanish, a name still frequently used) are one of Colombia's largest indigenous groups. The greatest number are in Cauca, but many are also found in the neighboring departments of Valle de Cauca, Huila, Caqueta and Tolima.

Toribio municipality includes three Nasa reservations, or "resguardos": Toribio (the land surrounding the village center), San Francisco and Tacueyo. The resguardos are made up of communally-held land, with official indigenous jurisdiction under the 1991 constitutional reform. Each resguardo includes several "veredas," or unincorporated hamlets, each with its own traditional indigenous leaders known as cabildos. But we are all aware of the irony of discussing constitutionally-protected autonomy as the village is under military occupation.

Ipia begins his story with the 1542 New Laws of the Indies, instated by the Spanish crown in response to reports of atrocities against the indigenous inhabitants of New Spain, and which became the basis for the establishment of the first resguardos in Nueva Grenada (as the Spanish called what is now Colombia). "The Laws of the Indies were very beautiful, but they didn't mean anything," says Ipia. "Like the constitution today."

In 1637, the first Spanish arrived on Nasa land--led by the conquistador Pedro de Anazco, who immediately demanded that the Indians pay tribute to him as representative of the crown. When he had one Nasa man killed for refusing to submit, the man's mother became the woman warrior who led an armed resistance movement against the Spanish. Known as La Gaitana, she succeeded in capturing Anazco, and had him put to death--first poking out his eyes, the story goes.

What Ipia calls the first "political resistance" emerged in 1670, under Juan Tama, who petitioned the crown for the establishment of the first five Nasa resguardos--known as the Territorio de los Cinco Pueblos. In 1701, Toribio, Tacueyo and San Francisco resguardos were established as the Territorio de los Tres Pueblos following a campaign by the Nasa leader Manuel Quilo y Ciclos. The indigenous authorities known as cabildos were then first officially recognized--but not always in actual practice, as the land-holdings of local oligarchs encroached onto the resguardos.

When local authorities broke from the Spanish crown in 1810, this actually represented a step back for the Nasa, as the independence leadership moved to destroy the resguardos completely--this time in the name of progress. "They said all the same things," says Ipia. "The indigenous cannot govern themselves, they speak the language of the Devil, their lands aren't being used."

As new haciendas were established on Nasa lands, a system called "terraje" emerged, in which the Indians were given plots to work for themselves in exchange for paying rent in the form of labor on the more extensive lands of the patron. They become "terrajeros"--debt laborers on what had once been their own land.

After finally winning centralized power in 1820, Simon Bolivar ordered the haciendas to withdraw from the resguardos, and also exempted the Indians from military service. In 1890, Law 89 was passed in Bogota, reiterating indigenous ownership of the resguardos. But, again, these official policies from distant authorities had little impact on the ground in Nasa country, where the terraje system persisted. In the chaotic Liberal-Conservative wars of the 19th century, local caudillos (mostly Conservatives) often had more control in Cauca than the national government.

The contemporary Nasa autonomy movement has its roots in a campaign launched in 1910 by Manuel Quintin Lame, a terrajero from Paniquita resguardo who had fought as a soldier in the 1899-1903 Thousand Day's War. Quintin Lame called for a program to reclaim the land for the resguardos and empower the cabildos, under the slogan "no pago de terraje"--don't pay the terraje.

The 1917 Nasa rebellion led by Lame, "La Quintinada," was mostly unarmed, consisting of mass land occupations. It was also partly successful, bringing many traditional lands back under Nasa control in Cauca, Tolima and neighborging departments.

The backlash came in 1948, when Colombia was again plunged into civil war--the terrible period known as La Violencia. "The civil war of 1948 was really a war to take the land of the indigenous people," says Ipia. "At least here in Cauca." With renewed war in Cauca and Tolima, a militia group called Los Pajaros backed by the Conservatives--the forerunner of today's paramilitaries--began attacking indigenous communities, delivering recovered land back into the hands of the big landlords. In response, many Nasa joined the Liberal guerillas who resisted the Pajaros and the military dictatorship that took power in 1953.

1956 saw a bloody confrontation between Nasa guerillas and the army in Tacueyo. In 1958 came the locally-famous "Quema de Santo Domingo," in which Santo Domingo vereda in Tacueyo--where landowners and their military pals were having a fiesta on usurped Nasa lands--was put to the torch by Indian guerillas. But Quintin Lame, in Tolima, dissented from the guerilla war, warning that the Liberals did not represent the true interests of the Nasa.

