Cauca: a knot in the war

By Alfredo Molano Bravo
Originally published in El Espectador
July 22, 2012

Reserves were created to mitigate disputes between landlords and indigenous peoples, and also as a way for collecting tribute.

At the time of independence from Spain, the landlords attacked them until they were nearly exterminated. In the 1920s, indigenous leader Quintín Lame launched a struggle for control over ancestral territories, mobilizing indigenous peoples throughout the northern regions of Cauca and Huila and southern Tolima. Their uprisings were put down, but it was in this context that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was born.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the indigenous joined forces with the Colombian National Peasants Association (ANUC): they invaded lost territories, expelled priests, took land from powerful landowners, and buried the terraje, a payment made to the landlords from a portion of their harvest. From these struggles the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) was formed in 1971, and their struggles remain to this day. From the murder of father Álvaro Ulcué Chocué [by assassins linked to the landlords] in 1984, the Quintín Lame Armed Movement (MAQL), an indigenous guerrilla force, fought against the burgeoning right-wing paramilitary groups as well as the impositions of the FARC and the Colombian Army on the Nasa people. The Quintines put down their arms days before the enactment of the 1991 Constitution, which recognized the right of indigenous peoples to control over their territories, their traditional authorities, and culture. The “reserve” was constitutionally defined as “collective private property.” For this reason, the indigenous authorities have considered the very presence of military installations in Nasa territories to be a violation of their constitutional rights. In that same year, Law 21 of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) was ratified, which established, among other things, prior consultation for projects that affect indigenous culture, such as the establishment of military bases in their territories. Towards the end of 1991, the Colombian Police massacred 20 of the 100 indigenous commoners occupying the hacienda at El Nilo, Cauca, an event for which they have never received full reparations from the state and which led to an impulse of further land recuperations by indigenous communities.

The FARC appeared in Cauca in the mid-1960s, carrying out from that moment forward constant and bloody combat with the Colombian Army. The Nasa people have always been situated in the midst of their crossfire. The public forces have occupied municipal buildings, constructing barracks and controlling transportation arteries, all of which are under constant guerrilla attack. Upon being attacked from the air by the Colombian Air Force, the guerrilla have responded by placing landmines on roadways and paths. With the establishment of Army trenches, the guerrilla have perfected their use of ‘tatuco’ mortars. The volleys of bullets have converted northern Cauca into a battlefield, which for the indigenous population constitutes a territorial invasion. This war – they scream – is not ours. This is the crucial point in understanding the current confrontation among the indigenous, the government and the guerrilla. The indigenous base their claims in a special jurisdiction recognized by law, a law that also recognizes the function of the public forces. The guerrilla, on the other hand, ignore all of that.

Successive governments have sought to placate indigenous communities with a perverse, two-pronged strategy: providing money for projects that end up financing the government’s political clients, and repressing protests that denounce atrocities committed by the public forces and the failure of the government to comply with its agreements with indigenous communities. No less perverse is the construction of military positions in the centres of towns to provoke attacks from the guerrilla, such as last year’s car bomb in Toribío that left three dead and 400 homes damaged. The FARC have benefited from the cultivation of coca, have recruited indigenous community members into their ranks, and have also moved into populated areas. The Colombian Army wears its war in Cauca like a badge of honour, but it also treats the region as a military trench from which to launch a defense against political attacks directed at the government by the [ultra-right] opposition of the Puro Centro.

[Colombian President] Santos should give up his tale of the dark hand that bloodies Cauca. Or at the very least, he should understand that the indigenous rebellion provides an opportunity for the indigenous authorities to mediate between the Colombian Army and the guerrilla. Without a doubt, this is the principal objective of the indigenous of Cauca: a proposal to facilitate a way out of the hell we’ve been in for the past 50 years. Things will unravel wherever they unravel: Cauca is a knot in the war.


Translated from Spanish by Pueblos en Camino ( for English, en español)

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