Colombia: The Early Signs of a Violent Peace

First published at Telesur English

In my last column, I described the Colombian peace process between the government and FARC. I discussed possible spoilers of the peace agreement, especially the role of the paramilitary-linked former Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe Velez. I also discussed the many things that the peace process will not solve, including some of the most gruesome violence occurring in Buenaventura, committed by the ‘demobilized’ paramilitaries.

Since then, we have seen some of the peace process’s first murders of indigenous people, this time by the FARC. What happened is summarized in an open letter published by Pueblos en Camino. As the peace negotiations enter their final phase, the FARC faced its victims in Havana and acknowledged wrongs it has committed. On October 30, they made what WOLA called their “clearest recognition that it (FARC) owes something to its victims.”

On the ground, in the indigenous territories of the Nasa of northern Cauca (for historical background on the Nasa see my photo essay), the FARC embarked on a campaign of armed propaganda about the peace process, commemorating fighters that were assassinated by the government. One of those, killed in 2011, was Alfonso Cano. A billboard set up by FARC with Cano’s picture, reads, “We will not relent for one instant in the struggle for a political solution to the conflict, for our principles, for the certainties that motivate us, because we are revolutionaries, because we love peace. – Sixth Front, Western Bloc, Commander Alfonso Cano.” While the FARC considers northern Cauca to be its territory, and recruits Nasa people to its ranks, the Nasa have struggled at great cost for autonomy in their territory. Over the decades, the Nasa have liberated much of their territory from the speculators and large landowners who had stolen it from them, established their own municipal governments, and administered their own traditional justice system, at communal assemblies. In order to resist armed attacks, usually by the state and paramilitaries but too often also by the FARC, the Nasa have a traditional ‘indigenous guard’, a standing organization of people who carry nothing but traditional sticks as a symbol of their authority, who have played a major role in maintaining the indigenous people in their territory, resisting all of the forces that have sought to displace them.

Two of these indigenous guards, Manuel Antonio Tumina (42), and Daniel Coicue (63), began to take down some of the FARC’s propaganda, in accordance with the community’s autonomy: the decision to put up or take down propaganda materials in indigenous territory, is a political decision and belongs to the Nasa. They took down the Cano billboard. The FARC killed them in response.

Two days later, a communique appeared, signed by FARC (the FARC denies that it’s theirs) filled with further threats against a large number of indigenous people, claiming that according to their “intelligence”, “the indigenous movement in Cauca is betrayed by some of its leaders who have left the sentiments of their humble communities to work with the government”. FARC declares this long list of 26 indigenous leaders “military targets” in the ugly memo, to which the indigenous organization has responded here.

The day after the memo, on November 8, another member of the indigenous guard, 26 year old Jose Libardo Pacho, was also killed – whether the FARC killed him too is still unknown.

The FARC’s official response was not much better than the threats they disavowed, claiming that the indigenous guards (who were unarmed except for their sticks) were killed when they attempted to disarm a group of “indigenous militants”. The FARC’s official statement thus attempts to cast this as a dispute between two groups of indigenous people that got out of hand. The problem with this is that the “dispute” was between unarmed indigenous guards and armed people who, presumably, were acting on orders. This makes the FARC command responsible for the deaths. At a time when justice for victims is being discussed at the negotiating table, at a time when FARC claims to be facing its victims and taking responsibility, it is creating new victims and engaging in deception to avoid responsibility.

The FARC wants to claim these territories as its own because it has been operating in them. But the defense of the land in these territories has been done by indigenous people’s autonomous resistance – the FARC’s threats, and now killings, can be interpreted as trying to benefit from the indigenous struggle, trying to take, in a peace deal with the government, something that the indigenous people have struggled for.

The Nasa organized a search and apprehended the killers, trying them in assembly and sentencing them according to their traditional system (see Al Jazeera’s story). Those who were tried and punished for the crimes were, as the FARC had claimed, indigenous people too. But what about the organization that gave them the orders? What about the FARC’s standing threats to community members?

Two years ago, when the peace talks were starting to gain momentum, president Santos said, “We are not negotiating the state. We are not negotiating the development model. We are not negotiating public policies.” (president’s site, via colombiapeace.org). Santos was reassuring his base that this was not “peace at any cost”, and that there were “red lines”.

Throughout the decades of the war, the FARC and the government told the indigenous that their autonomy and territory would need to be sacrificed for the needs of war. Now, it seems they are being sacrificed for the needs of a “peace process” in which two armies treat their territories as prizes and their lives as a matter of indifference.

A peace process should be a chance for these armed actors to behave differently. The statements from Havana sound nice, but they are little comfort, accompanied as they are by threats, lies, and murder on the ground.

Author: Justin Podur

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.