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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.

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Scenes of crying soldiers being dragged from their camp by unarmed peasants caused outrage among many Colombians, who accused President Santos of allowing his Army to be humiliated. He sent in riot police the next day who retook the base armed with guns and tear gas; dozens of Nasa were injured. Later, a 22-year-old indigenous man was shot dead “in error” by a soldier at a nearby checkpoint, adding to their rage.

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Next, the Nasa captured the four FARC collaborators, holding them at an evangelical school that has become a headquarters for their resistance movement. Voting by show of hands during a community trial last Saturday, they handed down their sentence – 30 lashes each with a leather whip; 10 for the teenager.

The prisoners’ evident pain during the flogging divided the crowd. “You have the hearts of dogs,” and “Don't you have sons?" yelled some at those demanding the whippings be completed. The 16-year-old captive fell to the floor in tears after just a few hits, as his family pleaded for mercy. Each lashing was stopped early.

It was a remedy more than a punishment, said the Nasa, the same traditional tribal penalty that a member would receive for rape, domestic violence, or murder. “It’s a spiritual act of correction to bring back harmony to these people and their families,” says national Nasa spokesman Feliciano Valencia.

Infiltrated by the FARC?

The Nasa also hoped the ritual would counter government claims that the tribe has been infiltrated by the FARC – charges they vehemently deny. For Luis, one of 35,000 extra troops drafted into Cauca in recent weeks, the roots of the resistance are clear. “The guerrillas are behind this. The indigenous people are being influenced by them,” he says, speaking unauthorized from a nearby army camp. Some innocent Nasa must be caught in the middle, he acknowledges. “But that’s life in Colombia,” he says.

United Nations representatives arrived this week to oversee talks between Interior Minister Federico Renjifo and indigenous leaders. But locked in a stalemate – the Nasa demanding the government withdraw all troops from Cauca while Santos pledges he will not demilitarize, it’s easy to see why, in the words of the government’s national indigenous rights ombudsman Horacio Guerrero, “public opinion is skeptical that an agreement will be reached.”

But “the law is on the Nasa’s side,” he says. According to Mr. Guerrero, who will mediate during negotiations, both international law and the Colombian Constitution oblige the government to get the consent of indigenous people before establishing military bases on their territories. “The government has to respect those norms,” Guerrero says.

Meanwhile, the Nasa say they expect Saturday’s flogging to spark revenge attacks from the FARC. “Of course we’re scared of them, but we can’t keep living like this,” says Mr. Valencia, the Nasa spokesman. “This is about dignity. A dignified people defending a hope for peace. I tell the guerrillas, the police, the military: What you are doing is killing each other. We’re tired of it and you must leave.”

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