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Still battling for survival

Indigenous Colombians caught between factions

NABUSIMAKE, Colombia -- Caught in the crossfire of a conflict not of their making, Colombia's indigenous tribes say they are fighting the greatest threat to their survival since Spanish colonizers reached their shores 500 years ago.

Deadly attacks against Colombian Indians have steadily worsened as their land has become a war zone in the battle between the government and left-wing rebels.

This month alone, a 70-year-old high priest of one tribe and the 50-year-old governor of another and his son were executed in their homes by presumed members of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. A governor of a third tribe and three other indigenous men were kidnapped in the last few weeks.

In a civil war that has raged for decades and claimed at least 60,000 lives since 1985 -- 80 percent of them civilians, according to Amnesty International -- the 800,000 Colombians who trace their ancestry to the days before the Spanish arrived have been among the hardest hit.

The legal owners of 50 million acres from the Andes to the Amazon, they have seen their reservations invaded by drug traffickers, arms smugglers, leftist guerrillas, rightist militias, and most recently, a military pursuing armed groups and destroying illegal crops, bolstered by record amounts of aid from the United States.

As authorities have succeeded over the past two years in pushing leftist guerrillas out of large swaths of Colombia, the rebels have retreated to remote mountain and jungle lands belonging to Indian tribes, bringing the conflict into their communities and forcing many of them to flee.

Last year, at least 100 indigenous Colombians were killed, most by the main right-wing paramilitary group widely believed to have links with the armed forces, according to an August report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Indigenous leaders have tried recently to publicize their plight, with an estimated 50,000 marching in protest in southern Cauca Province in September. The Arhuaco tribe in the north last month invited outsiders to a ceremony to show that tribe members had been coerced into joining the leftist guerrillas and wanted to return home.

The FARC apparently responded this month by assassinating the governor of a reservation in Cauca and a high priest of the tribe that gave refuge to the defectors.

In the ceremony that may have sparked the backlash killing of the Arhuaco priest, six members of the tribe knelt in a clearing here high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a towering mountain range that ends at the Caribbean shore, and begged forgiveness for taking part in Colombia's civil war.

Claudia, 23, said the FARC forced her into combat and threatened her with death if she left. After four years she escaped, hiding for three days in the mountains from guerrillas intent on killing her for desertion, she said.

Tribal priests wearing caps resembling snowy mountain peaks chewed on coca leaves and ruminated. They agreed to take back those who renounced violence and did penance, bathing them in a crystal stream before permitting them to reenter this sacred capital of gumdrop-shaped thatched-roof huts.

But the priests rightly worried that the decision could put the whole tribe at risk from the FARC, as well as from rival militias that might not believe they have given up arms.

''For us it's the same: the army, the paramilitaries, and the guerrillas," said Amado Villafane, a 48-year-old Arhuaco man. ''It's as if the three got together and made a pact to screw the Indians."

Records from the office of Colombia's prosecutor general indicate that about 7 percent of the most serious violence investigated over the past decade was committed against Indians, who make up 2 percent of the population. Few assailants have been charged.

The US government has provided $3.3 billion in military and police equipment and training, as well as social programs, for Colombia since 2000, its largest foreign aid contribution outside the Middle East and Afghanistan. Amid glowing reports of President Alvaro Uribe's success in beating back Marxist rebels and bringing down murder and kidnapping, Congress last month doubled the number of US military trainers permitted in Colombia to 800 and increased the number of American private contractors allowed from 400 to 600.

But as rising violence against indigenous groups underscores, heightened military action has not brought relief to a vulnerable populace.

According to El Espectador, a Colombian newspaper, the draft of a new report by the UN special rapporteur on human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people harshly criticized the Colombian state and ''has not ruled out that what is happening to indigenous peoples in our country is genocide."

Indeed, half of the more than 80 indigenous tribes in Colombia face extinction if forced conscription by guerrillas, targeted assassinations, and food blockades continue, according to the Latin American Association for Human Rights.

''The state has allowed this to take place," said Leonor Zalabata, an Arhuaco human rights leader. ''There is a history of racial discrimination and social exclusion" that has made protecting Indians a low priority, she believes, despite repeated rulings from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights urging the government to take action.

