Caught amid conflict and police aggression, Colombia's Cauca is in crisis
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Caught amid conflict and police aggression, Colombia's Cauca is in crisis

All eyes turned to Colombia’s southwestern province of Cauca in the wake of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attack that left 11 soldiers dead on April 15. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos accused the FARC of violating its unilateral ceasefire and promptly re-ordered aerial bombings and military offensives on FARC camps, while the FARC maintained that the attack was an act of legitimate self-defense.

Human rights organizations immediately called for a bilateral ceasefire to reduce violence and protect the integrity of the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, which concluded their 35th cycle last Monday.

However, mainstream media coverage has largely neglected the violence in Cauca that long precedes these most recent attacks. It is the result not only of confrontations between the Colombian military and the FARC’s 6th Front—considered one of the most militant factions and a key player in the marijuana trade—but also neoparamilitary groups, drug traffickers and multinational corporations who seek to implement mining, dams and other large development projects in one of Colombia’s most fertile, biodiverse and culturally diverse regions.

“Cauca has been hit especially hard by violence, sometimes by the FARC, other times the paramilitaries, and still other times by our own government, and no one has noticed because those who end up paying the price for the ‘broken plates,’ as we say, are Afro-Colombian, indigenous and campesino communities,” wrote Afro-Colombian leader Francia Marquez, who was displaced from her hometown of La Toma after receiving threats for denouncing the impacts of illegal mining on black communities as part of her work with the Northern Cauca Afro-descendant Women’s March.

Militarization of Colombia’s countryside through programs like Plan Colombia, a $9 billion counternarcotics and counterinsurgency assistance package, has exacerbated the conflict. While these programs may have militarily weakened the FARC, Cauca residents say they do not represent security for their communities.

“Many of the conflicts in Northern Cauca were started and have persisted because the Colombian state does not guarantee the respect for Black and Indigenous collective rights to autonomy and self-determination,” wrote 20 national and international human rights organizations in response to President Santos’s announcement of renewed military operations in Cauca. “For more than twenty years, the government has exacerbated the conflict by systematically ignoring agreements and laws that would support peace and justice.”

A crackdown in Colombia’s “Cradle of Social Movements”

One recent example includes the return of indigenous communities to reclaim their ancestral territories in northern Cauca—called a Liberation of Mother Earth—that the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) have coordinated since October 2014.

“Mining, the agrobusiness and sugarcane biofuel industry, the armed conflict and illicit crops are killing Mother Earth,” wrote the ACIN in a statement published after a public audience held in Caloto, Cauca on April 22. “She can’t take any more; nor can our children, who we defend and protect. The absence of agrarian policy in this country, the high concentration of land [in few hands] in Colombia, the lack of land for indigenous peoples…Afro-desccendants and campesinos are reasons enough for us to demand the return of our ancestral territories and liberate them from the kidnapping and exploitation to which we are subjected.”

Members of the ACIN have reoccupied abandoned fields near several municipalities and begun to plant crops on the land. The ACIN says the land should have been returned to them as part of reparations for the El Nilo paramilitary massacre of 21 indigenous Nasa people in 1991, carried out with support from the Colombian armed forces.

While the Colombian government issued a formal apology, it has not provided full reparations to families widowed and orphaned by the massacre and has only restituted a fraction of the nearly 40,000 acres of land it owes to victims, said Ligna Pulido, a Nasa indigenous leader.

Members of the ACIN secure their communities and lands not with weapons, but with an Indigenous Guard who carry staffs of authority as symbols. However, they have paid a heavy price for their unarmed resistance as state security forces have cracked down on protestors.

On April 10, 18-year-old Fiderson Guillermo Pavi Ramos was shot three times and died after ESMAD riot police blocked the road to the hospital. Since his death, six more indigenous people have been assassinated and two were disappeared.

These most recent attacks occur in a broader national context of increasing violence against Colombian human rights defenders at the hands of both state and parastate forces. The first three months of 2015 saw 295 recorded acts of violence, more than triple the amount of attacks recorded in the same period of 2014, according to the International Office for Human Rights Action on Colombia.

Nearly 80 percent of the attacks were attributed to paramilitary groups, followed by 17 percent with unknown perpetrators, 5 percent by state security forces and none by guerilla groups. Cauca was second only to the capital city of Bogotá in registering the highest number of aggressions.

A post-accords laboratory?

Such severe paramilitary violence not only challenges the Colombian government’s long-contested assertion that these groups demobilized in 2005, but also speaks to the continued strategy on the part of powerful political and economic actors to terrorize their critics into silence. In Cauca, paramilitary groups have explicitly stated that they are threatening Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders for protesting illegal mining in their territories.

“We see clear alliances between investors and paramilitary groups to displace land restitution leaders and other activists. So while there’s a peace process going on, human rights conditions are still deteriorating,” said Cesar Diaz, coordinator of the Committee for the Integration of the Colombian Macizo (CIMA), who works on land use issues in Cauca.

Indeed, the bilateral ceasefire that human rights organizations are calling for would potentially reduce violence between just two of the myriad of armed actors in Colombia while a peace agreement is finalized.

As for what may follow the agreement, many leaders in Cauca point to the wealth of natural resources as well as historically heavy FARC control and illicit crop cultivation as factors that will make it a testing ground for post-accords development proposals. And they are not all optimistic.

“We support these dialogues but the so-called post-conflict isn’t going to be great for us. In fact, it may even make things worse,” said another leader from CIMA. “There’s going to be a lot of foreign investment in mining and in rural areas…so who’s going to control that territory? Right now there are so many armed groups that everyone is running around extorting and intimidating everyone. And that’s not going to end with a partial demobilization.”

Nasa leader Pulido had similar critiques.

“We’re not opposed to investment in our communities per se, but the form in which it’s done and the broader policies behind it,” she said. “Agencies like USAID invest billions of dollars to pay contractors that parachute in without consulting us first. It would be worth it to do an analysis to see what the actual benefits are for communities.”

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