Colombian Indians stand up to violence

After word spread across this Indian reservation that seven people had been kidnapped by leftist rebels, the community’s unarmed “indigenous guard” sprang into action.

Within minutes, hundreds of men, women and children were out on roads and pathways searching for the hostages, communicating by radio, cellphone and shouts. Many held lanterns that, as the search continued after nightfall, made the rescue party seem an eerily glowing centipede snaking up and down hillsides.

Soon, the guards had found the hostages. The rebels were holding them in a school, which was quickly surrounded by hundreds of Indians, who, lanterns held high, kept a silent vigil. A guerrilla leader threatened violence and fired his weapon into the air, but no one budged.

After a brief standoff, the unarmed Indians secured the hostages’ release.


The incident in November was a dramatic example of how many of Colombia’s 92 indigenous communities use a common front and an almost Gandhian stance of nonviolence to coexist with, and sometimes prevail over, the rebels, drug traffickers, paramilitary fighters and government soldiers who for decades have battled one another in the country.

“We forbid violence. All we have is the power to convene,” Rodrigo Dagua, leader of the Jambalo tribe, said as he held the so-called staff of command, a ceremonial rod that confers authority on its holder. “It’s what keeps us alive.”

The peaceful approach doesn’t always work for Colombia’s indigenous people, who number about 1.4 million, or 3% of the population.

For the last decade, the Wayuu tribe in northeastern Colombia has suffered killings and extortion at the hands of paramilitary bands who covet the Caribbean coastline bordering their reservation. Indians in Putumayo state’s Sibundoy Valley have been chased off their ancestral lands to make way for coca plantations.

In October, an Indian marcher here in Cauca state in Colombia’s southwest was shot and killed by police as he took part in a protest against the government’s failure to deliver 45,000 acres to local tribes as promised in a 1991 land reform plan. Cauca’s 18 indigenous communities had declared a minga, or collective movement, and had shut down the Panamerican Highway.

Tensions in Cauca rose last month after soldiers killed Edwin Legarda, the husband of minga leader Aida Quilcue of the neighboring Totoro reservation. The military said the shooting at a checkpoint a few miles north of here was an accident. The Indians and some human rights groups contend that it was a criminal attack and an effort to silence Quilcue.

But nonviolence remains the watchword for how the indigenous deal with the outside world, as shown by the foiled kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in November.

The kidnapping victims included four consultants from the state capital, Popayan, who had driven up to this isolated town in Colombia’s central mountain range to assist Jambalo leaders with administrative and bookkeeping matters.

The consultants were returning to Popayan with three locals when half a dozen guerrillas stopped their van and took them all hostage. The kidnappers and their captives began marching east up a rugged mountainside toward an area where FARC leaders are known to hide out.

One of the victims managed to make a cellphone call to Jambalo leaders, who ordered out the indigenous guards, a 360-member phalanx of mostly young leaders whose job is to spread the alarm at times of crisis and to organize a community response.

Guard leader Fermin Jembuel said the kidnappings violated a tacit decades-long agreement with the FARC that the rebels leave Jambalo alone in exchange for the community’s neutrality in the FARC’s quarrel with the government.

“We have 36 villages on the reservation, and all were activated under our emergency plan,” Jembuel said. “Checkpoints were set up on every road and path.”

After the hostages were released, the guerrillas were allowed to flee. All except for one: a member of the Jambalo community who was a FARC collaborator. In a subsequent trial, he was banished from the reservation for 15 years as punishment, said Dagua, the tribe’s leader.

“The level of organization and commitment that the communities have, and how much they resist all external threats to their land, is a clear example of strength,” said Mario Murillo, a Hofstra University professor who is writing a book on Colombia’s indigenous communities.

“But it also points up the challenges they face, surrounded as they are by forces that pose a severe threat.”

It was hardly the first time the Jambalo tribe has had to look down the rifle barrels of armed groups encroaching on its domain. Several years ago, tribe members destroyed five “kitchens” set up by drug traffickers on their land to process cocaine. More recently, they repeatedly have escorted army patrols off their 1,500-acre reservation.

“The army offers to come and deal with the FARC and the traffickers, but we don’t want them involved,” Dagua said, adding that the presence of armed groups would only ignite a cycle of violence. “We’ll take care of our problems our way.”