On most days Toribio can be described as a sleepy farming town of 4,000. Life revolves around the leafy central square, especially on Saturdays when farmers flock to the market to sell their produce. In recent years the town has been left in relative peace despite conflict raging between guerrillas and the Colombian government in the southern province of Cauca.
That changed on Saturday, July 9.
Like most Saturdays, Sara Munoz was at the bank to deposit money when she heard an explosion outside. She recalls the roof falling down around her, trapping her with her three children. Her father was running their meat stall in the busy market outside and was killed instantly as a gas cylinder from the homemade bomb hit his head. FARC guerrillas, who have waged civil war with the state since the 1950s, had detonated a car bomb outside the police station. While the police station was left intact, 25 homes were destroyed, nearly 500 damaged, and three civilians were killed with hundreds of others injured.
“Many innocent and good people are being caught up in a conflict we have nothing to do with,” Ms. Munoz said from her mother’s home, a week after the blasts.
While urban Colombia has seen a dramatic decline in politically-motivated violence in the past decade, in recent months the government has increased its military presence here in rural Cauca in order to flush FARC rebels out of strategic mountains where they are believed to be hiding key leaders. Countering the offensive, the FARC have increased bombings, attacks, and assassinations with little care for the native population, say the indigenous leaders who also criticize the Colombian military for establishing bases inside their towns. Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris has reported a 10 percent increase in attacks for the first half of this year by the FARC compared to the same period last year.
Fed up with innocent bloodshed, Colombian indigenous communities from Cauca have now called on all military groups to leave their territories and put an end to the violence coming from both sides. The demand was made by indigenous leaders following a meeting on July 20 with over 5,000 natives from neighbouring reserves, to find a solution to surging violence in their territory. They have also requested that the government and FARC begin a peace dialogue to end the conflict.
"We hope both sides understand that our objective is humanitarian in essence. We are calling on our friends to help the government and the FARC understand this," read a statement issued by the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC). "We don't want to give either side a military advantage; what we want is to defend the lives and the autonomy of our communities."
Throughout Cauca, indigenous communities say they have had enough of being caught in the crossfire. Civilians are frequently killed when fighting erupts, child soldiers taken by guerrillas, and indigenous leaders murdered when armed groups see native autonomy as a threat to their control. According to community leaders, the situation is quickly deteriorating as the government military steps up its offensive and the FARC battles to hold on to strategic land.
The government has not responded to the indigenous leaders' calls for demilitarization, maintaining that it is necessary to drive the FARC out of their strongholds. Following the arrest of suspected minors involved in the recent Toribio attack, Colombian military General Jairo Erazo told local media: “We must fight so that minors will no longer be involved in the conflict and deprived of their rights."
While indigenous leaders stood in Toribio square calling for the demilitarization of their territory recently, the Colombian defense minister announced the deployment of 500 special troops in an effort to capture FARC chief Alfonso Cano who is believed to be hiding in the mountains near Tacueyó town, close to Toribio in Cauca. The FARC are reported to have brought in reserves from across the country. The natives who live on the rugged mountains that make up the Tacueyó reserve are terrified over what the military surge means for their communities. “The new high altitude troops are coming without our permission. We know the effects. They will make our territory a scene of war, which will inevitably affect the civilian population,” says José Miller Correa, governor of the indigenous council of Tacueyó.
As the new special 'high mountain battalion' arrive in the Tacueyó reserve, locals brace themselves for an increase in fighting. “I am so scared,” said Liliana Alarco, sitting outside her street stall in downtown Tacueyó. One day last year as her son walked back from school, fighting broke out between guerrillas and the government military. A bomb exploded, sending shrapnel into his stomach. It took him three months to recover and only just now can he walk to school again. “We have no idea what to do now, but my children are so terrified they can't sleep.”