Colombia's tribes battle to survive
Fri Oct 22, 9:40 AM ET
By Gary Marx Tribune foreign correspondent
Standing above a riverbank in the majestic Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, six Arhuaco Indians bowed their heads as tribal leaders chastised them for joining Colombia's Marxist guerrillas.
But the event also marked the first time that members of the Arhuaco tribe had abandoned the rebels and rejoined their tight-knit community.
The days-long ceremony offered a glimmer of hope for the Arhuacos and other indigenous groups struggling to survive amid Colombia's brutal civil war.
"I have my kids. I have my wife," said Roger, 27, one of the six former rebels. "I understand that this is the road that I should take to return to my indigenous roots."
Yet the decision by the Arhuacos' mamos, or spiritual leaders, to embrace the former rebels poses a risk for the 25,000-member tribe, which fears the move could trigger retaliatory attacks by leftist rebels or right-wing paramilitary forces and draw the tribe further into an unwanted war.
Arhuaco leaders asked that Roger's full name not be published out of concern he could be killed by the armed groups.
Such are the circumstances facing the Arhuacos and Colombia's 83 other tribes, which in recent years have seen several hundred members killed and thousands displaced in a conflict pitting two leftist insurgencies against right-wing militias allied with the Colombian military.
While Colombia's people have suffered greatly during the 40-year conflict, the nation's 800,000 Indians are especially vulnerable because they live in jungle and mountain regions coveted by the armed groups for moving weapons, food and other supplies.
As Marxist rebels forcibly recruit Arhuaco and other Indians, steal their cattle and crops and use their lands as rear encampments, paramilitary forces are gaining strength and killing Indians and anyone else suspected of collaborating with their enemies.
One woman from the Kankuamo tribe, neighbors of the Arhuacos in the Sierra Nevada, said her daughter and husband were killed within four days of each other last year after they were stopped at paramilitary roadblocks.
"They have guns and we don't, and they can kill whomever they want," said the 56-year-old woman, whose leaders asked that she not to be identified because of feared retaliation.
Kankuamo leaders say about 100 tribe members have been killed since 2002, and the conflict has battered other indigenous groups, including the Embera and Wayuu tribes in northern Colombia and the Paez tribe in the south, according to indigenous leaders.
As one of Colombia's least assimilated tribes, the Arhuacos are distancing themselves from the armed groups and drawing strength from a culture that reveres nature, rejects violence and takes the word of its traditional leaders as law.
"We have been fighting [outsiders] for 500 years but without weapons," said Amado Villafana, a 48-year-old Arhuaco. "Our weapons are different. We fight with our thoughts, our conversation and our spiritual work."
The encroaching conflict has made the task increasingly difficult.
Leonor Zalabata, an Arhuaco human-rights advocate, said 18 tribal members have been killed in the past four years. A food blockade imposed by the army and paramilitary forces trying to force the rebels from the mountains by cutting off supplies also is hurting the tribe.
The presence of armed groups has made it dangerous for the Arhuacos to travel long distances to cultivate their fields.
`A permanent struggle'
"Why don't they leave us in peace?" asked Zalabata in Nabusimake, a collection of thatched-roof huts about 600 miles north of Bogota. "It's a permanent struggle for us."
Experts say there is no relief in sight. While the United States has contributed about $2.5 billion in largely military aid to Colombia since 2000, there is little evidence that the Colombian army can defeat the leftist insurgents even as it carries out the largest offensive in the nation's history.
The recent decision by the U.S. Congress to double to 800 the number of U.S. military trainers allowed in Colombia--along with boosting the number of American citizens working as private contractors--is unlikely to break the strategic deadlock, experts say.
"The problem is not the Americans," said Alfredo Rangel, a top Colombian military analyst. "The problem is the Colombian army is too small to achieve its objectives."
As the war grinds on, indigenous leaders increasingly are denouncing the killings and displacement of their people, only to be targeted themselves for kidnapping and death.
In early August, Freddy Arias, an outspoken Kankuamo leader, was shot dead by suspected paramilitary gunmen as he rode a bicycle in Valledupar, the capital of Cesar province.
Three weeks later the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation's largest rebel force, kidnapped the mayor of the indigenous community of Toribio in southwestern Colombia. The rebels later freed the mayor under pressure from tribe members.
Last month, more than 35,000 Colombian Indians--many wearing traditional black bowler hats and ponchos--marched three days in southern Colombia to protest the violence and other issues.
Although the Colombian Constitution guarantees indigenous groups land and autonomy, Neuta and other leaders argue that their rights are being trampled as the conflict spreads to more tribal areas.
Some leaders say President Alvaro Uribe's aggressive security policy has exacerbated the violence and are demanding a withdrawal of troops from their lands.
Marijuana and coca cultivation in the Sierra Nevada have attracted guerrillas to the Indians' region in recent years, and they now patrol the highlands. Paramilitary forces soon followed and now dominate the lowlands.
The Arhuaco tribal leaders spent days deciding whether to accept the six returning rebels and determining their atonement, which will involve months or years of spiritual work to begin healing what they believe is the damage caused to nature by the former rebels' decision to take up arms.
At one point during the welcoming ceremony, the former rebels knelt before their leaders, clutching blades of dried grass, and explained why they joined the FARC, according to one witness.
About 20 Arhuacos remain in the armed groups.
"The idea is to get all of them back," said Rogelio Mejia Izquierdo, 39, an Arhuaco leader.