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Indigenous Community in Colombia Fears Start of “Dirty War”

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A large indigenous community in Colombia is predicting that a so-called dirty war could break out in an area that has been at the forefront of non-violent resistance to the government of the pro-US regime of President Uribe. We speak with the former mayor of Toribio and a surgeon and human rights activist from Toribio. [includes rush transcript]

The political situation in numerous countries in Latin America has been heating up in recent weeks. Many predict that a large-scale revolt could take hold in the poorest nation on the continent, Bolivia, and bring down the government of the US-backed president Carlos Mesa. At the center of that struggle is the issue of control of the country’s natural resources. Bolivia is more than 60 percent indigenous and the resistance to the government is fiercely opposed to privatization and neoliberal policies and trade agreements.

Meanwhile, a large indigenous community in Colombia is predicting that a so-called dirty war could break out in an area that has been at the forefront of non-violent resistance to the government of the pro-US regime of President Uribe. Currently, Colombia receives more military aid from the US than any other country in the hemisphere under the guise of fighting a so-called war on drugs.

The community is called Cauca and it represents one of the largest indigenous agrarian reform movements on the continent. Its leaders say their community serves as a powerful example of popular peaceful transformation in the midst of war. Last September, tens of thousands of people from the region marched on Cali in a mass protest against Uribe, sparking a broader national nonviolent opposition to his government. They are opposed to devastating free trade agreements with the US, as well as the massive military aid. They are also opposed to the FARC, who they call authoritarian.

The Cauca region is a key area near the Atlantic Ocean and has gold, oil and gas. This April, the FARC came into the Cauca community of Toribio and killed a child, injured 20 people and basically razed the community to the ground. That in turn provided cover for the government to send in its forces to “secure” the area; in other words occupy it. Now, the leaders of Toribio say they fear a dirty war is beginning that could produce further massacres. Some of the leaders of the community have traveled to the United States to try and avert what they fear could be a major outbreak of violence.

  • Ezequiel Vitonas, former mayor of Toribio, Colombia. He is currently an Elder Councellor of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca.
  • Manuel Rozental, a surgeon and human rights activist from Toribio, Colombia who represents the community and its struggles internationally.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our studio now by Ezequiel Vitonas, the former mayor of Toribio in Colombia. He’s currently an Elder Councilor of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca. We’re also joined by Manuel Rozental, he’s a surgeon and a human rights activist from Toribio and represents the community in its struggles internationally. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

MANUEL ROZENTAL: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Manuel, let’s begin with you. The situation right now.

MANUEL ROZENTAL: The situation now is that the whole territory is occupied by the armed forces, the government as well as — and the continuous fighting between them and the F.A.R.C. This is in the midst of the ancestral lands of the Nasa people which are the people of Cauca. And this dirty war is being shown as having only two sides in conflict, and the people of the communities, which have become an inspiration for a peaceful social change in the country, as you said, are being disappeared and invisiblized through this whole process. And the images that you showed earlier of Colombia of a journalist showing pictures of the country, he was threatened yesterday, and it’s an example. He received a bundle of flowers and a card which said, “These are for your funeral.” So, these are the things that are going on right there.

AMY GOODMAN: A journalist there?

MANUEL ROZENTAL: The journalist there, who actually recorded the whole story of the situation in the attack, received these death threat because he recorded this testimony.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Ezequiel Vitonas, the former mayor of Toribio, how you decided, or why you decided to organize, and how you did it, to confront all of these threats to your community.

EZEQUIEL VITONAS: [interpreted by Manuel Rozental] Our struggle is based on developing mechanisms for self-determination and autonomy, and that’s the origin of the process. We have developed peaceful struggle mechanisms, and that’s how we develop our struggle. And we’re guarded by civilian guards who only carry a symbol of authority. The symbol is a stick, or a cane, which shows that they are protecting the territory, and that’s what we guard the territory with. And we have developed what we call a life plan, as opposed to the armed project, mostly from the government and the insurgency, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: What does U.S. military aid mean to your community when it goes to the Colombian military?

EZEQUIEL VITONAS: [interpreted by Manuel Rozental] It means persecution, because the army’s there to protect the wealthy, and keep the poor poor. Right now, as we speak here, there are massive detentions of people without any kind of proof or warrant against them in the community.

MANUEL ROZENTAL: 200 people, I should add, will be captured this weekend, and this was pre-announced by the head of secret police.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean 200 people will be—

MANUEL ROZENTAL: Will be, two days ago, on a radio station, one of the major police authorities announced that 200 people in the area will be captured, and he says because of alleged links to terrorists, which is F.A.R.C. The government calls F.A.R.C. 'terrorist organization.' And as F.A.R.C. attacked the community, the governor of the state of Cauca went into the community and told the victims that they were collaborators of those who were attacking them, therefore, they would have to be cleaned out. And this is what’s going on there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What has been the impact on the native populations of Colombia, of the ongoing war between the paramilitaries, the guerillas and the government?

EZEQUIEL VITONAS: [interpreted by Manuel Rozental] So, the first impact is the paramilitaries is actually killing, disappearing people, mostly when they go out to cities, they don’t come back. We don’t see them again. There have been recurrent massacres, and we have demonstrated the participation of army officers, high government officials, paramilitaries, and landowners. Because we defend self-determination, F.A.R.C. is suspicious of us, as well, and accuses us being collaborators, and they have killed many of our leaders, too.

AMY GOODMAN: How does oil, gas, gold fit into this picture? Manuel, let me put that question to you.

MANUEL ROZENTAL: Yes, sure, the natural resources of the country are what’s at stake, and not only in Cauca but elsewhere. The area’s rich in water, in oil, in gas, mining resources such as gold, and geo-strategically it’s very important. It gives access from the Amazon jungle to the Pacific Ocean. So, right now, the whole country of Colombia is being turned, transformed into a multinational territory, through something called ”Plan Patriota,” Patriot Plan, which is commanded, led, designed by the U.S., and they don’t say any longer that it’s against — it’s a 'war on drugs.' In fact it was a covert operation that came out recently. So, in fact, the whole purpose of this war is to access and control resources and territories. And the communities in Cauca, the Nasa, have become a major block to this project, because they have developed an alternative form of government, autonomous government, negotiated solution to the process and they have actually challenged President Uribe and the U.S.-backed government with peaceful demonstrations with 90,000 people last year in the streets.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What are some of the American companies that are already there trying to exploit these resources?

MANUEL ROZENTAL: Well, there are — one of the main difficulties there is that all of these things are covered up. One company appears as being Colombian, in fact they are U.S. interests, or a Brazilian company. But you have Harken Oil, for example, the U.S. oil company. You have almost every one of the large multinational oil companies in Colombia, as well; mining companies, with all of those networks between South Africa, Canada, the U.S.; and wherever there is a resource like gold in southern Bolivar, another state in the country, people rise up, protest to protect their resources and territory. They are massacred, the land is free, and then the multinational comes in. That’s the pattern in Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Ezequiel Vitonas, will your community survive?

EZEQUIEL VITONAS: [interpreted by Manuel Rozental] That’s precisely why we’re here. If we become visible, we will survive. And we have come here precisely so that people know that these communities and these efforts exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being here. I know you’re spending time at the United Nations, talking about the rights of indigenous people, particularly your community in Toribio. The former mayor of Toribio, Ezequiel Vitonas, and Manuel Rozental, a surgeon and human rights activist from Colombia. Thank you very much for joining us.


EZEQUIEL VITONAS: Muchas gracias.

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