Indians protest that leftist guerrillas steal their food and livestock and sometimes forcibly conscript them or force them to grow coca. Rightist militias extort money, kill anyone suspected of collaborating with Marxists, and sometimes rape and mutilate indigenous women to sow fear, they say. Indian leaders also allege that militias, and sometimes the military, have murdered indigenous people who have nothing to do with the conflict, later dressing their corpses in camouflage -- charges that the paramilitaries and the army strenuously deny. Blockades intended to smoke out guerrillas have cut highland tribes off from food.

Juan Meyer, former director of the Pro Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta foundation, a nongovernmental group that works on social and environmental issues, predicted that as the army battles to eliminate the guerrillas, ''they will end up eliminating the indigenous tribes instead."

Perhaps the worst-hit have been the Kankuamo tribe, neighbors of the Arhuacos whose land is sandwiched between the city of Valledupar, controlled by the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (AUC), and Marxist rebels who have retreated higher into the Sierra Nevada.

According to Jaime Arias, the Kankuamo governor, about 220 members of the tribe have been murdered since 1986--almost half of those since 2002.

Arias's brother Freddy was gunned down three months ago in Valledupar, allegedly by paramilitaries, after publicly detailing paramilitary atrocities against the Kankuamos. Three years ago their father, a tribal priest, was tortured and killed by suspected AUC assassins.

''We have the bad luck to be in a territory that is a strategic corridor," Arias said sadly. Even the government wants their land for a purpose the Indians believe would violate sacred sites: an aqueduct to irrigate lowland plantations and cattle ranches.

Arias and other Indian leaders suspect at least some of the killings may be quietly endorsed by rich landowners with links to paramilitaries who want to silence Indian opposition to the aqueduct and other lucrative projects, such as mineral exploitation on Indian lands.

Some murders are simply inexplicable to the families of victims. A 56-year-old Kankuamo woman whose husband and daughter were killed within four days of each other early last year says the victims were singled out at AUC checkpoints and shot at the side of the road.

The woman, whom tribal authorities asked not be named for fear of retribution, wept as she recalled embracing her 24-year-old daughter and trying to stop the masked gunmen from detaining her. The rest of the car's occupants were ordered to drive on.

''They yelled at us and made us leave," she sobbed. ''They have the arms, so they can do whatever they want."

Lieutenant Colonel Juan Carlos Figueroa, commander of the army's Popa Battalion in Valledupar, bristled at the suggestion that Indians have been victimized more than others. ''We're all victims; that's a fact of being Colombian," he said. ''Soldiers are victims, too."

Figueroa also suggested that Indians have painted a false picture of themselves as innocents. He showed a reporter photographs that he said were retrieved from captured combatants. The presumed guerrillas, he said, had ''indigenous features."

''Many times when an Indian will show up dead, they immediately denounce it as a human rights violation" without admitting the person was a guerrilla, he said. Figueroa vehemently denied reports that the army is allied with rightist militias.

Across town, Berta Maria Velilla, a beleaguered state attorney assigned to defend human rights, said she gets daily reports from rural outposts, including troops demanding food for free or paramilitaries extorting money and killing.

''I sometimes feel so impotent," she said. More often than not, judicial authorities cannot even investigate crimes because of a lack of security, she said.

Seeing no end to a deteriorating situation, the director of ethnic groups for the Interior Ministry recently resigned.

''I do not want to witness the burial of the last Nukak. I do not want to add another Kogui mamo [priest] to this list of those who have been murdered," Jesus Maria Ramirez Cano wrote in his resignation letter, referring to two tribes. He quit ''because I can do nothing to avoid so much misfortune."

Next month, the military plans to post 1,000 additional soldiers from a specialized mountain battalion permanently in the Sierra Nevada to block corridors of access for armed groups, Figueroa said. But for many traditional Indians who believe in nonviolence, more troops are not the solution.

''This war doesn't relate to us, yet we're forced to be mixed up in it," Elizabeth Mestre, 24, an Arhuaco, said sadly. ''If the government hasn't been able to protect their own people, how could they help us?"

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