Colombian Government’s Counteroffensive

Vicente Otero was once the elected mayor of the small Colombian town of Caldono in the department of Cauca. He was instrumental in the Nasa indigenous movement’s recent referendum against the Free Trade Agreement, in which record numbers participated and in which the FTA was unanimously rejected. He has long been an important leader in the indigenous movement for autonomy and peace. On the morning of May 19 at 6am, Colombian police and secret agents raided his house. He was not home. The only people home during the read were Otero’s 11-year old son and his mentally ill younger brother. They entered, took his literature on the FTA and his computer and planted a radio, a rocket, and a grenade. They are now claiming that he had an ‘arsenal’ in his home. The idea that Otero had an arsenal in his house is preposterous on every level. A lifelong pacifist, well-known political organizer and leader in the indigenous movement, Otero is well-versed in indigenous methods of solving problems and works intimately with the ‘guardia indigena’, the unarmed ‘indigenous guards’ who ensure security throughout the region with only the prestige symbolized in the batons they carry. Today Otero is in hiding, awaiting guarantees of his security, an apology, and the clearing of his name by those agencies who have planted false evidence in order to implicate him.

Otero would not be the first person from the indigenous communities of Northern Cauca to be framed in this way. Twenty-one others have been detained and taken off to Cali (Colombia’s second largest city), all community members from the town of Jambalo, over the past several days (12 on May 9 and 9 more on May 10). Four days later the Army’s Third Brigade announced that they had already ‘judged’ the community members for their ‘links’ to FARC.

This is an established pattern of government repression in indigenous territory. In January 2004, 8 people from Toribio – mine workers, farmers, craftspeople – were pointed out by someone wearing a ski mask and taken to Popayan (the site of Cauca’s biggest prison) by a group of heavily armed police and military personnel. They were later shown on television with weapons none of them had ever seen before. They army claimed they had captured high-level guerrilla commanders. The community knew better, but the prisoners rotted in jail with no rights to face their accusers, no rights to see the evidence against them, and no rights to a jury trial.

The pattern is escalating. DAS (Colombia’s secret police) officers announced to the press on May 19 that 200 other indigenous people from northern Cauca will be arrested this weekend (May 21-22) for ‘supposed links to FARC’. The idea that the secret police could announce an exact number – one could call it a quota – of Indians it is planning on arresting in advance of the arrest, and have the figure published in the papers, makes an utter mockery of any notion of a justice system in which evidence, charges, or law matters. The language of the article describing the announcement, published in ‘El Tiempo’ on May 19, betrays the racism: ‘Agents from DAS, the Army, and the Attorney-General’s office raided various houses in Caldono looking for Indians and war materials,’ the leading paragraph proclaimed, placing the region’s people and various inanimate objects in the same category.

Added to frame-ups by the government are death threats from paramilitaries. On May 16, Hollman Morris, a television journalist who is well-known in Colombia for his documentaries, received a bouquet of funeral flowers at his office, accompanied by a note announcing his death. Another journalist, Carlos Lozano, received the same death threat that day. Hollman Morris’s most recent work has been on – the indigenous movement in Northern Cauca, the march against the FTA, and the recent military attacks and campaigns taking place there. Prior to his stories on Cauca, Hollman did a special on the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado.

The ‘Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective’ is based in the department of Antioquia, the same department as the community of San Jose de Apartado. Its lawyers document and organize around human rights abuses. About a week ago the president of the collective, Soraya Gutierrez, received a dismembered doll in the mail with a death threat against her family. The lawyer’s collective has been one of the loudest voices bringing to light information about the most recent army/paramilitary massacre against San Jose de Apartado, in which 8 people were brutally murdered on February 21, bringing the total of murders against the people of Apartado to 150 over the past 8 years. Apartado’s members have decided that they want no part of the armed conflict and have a declared stance of ‘active neutrality’ in it. For that, they have been savagely attacked over years. As in Northern Cauca, the military attacks against civilians were accompanied by vicious and slanderous accusations against the very community that had suffered the massacres: President Uribe himself accused the Peace Community of collaborating with guerrillas. As in Northern Cauca, the slanders were followed up with paramilitary action against outside supporters of the community (Hollman Morris in Cauca, and Soraya Gutierrez in Antioquia).

Hollman Morris was threatened for his coverage of the quickly evolving military and political situation in Apartado and also in Northern Cauca. On April 14, 2005, Colombia’s main guerrilla group, the FARC, attacked various towns in Northern Cauca, a department in the South west of the country. The government counterattacked immediately, but the FARC were not dislodged. Militarily, the attack was a demonstration of power. The Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe Velez, had assumed power in 2002 on a platform of eradicating the guerrillas and abandoning peace dialogues or agreements. His principal military policy was called ‘Plan Patriota’, and consisted of a major military offensive in the south of the country. The offensive was barely contested by FARC, and both Uribe and the Colombian military became smug. Then FARC launched a number of spectacular attacks last month, announcing that they had not, in fact, been eliminated, and they could take, and even hold, parts of the national territory, against the Colombian army.

But parallel to the military campaigns and deeper than them is the real Colombian war: the war against the civilian population of the country, its organizations and its leaders. FARC’s offensive in Northern Cauca attacked the very heart of Colombia’s indigenous movement, where indigenous leaders have patiently and courageously built autonomous institutions for their own development and governance over decades, as well as their own mechanisms for peace, conflict resolution, and demilitarization of the zone. One of the leaders of this indigenous project is Vicente Otero. One of the principal effects of the combats in Northern Cauca has been to militarize the region and undermine the indigenous political project. Colombian analysts like Daniel Garcia-Pena, who was active in the peace process in the 1990s, argued that the FARC’s offensive was a military success but, since it showed disregard for the indigenous movement and for the civilian population, it was a political failure. Now the government, having failed in its military counterattack against FARC, is engaging in dirty political war against the country’s social movements.

As his secret police were raiding the houses of political activists and announcing plans to arrest hundreds more, as his army was bundling innocent civilians off to jail without charges, as journalists who covered these abuses were receiving death threats in the mail from paramilitaries, Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez was angrily making a public statement denying that he has any paramilitary links. He was responding to accusations by other politicians (Horacio Serpa and Enrique Penalosa) that he is close to the paramilitaries. He told them they should produce proof if they want to make such accusations. In fact, producing such proof is no real challenge (see, for example, this interview with human rights activist Javier Giraldo from 2004: But if Uribe is arguing that public accusations ought not to be made without proof, lest they cause harm and damage to individuals and communities, he should put this principle into practice. Northern Cauca and San Jose de Apartado would be a good place to start.

Some of the leaders of Northern Cauca’s indigenous movement were on the Pacifica Radio Program Democracy Now! On May 20:

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.