With the return of at least formalistic democracy in the 1960s, Indians largely abandoned the guerilla struggle and started petitioning for the return of usurped lands through the new agrarain reform bureaucracy--although Communist guerillas, who would eventually become the FARC, remained in arms.

In 1968, Quintin Lame died in Tolima. But his program was resurrected by a new organization founded in 1971 at a February assembly in Toribio--the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), representing all of the department's indigenous groups.

"The church leaders didn't even allow Quintin Lame to be buried in a Christian cemetary," says Ipia. "But the position of the church began to change in '70s, with the emergence of Liberation Theology." In 1975, Padre Alvaro Ulcue, a Nasa, became the priest of Toribio. He began to convene meetings in veredas to discuss land recuperation and empowering the cabildos. At first these meetings took place late at night or in the mountains to avoid repression. But in September 1980, the first open assembly was held in San Francisco, and Project Nasa was officially launched--led by Padre Alvaro and local cabildos, including Don Tomas Poto.

Project Nasa's first work was to draw up an indigenous-based development proposal for the region. Says Ipia: "The development of savage capitalism, in which the ends justify the means--this we don't want. We don't want destructive development, as in the US. We want development that comes from the base and represents our own traditions. We don't hold the land in a capitalist sense. We hold it in the spirit that we are a part of it."

He shows me a quote from a Project Nasa document on the development program that sums up this indigenous philosophy:

Nacimos de la tierra,
ella nos da de comer
y cuando morimos vamos alla,
entonces para los indigenas es la madre Tierra
y para los ricos es capital

Usurped lands were occupied to create "fincas comunitarias"--communal farms. "Instead of the rich taking the milk to Cali, we distributed it to the community," relates Ipia.

The next concern was challenging the entrenched system of paternalism that made democracy a farce in Cauca's indigenous lands. "The patrons said `vote this way,' and we did," says Ipia. "It wasn't a decision of the indigenous." Project Nasa also launched programs of Nasa-Spanish bilingual education, and self-help healthcare based on traditional herblore. "There was a new consciousness--that it is not a shame to be indigenous."

Once again, of course, there was backlash. In November 1984, Padre Ulcue was assassinated in Santander. Nobody was ever convicted in the murder. The following year, after more assassinations of Nasa leaders, the Quintin Lame Armed Movement, or MAQL, emerged. Although considered a "guerilla" group by the Colombian government, it was actually more of an armed self-defense movement.

MAQL agreed to disarm in 1989 when a national constituional assembly was convened with CRIC representation, and formally surrundered its arms in a pact with President Cesar Gaviria in May 1991 when the new constitution--officially recognizing jurisdictional autonomy on the resguardos--took effect.

But in December of that same year, some 20 Nasa were killed at Nilo hacienda in Caloto municipality, when gunmen opened fire on an unarmed land occupation. The lands in question were colonial-era resguardo lands which had long since been usurped, and which the Indians were petitioning the agrarian reform bureaucracy for title to. Survivors claimed that National Police were among the hired gunmen who carried out the massacre. Once again, nobody was brought to justice. Two CRIC-hired attorneys who were investigating the incident were themselves mysteriously murdered. "There was total impunity," says Ipia.

Progress nonetheless continued on the political front. In 1986, in response to a national reform limiting power of governors to impose municipal candidates, the local Movimiento Civico emerged, fronting candidates who were not part of the official parties. In 1995, the first indigenous-supported mayor, Gilberto Mu–oz (actually a mestizo, but a supporter of the Nasa cause), was elected in Toribio. The first Nasa mayor, Ezekiel Vitonas, was elected in 1998, and the incumbent Mayor Gabriel Pavi is also Nasa.

In 2000, Floro Alberto Tunubala, a Guambiano Indian from Silvia resguardo supported by the CRIC, was elected governor of Cauca on the ticket of a new group not linked to the traditional parties, the Bloque Social Alternativa. The Bloque first came together to develop an indigenous-based alternative to Plan Colombia, and represents several Indian and campesino organizations, including Tunubala's own group, the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO). His election, an unprecedented development that was unthinkable just tens years earlier, was part of a regional trend, as the neighboring departments of Tolima, Huila, Nari–o, Caqueta and Putumayo all elected governors from independent political movements, in what became known as the "Alliance of the South."

