Colombia resorts to historical war strategy: civil resistance

President Uribe called a state of near emergency Monday following a week of rebel violence that left 115 dead.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After guerrillas demanded in early June that all of this country's mayors leave town, more than 200 municipal executives quit in fear.

Not Segundo Tombé. He says he is not afraid of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest guerrilla group, which, as part of a continuing assault on Colombia's government and society, threatened mayors with retribution if they did not resign. Many towns are now without an administration.

Mr. Tombé, a Guambiano Indian who presides over Silvia, a mostly indigenous town on the outskirts of the provincial capital Popayan, says he owes his secure feeling to the indigenous tradition of civil resistance that goes back hundreds of years to the Spanish conquest of South America. The concept is gaining popularity at an increasingly desperate time when many here view the government as incapable of providing adequate security.

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Several recent standoffs between indigenous towns and rebel guerrillas have led some of Colombia's elite to embrace civil resistance as a way to end the nation's 38-year civil war. Even newly-elected President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who promised a hard-line approach toward rebel groups, is counting on civilians to take a more active role in ending the violence that has only escalated since his inauguration last Wednesday.

Early Monday, Mr. Uribe declared a state of near emergency, granting his government special measures after a week of violence left 115 dead. Immediate measures include a call for 10,000 new police officers and 6,000 soldiers, as well as plans to create a web of 1 million civilian informants, who may even be armed. The cost for these measures is estimated to be $780 million, which will paid for by a tax increase.

Human rights groups, however, say that involving civilians directly in the war will make them targets. They argue that Colombia's police and Army don't have the resources to protect civilian informants, who could be exposed to retribution.

But Mayor Tombé has seen the benefits of involving civilians in the protracted conflict. "[The FARC] have done nothing with me," he says from a makeshift office he uses part of the week in Popayan, one of the "prudent" security measures he has adopted since the FARC's edict. "I have a lot of backing from the community."

Wearing the traditional black bowler hat and bright purple skirt of his tribe, Tombé declares: "If they do anything with me, they're going to have a lot of difficulties with the community. There will be an indigenous uprising."

That is exactly what happened last month in the nearby towns of Totoró and Toribío, in the southwestern province of Cauca. The largely indigenous communities marched in the streets to defend their elected officials when the FARC arrived.

The left-wing guerrilla group retaliated by launching a 72-hour siege of both towns, gravely wounding many civilians. In Toribío, they held 14 policemen hostage, threatening to burn them alive. But the townspeople, helped by the local priest, implored the FARC to respect the lives of the policemen, and they were ultimately let go. The local FARC commander told a television station that they did not kill the officers because they acted like "true men."

Following these standoffs, which were abetted by a late-arriving Army force, the idea of civil resistance began gaining currency. The catchphrase is used almost daily in the country's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, which has implored civilians to become more involved. Civilian informers have already foiled a kidnapping in Valledupar in the province of Cesar.

But leaders of the indigenous community scoff at the idea that civil resistance is a new phenomenon.

"In order to interpret the civil resistance movement, we have to return to the past," says Colombia's first indigenous governor, Taita Floro Tunubalá of Cauca.

Mr. Tunubalá says the indigenous community is accustomed to fighting for its rights to land and political power, beginning with resistance to the Spanish conquistadors 500 years ago, and up through the guerrilla attacks today.

"In the indigenous communities, it is something normal. But it has cost us many lives," Tunubalá says.

Fabricio Cabrera, the head of the anthropology department at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, says that civil resistance is also on the rise in nonindigenous communities.

Mr. Cabrera points to communities in the northern Magdalena province that have refused armed help of any sort for some eight to 10 years. But over time, some communities have turned violent themselves, evolving into the right-wing paramilitaries that are part of Colombia's cycle of violence. And while the civil resistance movement has so far not been armed, some observers fear that arming civilians will only lead to an increase in violence. Cabrera also says that towns that resist can be targeted for retaliation.

Ricardo Gembuel, an adviser to Cauca's Regional Indigenous Counsel, which represents 200,000 people and seven ethnic groups, says the indigenous community derives its power from the land and will not abandon it.

"We have said that we don't want to be included in the armed conflict, but it has touched us because the land that we have is very strategic for the guerrilla and for the economy and for everything," Mr. Gembuel says. "We have said that we are going to defend the lives of the people."

Gembuel explains that the indigenous community in Cauca has formed a type of civil guard, armed with radios instead of guns, to warn its people of incursions by the FARC or the paramilitaries.

Indigenous leaders insist that they are not taking sides in the three-way war between the FARC, the paramilitaries, and the state. But Tunubalá has harsh words for the FARC.

"In the case of Toribío, what the FARC did was absurd," the governor says. "It really is a declaration of war against a civilian population that is in the process of reconstructing itself. Therefore, one asks the question: 'What does the FARC want? What is their political agenda?' At this moment, the [FARC] has lost its values, its principles."

Tunubalá doesn't have high hopes for help from the new administration, despite recent pledges.

"The problem is the state doesn't have the logistical capacity to have forces in all of the municipalities," Tunubalá says, pointing to 14 municipalities in Cauca alone that have never seen the police or the Army.

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