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Colombia: The Awá Indigenous Community Caught in the Middle

While most Colombians were following the release of 6 hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during the first week of February in the Tortugaña Telembí indigenous reservation, which is located in a jungle area between Barbacoas and Samaniego (Nariño department, southwestern Colombia), several members of the Awá indigenous group went missing. According to the indigenous reports, the FARC and ELN guerrillas were fighting against the Colombian Army in this region, with the Awá people caught in the middle.


Photo of displaced Awá people in Nariño department taken by G. Valdivieso of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and used with permission.

On February 9, indigenous organizations and Nariño governor Antonio Navarro, a former M-19 guerrilla fighter himself, denounced the murder of 17 Awá people. Over the course of the next few days, the killing of another 10 people, who were fleeing the first attacks, were reported leaving the death toll at 27, with dozens more abducted. At time of publication, no corpses have been found [es], even after the army was sent to the remote area where the massacre is said to have occurred, in order to find the bodies. The FARC have been blamed for the massacre by the indigenous themselves and, of course, the authorities. Many believe that the FARC suspected the Awá tribes were acting as Army informants. President Álvaro Uribe announced [es] he will be visiting the area next weekend.

Adam Isacson of Plan Colombia and Beyond expresses his contempt for the killings:

We condemn the FARC guerrillas, in the strongest terms, for massacring as many as eighteen members of the Awá indigenous community in a remote zone in the department of Nariño, in southwestern Colombia. If the group’s leadership had sought to generate goodwill with last week’s unilateral hostage releases, reports of the Nariño killings has undone that entire effort.

At Colombia Reports, Dutch correspondent Wies Ubags is also outraged:

I don't understand this latest cruelty of the FARC. They are trying to enter into new negotiations to exchange the policemen and soldiers in the jungle for guerrillas in prison. The members of civil society who are doing the effort with them – Colombians for Peace – are risking a lot, although they already reached the liberation of six hostages. (…) In this delicate situation the FARC commit a horrendous crime in the Awá community, that lives in one of the most violent regions of the country, and that has already lost a lot of lives, also because of the huge amount of landmines in the area. Are the Awá no people, People's Army of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia? It is a cruel and stupid crime.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos claimed the indigenous peoples were not “collaborating” with the authorities. Commenting on the Digg-like Gacetilla [es] social news website, Gonzalo writes:

Precisamente por colaborar fue que los mataron. Porque eso sí para pedir información siempre están, pero para ofrecer seguridad…

Precisely, they (the Awá) were killed for cooperating. Because they (the authorities) are always there when it comes to asking for information, but when it comes to providing safety…

In a long text, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) also denounces the Defense Minister's attitude [es]:

Ahora resulta que es culpa de las víctimas de esta masacre, del desplazamiento masivo, de las personas desaparecidas, de las comunidades confinadas en medio del terror lo que les está sucediendo. Culpa de ellas, dice el Ministro, porque no han querido colaborar con la Fuerza Pública. Pretende convencernos de que, si la Fuerza Pública hubiera estado en la zona, estos hechos no se habrían presentado. En consecuencia, llega la hora de militarizar el territorio por completo, con el argumento de proteger a los Awá. Los propios indígenas angustiados y corriendo por las selvas y algunos de sus líderes, no ven más opción que la de pedir ayuda a la fuerza pública. Los medios de comunicación y los voceros del Gobierno y de la coalición de partidos que lo respaldan, le hacen eco a este llamado. Colombianos y colombianas aterrados ante el horror de este genocidio en curso, reclaman lo mismo.

Now it turns out that it is the victims’ fault about what it is happening to them, they are to be blamed for this massacre, for the massive displacement, for the disappeared people, for the communities trapped in the middle of the terror. Their fault, the Minister says, because they have not been willing to cooperate with the State security forces. He's trying to convince us that, if the [police and the army forces] had been in the area, this would not had happened. Therefore, it's time to militarize the territory completely, on the grounds that it is for protecting the Awá people. The distressed indigenous themselves, running through the jungles, with some of their leaders, see no other choice than to ask the security forces for help. Mass media and the government and ruling coalition spokespeople echo this call. Colombians are terrified before the horror of this ongoing genocide and are demanding the same thing.

The ACIN text goes on trying to explain why the Awá people are being killed. Besides claiming the Colombian security forces “have been and are a terror factor,” all sides in the Colombian armed conflict exert violence against the Awá along with greed and economic reasons (namely, agricultural, mining, and tourism projects) are helping to fuel the violence against these peoples.

Last October, a series of indigenous demonstrations and marches throughout the country were held, amidst a huge media blackout, with at least one of their websites temporarily blocked [es]. The blackout seems to be happening again. No le creemos a RCN [es] writes:

[H]oy en día alguien le está haciendo el juego a las FARC; pues mientras ellos atacan a las comunidades indígenas Tangarial y Awá, alguien presiona a los encargados de los medios de comunicación de la ACIN, robándoles un computador desde donde actualizaban su página, y amenazando al encargado de actualizarla. Lo grave es que el mismo gobierno, la Sip y los demás medios de comunicación son cómplices (como mínimo), pues los primeros no adelantan ninguna investigación al respecto, y los restantes no se dan por enterados (excepto “Semana”).

Right now, someone is helping FARC, because, as they attack Tangarial and Awá indigenous communities, someone is pressuring the people in charge of the ACIN media, by stealing the computer used to update their website, and threatening the webmaster. The serious thing is that the government, the IAPA, and the other mass media are accomplices (at least), because the former does not start any investigation on the issue, and the latter is not aware of what is happening (except Semana magazine)

At the time of the indigenous protests, President Uribe, already facing strikes by the judiciary branch and sugar-cane cutters, and another top government officials stated the demonstrations were “infiltrated”[es] by the guerrillas, despite evidence to the contrary. Now, the government has not made a single mention nor rectified their old accusations against the indigenous peoples. So far, it has only announced [es] the nomination of an army official who will act as a liaison between the authorities and the Awá people.

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