Additionally, the resguardos began developing their own parallel governments under the 1991 constitutional reform. Each of Toribio municipality's 62 veredas has a cabildo, and the three resguardos of the municipality each has a governor. (Don Tomas Poto is the former governor of San Francisco resguardo.) The cabildos make up a Premanent Assembly for each resguardo, with commissions on health, education, economy and culture. Ipia says the work of the Permanent Assemblies is to make life sustainable on the resguardos and halt the exit of the population for the cities. "When people leave for Cali, they don't come back," he says.

Project Nasa has also had its own micro-transmitter, Radio Nasa, since 1996, which broadcasts throughout the municipality.

Project Nasa is now part of a network of indigenous governance that extends to the national level. The Project is a member organization of the Association of Indigenous Cabildos of the North of Cauca (ACIN), which represents 16 cabildos, and is also known as Cxab Wala Kiwe ("Territory of the Great People" in the Nasa tongue). ACIN, in turn, is part of CRIC, which is part of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or ONIC, founded in 1980 to representat all of Colombia's 84 indigenous ethnicities.

"When they speak of Colombia, they speak of the narco traffic, they speak of war and violence," says Ipia. "They don't speak of the new political process we are building."


"We don't want to participate in the war," says Luis Ipia. But no side in the conflict appears to respect this desire.

The National Police station in Torbio is in ruins from a July 11, 2002 guerilla attack, in which over 100 pipe-bombs were hurled. Ipia sys that fifty homes damaged in the attack, 16 completely destroyed, and one Nasa child killed--as well as many guerillas. "We oppose rebuilding it, because it will just invite further attacks," he says, "and bring more death to our community."

Nasa lands have already seen plenty of death in recent years. In the '70s and '80s, nearly 100 Nasa were killed in northern Cauca in internal violence between supporters of the CRIC and the Communist Party. Some 300 more have been killed in targetted assassinations since CRIC was founded in 1971 by all three major armed groupings--the army, the paramilitaries and the guerillas. "And that is only the leaders," says Ipia. "Much blood has been spilled on this land."

In response to growing violence in 2001, the Nasa instated a Guardia Indigena, a community vigilance and self-defense movement. Every vereda has ten guardias, who are unarmed except for a traditional baston (staff), and communicate via walkie-talkie. Women and even children participate in the Guardia, and the whole community of a vereda can be mobilized to deal with an emergency. Says Clara Inez Vitonas, a Nasa woman who has served with the Guardia: "If the guerilla takes a young man, we all go together to confront them and demand them back."

Unfortunately, the guerillas have a record little better than that of the army or paramilitaries on Nasa lands. Clara says that in 2001 her brother Jose Diego Vitonas was killed by the guerillas on an accusation of paramilitary involvement. She claims Liberal Party loyalists spread gossip so he would be targetted. "For the army, we are guerillas, and for the guerillas, we are paramilitaries," she says with resignation.

Clara also says that earlier this year in San Francisco resguardo, a boy of 17 was killed by the guerillas in front of his mother for desertion. Alejandra Llano explains how such actions are possible: "Former guerillas have information, which they fear could fall into the wrong hands. I'm not justifying it, but they have their own logic."

As we speak in the Project Nasa offices, the National Police, backed up by army troops, had entered the adjacent alcaldia, demanding to speak to the mayor. "This is not the first time this has happened," says Ipia. "The National Police invade the alcaldia--then the guerillas accuse us of talking to the police. And they kill us for that."

Among the most prominent Nasa leaders assassinated by the guerillas is Cristobal Secue--a founder of Project Nasa, both a founder and former president of CRIC, and a former president of ACIN. His face now adorns the mural in the Toribio church, along with Padre Ulcue and Quintin Lame. He was killed by the FARC in 2001, Ipia says. When I ask why, I am told: "He told them we are autonomous and we make our own decision."

As the war grinds on, the Nasa continue to oppose Uribe's neo-liberal economic program--the privatization of resources, the rush to join the FTAA. Ipia is especially concerned with corporate designs of the region's rich water resources. Both of Colombia's major rivers, the Magdalena and the Cuaca, find their origins in Cauca's central massif, where Colombia's three cordilleras come together, and corporate encroachment on control of these waters has alredy begun. In 1999, the Regional Corporation of Cauca (CRC), a departmental entity, privatized the Salvajina hydro-dam on the Rio Cauca to a Bogota-based firm, the Pacific Energy Corporation (EPSA). Ipia fears that under the FTAA, water will be diverted from indigenous lands to agribusiness interests in the valley below.

"We are opposed to the state, but we don't support the ideology or methods of the guerillas," Ipia says. "They want to change the country with bullets, and that is not our position."


