Colombian Indians stand up to violence

Coexist with rebels using nonviolence

''We forbid violence. All we have is the power to convene,'' says Rodrigo Dagua (third from left), leader of the Jambalo tribe. ''We forbid violence. All we have is the power to convene,'' says Rodrigo Dagua (third from left), leader of the Jambalo tribe. (Chris Kraul/Los Angeles Times)
By Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times / January 18, 2009
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JAMBALO, Colombia - 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 shot 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 percent of the population. For the past decade, the Wayuu tribe in northeastern Colombia has suffered murder 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 in December 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 insist 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 rebel group 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.

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 it is to spread the alarm at times of crisis and to organize a community response.

Indigenous 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 Colombian 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 allowed to flee. All except for one, a member of the Jambalo community who was a FARC collaborator.

"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."

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