Indigenous people in Colombia (I): Between the massacres, displacement and drug trafficking

The Citizen
8 min readSep 25, 2020

The main clamor of the communities affected by this escalation of crime is respect for their ancestral rights and the attention and protection from their government

Violence against indigenous communities in Latin America has intensified in 2020. To a large extent, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a determining factor in the rate increase of this phenomenon.

The restrictions that the governments ordered to stop the spread of the coronavirus have provided criminal organizations a sort of ‘free pass’ to control indigenous territories and silence their leaders.

At first, the risk of death remains latent and close by because of the obligation of confinement. In the case of the indigenous population, the chances of death are greater, since not only is there the need to reduce mobility to avoid contagion; but also because other threats also appear: selective assassinations and massacres.

A work published by Mongabay Latam gathers several testimonies from indigenous leaders and specialists in human rights cases. They all address the violation of indigenous peoples perpetrated in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru.

The general coordinator of the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (Coica), Gregorio Mirabal, considers that the coronavirus is the greatest catastrophe for the original peoples of the Amazon in the last 100 years.

However, Mirabal points out that today, indigenous peoples live, in the midst of the pandemic, others that are equally serious: extractivism, forest fires, pollution and the persecution generated by the murders that take place in the invasions of their lands.

“You do not need a scientific study to know that this is a process of extermination for different causes”, he stresses.

Colombia and Mexico top the list of countries with the highest murder rates against environmental defenders, according to the latest 2019 Global Witness report. This NGO indicates that 40% of the victims reported in the world during that year — 212 in total — belonged to indigenous peoples.

Killings of indigenous people at record levels

Violence worsens during the pandemic in several of the countries that are among the most affected in the region. The main clamor of the communities affected by this escalation of crime is respect for their ancestral rights and the attention and protection from their governments.

On August 19, Miguel Caicedo, governor of the Pialapí Pueblo Viejo reservation, in Nariño, Colombia, confirmed the murder of three indigenous people of the Awá ethnic group in the remote community of Aguacate.

It took the governor a day to travel the rough and rugged road to reach that town, the most distant of the 10 in the reservation. The corpses of the three indigenous people showed that the crime had been perpetrated at least 10 days ago. That is to say, almost around the same date that the leader of this ethnic group, Francisco Cortés, was attacked with bullets in the La Vaquería sector.

In the midst of the pandemic, the Awá people have also mourned the murders of the leader of Aguacate, Ángel Nastacuas; the former governor of the Ñambi Piedra Verde reservation, Fabio Guanga; and the alternate governor of the Piguambí Palangala reservation, Rodrigo Salazar.

Some Awá leaders have had to flee to avoid being gunned down. Meanwhile, others remain threatened in their homes without the possibility of mobilizing due to the restrictions caused by the pandemic.

The causes of this violence against the Awá converge mainly in the disputes for the control of the territory. This situation skyrocketed in Colombia during the quarantine months. “They are brutally killing them”, said Diana Sánchez, director of the Minga Association and coordinator of the Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders) program.

Nariño: capital of coca, arms trafficking and illegal mining

The department of Nariño, to which this indigenous people belong to, is on the Colombian border with Ecuador. It is one of the sectors with the largest extension of coca cultivation, some 36,964 hectares, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Due to its location, Nariño has become an important drug trafficking corridor and a strategic area for the export of cocaine to the United States, for arms trafficking and the legal and illegal exploitation of mining.

There, different paramilitary groups converge at the service of the economic interests of the Colombian drug trafficking cartels. There is also the Colombian Public Force, as well as the Awá indigenous organization that tries to exercise its autonomy and defend its territory.

The report explains that what happens in Nariño is the reality on a small scale of what happens in other indigenous communities in Colombia, especially of the peoples settled in the border areas.

