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Caught in FARC-government crossfire, Colombia's Nasa say 'get out'

The Nasa indigenous community in southwest Colombia is asserting control over its ancestral land, which has become a battleground for government troops and FARC guerrillas.

By Miriam WellsContributor / July 27, 2012

In this photo taken July 17, Nasa Indians surround a soldier guarding communication towers on a hill in Toribio, southern Colombia, before they forcibly dislodged six soldiers from the outpost. Indians have demanded that security forces and leftist rebels stay off their ancestral land.

William Fernando Martinez/AP

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Toribío, Colombia

For the three FARC guerrillas and a young accomplice captured by an indigenous tribe, each punishment option must have seemed as bad as the next. Hundreds of members of Colombia’s native Nasa community gathered at a school last weekend to decide if they should be publicly flogged, hung from their feet, or buried up to their necks for 24 hours.

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The rebels had been captured days earlier by the tribe’s “Guard” – an army that does not carry weapons and counts women, children, and the elderly among its members. Nasa land, situated in the lush mountains of Colombia’s southwestern Cauca department, has in recent decades become a key battleground between government troops and leftist insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Sick of years caught in the crossfire, tribe members say they’ve had enough.

“We are the authority in our ancestral territory,” Jesus Chavez, head of Cauca’s regional indigenous council, told a Nasa assembly last weekend. The tribe has ordered all armed actors to leave the region, embarking on a series of operations targeting both the Army and the FARC to show it means business.

But President Juan Manuel Santos says he will not demilitarize “even one centimeter” in an area that is a historic guerrilla stronghold and major drug-trafficking corridor. The worsening security situation is a major challenge for him both at home, where critics say a soft-line security approach is leaving swaths of rural Colombia out of control, and abroad, as he promotes the image of a transformed, investment-friendly country.

“This is a political defeat for the Santos government,” according to Colombian conflict analyst Jorge Restrepo. Santos has emerged as a major regional player since assuming the presidency in 2010, implementing historic legislation to compensate victims of Colombia’s armed conflict, healing relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, and finalizing a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. But this outbreak of violence, an embarrassing reminder that Colombia’s decades of internal conflict are far from over, “puts in question his ability to win re-election," says to Mr. Restrepo.

Crying soldiers, public lashings

After marching earlier this month to demand autonomous rule, the Nasa climbed to the top of a 7,500-ft. mountain near Toribio – a town that has become an epicenter of FARC operations and military counterstrikes – and drove hundreds of soldiers off a military base, correctly predicting they would not open fire. 

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