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For Colombia's Nasa Indians, the village lays down the law

Indigenous groups in Colombia have the right to mete out their own justice. The Nasa of southwestern Colombia are often caught in the crossfire between guerrillas, the military, and criminal groups, and a recent case has the community on edge.

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    In this photo taken July 17, 2012, 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. The government rejected the demand alleging the area is a corridor for cocaine smuggling and rebels have infiltrated the Indians' ranks.
    William Fernando Martinez/AP/File
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All it took was a roar from an angry crowd and a show of hands for Carlos Ivan Silva to get a 60-year jail sentence for murder. Minutes later, four of his collaborators were sentenced to 40 years. Two minors, one of them 14 years old, were given 20 lashes in public and sent to juvenile detention.

There was no defense attorney, no chance of a plea bargain, and no mercy from the riled-up crowd in Sunday’s proceedings.

Indigenous groups in Colombia have the right to mete out their own justice. And the Nasa of southwestern Colombia take great pride in their community judicial system — in which the entire village lays down the law.

The crimes of these seven men seemed to rattle a community long-plagued by violence. The men — most in their teens — are accused of being Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas who were handing out leaflets and putting up a banner in a nearby village last Wednesday.

When members of the Nasa indigenous guard — an unarmed and volunteer police force — tried to force them to take down the propaganda, a fight ensued and Silva killed two guard members. Rather than withdraw, however, about 30 indigenous guards and a crowd of villagers, wielding little more than sticks, pursued the guerrillas for three hours before cornering them in the mountains.

This town is often caught in the crossfire between guerrillas, the military, and criminal groups, and eight Nasa members have been murdered this year. But Wednesday’s clash has the community on edge.

Olmedo Ramos, 34, is one of the coordinators of the 900-strong indigenous guard that operates in three nearby communities. After sitting through his second funeral over the weekend, he struggled to stay calm.

“They’re acting like cowards and killing us,” he said of the guerrillas. “We were there as civilians, only with our sticks, which are symbols of the fact that we’re a peaceful people, and they simply opened fire on us.”

That rage seemed to have been channeled during the trial. As the seven men sat in plastic chairs with their hands tied behind their backs, the audience shouted out its judgment.

At one point, community leaders argued that the 40-year sentences for the men who didn’t kill anyone might be too harsh. But the crowd roared its disapproval and quashed the motion.

Gabriel Pavi, the trial’s moderator, said the stiff sentences “surprised” him but that he trusted the masses.

“The sentences were very hard and drastic and serve as an example to other communities,” he said. “But the people are wise, and it’s the community’s responsibility to correct any error that any villager might make.”

For those whose loved ones were on trial, however, the proceedings seemed less than fair.

Marcela Dagua, the sister of one of the men who received a four-decade sentence, said her 18-year-old brother had been a FARC member for less than a year and was not a hardened guerrilla.

“They didn’t let us speak in his defense,” she said as she fought back tears. “He didn’t know what was happening. This is not right.”

Dagua said the national courts would have been more just, but under Colombian law the Nasa ruling will stand.

Edward, one of the guerrilla detainees, was just 16 when he joined the FARC. Now 18, and dressed in jeans and a blue Diesel shirt, he looked like any other teenager. In a jailhouse interview before the trial, he suggested that he joined the guerrillas on an impulse, and that by the time he changed his mind it was too late to leave.

He described Wednesday’s clash as a confusing mix-up.

When the FARC have encountered the indigenous guard in the past, they have been able to avoid violence by talking, he said. This time, his orders were not to let the community take down the banner.

“I don’t know if our superiors gave the orders [to shoot],” he said. “I really don’t know what the objective was.”

The trial comes at a delicate time in Colombia. Even as fighting rages, the FARC and government officials have been meeting in Havana for the past two years trying to work out a peace deal to end the half-century civil conflict.

Edward said there was a lot of speculation about the process among the guerrillas.

“Maybe they can reach an agreement that will end the conflict,” he said. “Maybe [talks] are the solution.”

Those talks may be one of his few hopes. If negotiators agree to a transitional justice system that includes reduced prison sentences for rebels, the seven men would probably see their sentences reduced as well, said Ezequiel Vitonas, the mayor of Toribío and an expert on tribal law.

“If the government reaches an agreement where everyone has to serve eight years, how is indigenous law going to put them away for 40?” he said. “Indigenous law has to adjust itself to the realities of life.”

The law is just part of the Nasa’s unique way of controlling its territory.

In 2001, tired of being in the crossfire, they formed their own community security force. Armed with nothing but bastones de mando — wooden sticks with green and red tassels — they have tried to force all the armed actors, including the military, out of their territory.

But it is clear the efforts aren’t working. Not only are the FARC still a presence, but the town center still teems with heavily armed soldiers.

Even so, many locals believe the unarmed indigenous guard is the best way to bring peace to the area.

“The guard has saved more lives than we’ve ever lost,” said Pavi, the community leader. “It is far more effective than being just another armed group.”

Sunday’s trial could make protecting their land even more dangerous. Along with the sentencing and the public whippings of the minors, the indigenous guard destroyed seven FARC rifles, two handguns, fatigues and other material.

As a guard member sawed the guns in half with a circular saw, thousands cheered.

The guerrillas have retaliated for such actions in the past, locals said.

Ramos, the guard leader, said he had been getting threatening, anonymous phone calls all week.

“They’re saying that we’re responsible for the deaths of our friends because we’re coordinators,” he said. “They also say they’re going to kill us because we confiscated seven of their weapons.”

Ramos said the recent murders have only strengthened the guard. About 600 members who had gone into semi-retirement have become active again.

“We’re not scared of them because there are more of us good guys than bad guys,” he said. “They can’t kill all of us.”

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