This is the case of the Embera, in Chocó; or of the Wayúu, in La Guajira; in addition to the Awá, in Nariño. Diana Sánchez explains that the territories called agricultural frontier areas are epicenters of armed conflict, due to the incessant extractive activity of wood, minerals, coal and oil, even in times of the pandemic.

Drug trafficking, says the representative of Somos Defensores, has turned them into enclaves for cocaine production laboratories and into transit zones for drug supplies.

Indigenous people are seen as a hindrance

The also director of the Minga Association maintains that companies are very uncomfortable with the consultation process that they must carry out to intervene in indigenous territories.

“Indigenous people are seen as a hindrance to both legal and illegal economies. The State does not give them the guarantees as ancestral peoples protected by the Constitution”, she says.

In recent months, serious sanitary neglect has forced many communities to form their indigenous guards. The objective of these groups is the daily control of the entrances and exits to their territories.

The intention was to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But, the mobility restriction put indigenous people in the ‘crosshairs’ of armed groups that have not stopped operating during the quarantine. Some of the deaths in Nariño had this background, also in Cauca and Chocó.

The mandatory quarantine mandate that swept through the pandemic has been another lethal factor for indigenous people. Leonardo González, coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory of the NGO Indepaz, told Mongabay Latam that they cannot move from their homes. Community leaders are threatened and exposed to armed groups who can find them at any time.

This happened to the Awá Indians, Fabio Guanga and Sonia Bisbicus, who were murdered on July 28 in the Ñambí Piedra Verde reservation. Also to the Emberá inhabitants Omar and Ernesto Guasiruma Nacabera, in Chocó, a department on the border with Panama and the Caribbean Sea.

Massacres and COVID-19: Serious threats to indigenous people

In Colombia, legal and illegal extractive industries, drug trafficking and armed groups have not stopped their operations during the pandemic.

On the other hand, the indigenous people, along with the daily challenge of surviving in their territories, must assume the impossibility of protesting or meeting to make their problems visible.

In addition, the judicial processes of some indigenous people who claim to be criminalized, or who are even imprisoned, remain frozen. However, the escalation of violence is overwhelming and seems to go hand in hand with contagion.

Until the first week of September, Indepaz counted 10,062 cases of coronavirus in 70 of the 120 indigenous peoples in Colombia. Almost 8,600 indigenous people had overcome the disease and 339 had died.

Indepaz also reports that 74 indigenous people, who were social leaders or human rights defenders, have been murdered so far this year.

Leonardo González explained that at least 45 of these crimes were perpetrated during the pandemic. The NGO records more than 60 massacres in the course of 2020, several of them against indigenous populations.

Regarding this, Gregorio Mirabal recalls that of the 98 indigenous leaders murdered in the Amazon during 2019. According to the latest Global Witness report, 64 were Colombians.

Mirabal projects that the results for the indigenous people of the Amazon basin in 2020 will be much more devastating. “They are murdering our people and displacing them from their territories so as to impose mining and oil activities”, he denounced.

Forced displacement

According to the former president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), Armando Valvuena, displacement, a product of land dispossession, historically harms indigenous people, ‘mestizos’ (‘half blood’ in English) and Afro-descendants on Colombian soil.

It details that more than six million people have been displaced from their territories in Colombia. This phenomenon, it seems, is gaining new momentum in the context of COVID-19, with the increase in threats and murders in native peoples communities.

“Then the State goes to those places where it has never been, takes possession in the worst way, and the processes of mining and hydrocarbon exploitation come”, Valvuena emphasizes.

Diana Sánchez adds that “due to the massacres, people have had to leave their communities again”.

Ben Leather, campaign manager for Global Witness, points out that the community members who fled, now cannot retake their lands. It turns out that on their return, they found extractive companies and armed groups controlling them.

Displacement — Leather adds — will always mean that the work of an advocate for his community is more complicated, and that is what this spiral of crime points to.

The next part of this report will address the situation related to fears, dispossession and criminalization suffered by the indigenous communities of Mexico, Peru, Honduras and Guatemala.



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