In the morning, we wake up early to catch a brightly-painted chiva bus down the mountain. A member of the Guardia Indigena accompanies Maria and I past the army checkpoint at Caloto. We continue to Cali on our own.

A few days later, I return to Cauca--this time to the department capital, Popayan, to speak with CRIC at their central office. Popayan is an old colonial city where the most reactionary attitudes were deeply entrenched until very recently. A colonial-era bridge over a small arm of the Rio Cauca leading to the city center is locally known as the Bridge of Humility--because Indians and campesinos were traditionally forbidden to cross it.

Eight indigenous groups now make up the CRIC: the Nasas of Cauca's northeast mountains; the Guambianos to south around Popayan; the Kokonuco near the towering volcano of Purace; the Yanacona of the central massif; the Embera-related Eperara-Siapirara along the Pacific coast; the Ingas across the mountains in Cauca's small stretch of the Amazon basin; and two small groups that each inhabit just a few mountain villages, the Totoro and Pubenences.

The Naya region along the Pacific coast is the most conflicted in the department. Residents say more than 200 were killed or "disappeared" there last year--Indians, Afro-Colombians and mestizos--mostly by paramilitaries (although authorities confirm only 50 killings). But progress towards meaningful autonomy persists despite the violence. The Nasa-Guambiano municipalities of Silvia and Jambalo now also have indigenous mayors, like Toribio. Where indigenous languages survive (those of the Kokonuco, Pubenences and Yanacona are nearly lost), bilingual eduaction programs are being instated.

Jorge Caballero, a mestizo who works in CRIC's information department, has been tracking the human rights atrocities against Cauca's indigenous peoples for 10 years. He believes that the atmosphere of impunity suggests a government hand behind many killings ostensibly carried out by paramilitary groups or the hired gunmen of big landlords. He calls the slaying of Padre Ulcue "one of the cases of impunity among more than 300 cases in the indigenous community in Cauca. All evidence suggests he was killed by the state intelligence services."

He also emphasizes that none of the armed actors in Cauca have clean hands. "The guerilla also has a hostile attitude towards the indigenous movement," Caballero says.

But he cites several examples of how real autonomy is possible, even when threatened by ruthless armed groups. In July, at the Nasa resguardo of Pioya in Caldono municipality, when a Swiss social worker aiding the Indians was kidnapped by the guerillas, she was sucessfully freed days later by the Guardia Indigena. "It was done without arms," Caballero marvels. "They were just armed with sticks."

In June, when Silvia's Guambiano Mayor Segundo Tombe was kidnapped by the guerillas, he was similarly freed.

On August 20, at the Guambiano resguardo of La Maria in Piendamo municipality--which local residents declared a "Territory of Co-existence, Dialogue and Negotiation" in 1998--a Cauca-wide indigenous youth meeting was being held when the FARC threw up a roadblock on the nearby Panamerican Highway. "The whole community mobilized and forced them to disband the roadblock," Caballero relates.

"Cauca's indigenous communities have used arms in the past, but only in self-defense," Caballero says. "Now they are trying to exercise unarmed autonomy."

I point out that all the examples he mentioned were against the guerillas--not the army or paramilitaries. Caballero admits that confronting the official security forces and their paramilitary allies represents a greater challenge. "To struggle against the state is much more difficult under a government such as we have now," he says.

That day, I received e-mail from my friends back in Toribio. Confrontations between the army and guerillas were continuing there on a daily basis. There was no sign that the army and National Police intended to pull out.

Watching the TV news that night in Popayan, images of Torbio appeared on the screen. One of the National Police officers who had questioned me there spoke to the camera in front of the ruins of the destroyed police station, pledging that it would be rebuilt. No Nasas were interviewed.


Sept. 16, 2003

Photo essay: Colombia 2003, by Maria Angueara de Sojo

Previous reports from Colombia:


STATE OF SEIGE IN ARAUCA: Indigenous Peoples, Civil Society Under Attack in Colombia's Oil Zone, 9/4

BARRANCABERMEJA: Paramilitary Terror and the Struggle for Colombia's Oil,8/27

BETWEEN DYNCORP AND THE A.U.C:Glyphosate and Paramilitary Terror in Colombia's Cimitarra Valley, 8/27

NONVIOLENCE IN COLOMBIA: A Growing Anti-Militarist Movement Demands Right to "Active Neutrality" in Armed Conflict

URIBE: "FUMIGATIONS WILL CONTINUE" :Despite Court Ruling and Peasant Protest

Reprinting permissible with attribution.