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Colombian Tribes Caught in the Middle

Right-wing militias and leftist guerrillas are pushing their conflict into indigenous territories. Now Indian leaders are targeted.

May 24, 2003|Rachel Van Dongen | Special to The Times

TIMBA, Colombia — Vanessa Jimbaya became a widow at 16 when paramilitary fighters burst into her husband's compact disc store two years ago and opened fire.

Four months pregnant, she decided to leave her native village of Alto Naya and trekked 12 hours down the mountain to the dusty and impoverished town of Timba.

"I have never returned," Jimbaya said, holding her 20-month-old daughter, Paola Andrea. "It is not safe."

During that gruesome Easter week, members of the largest ultra-right paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, shot, burned and used chainsaws to kill an estimated 40 indigenous and black Colombians, including Jimbaya's husband.

According to indigenous authorities, the government arrested 73 people for the massacre but none of the planners. At least 435 people remain displaced, living in such places as a former bullring, fearing for their safety.

Two years after the attack -- one of the most brutal recent massacres of indigenous peoples here -- things have only gotten worse for 84 indigenous tribes with about 700,000 members, about 2% of Colombia's population, according to a State Department report in March.

Through early March, 36 indigenous people have been slain this year in the conflict involving leftist rebels, the Colombian military and the paramilitary groups, according to a report released by Colombia's human rights ombudsman. Paramilitary fighters were responsible for 14 of the deaths, according to the report, most of them from the Kankuamo tribe. And increasingly, indigenous leaders are being targeted, rights advocates say.

"The indigenous community is in the middle of the fight," said Eduardo Cifuentes, the country's human rights ombudsman, who has requested a United Nations envoy to oversee the problem. "Each time [the number of killings] is greater."

Following the breakdown of peace talks last year between former President Andres Pastrana and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation's 4-decade-old war has escalated. The army has gone on the offensive against the FARC, while the rebel group has expanded its influence beyond a former demilitarized zone. Right-wing militias have pursued them, pushing the violence farther into indigenous territory, which accounts for about 25% of Colombia.

The FARC has been accused of killing four indigenous people this year, and the smaller leftist group National Liberation Army, or ELN, has allegedly assassinated three.

In February, two Embera Indians were allegedly shot by soldiers while hunting in Choco. Army Infantry Battalion 12 claimed that the two were mistaken for guerrillas after a confrontation, according to the National Assn. of Colombian Indians.

Although armed groups have typically resorted to massacres, indigenous rights advocates say a sinister new tactic is on the rise this year: the assassination of indigenous leaders.

"They want to diminish the capacity of the organization to denounce" crimes, said Jaime Arias, governor of the Kankuamo tribe.

According to Cifuentes' office, in the first few months of this year, nine indigenous leaders, such as chiefs and commissioners, were assassinated, all by right-wing groups.

Janneth Moreno Martinez, advisor for indigenous and minority affairs in the ombudsman's office, said that this year killings have been "selective."

"To kill a leader is like killing the president of a republic," she said. "There haven't been massacres. It seems to be a change of tactics."

One of the hot spots for indigenous communities this year has been along the Colombian-Panamanian border, where the Kuna, or Tule, community has made its home. On Jan. 18, four Tule leaders were tortured and killed by paramilitary fighters. Five hundred people were displaced.

According to the Indian association, the Tules are considering leaving Colombia. "They are thinking about moving to Panama," said Lizardo Domico, a member of the association. "We are trying to put together a bilateral meeting between Panama and Colombia."

In Timba, about 230 miles southwest of Bogota, the capital, the scars remain from the paramilitary massacre two years ago. About 50 people attended a Mass last month given by a Jesuit priest from Bogota in an open-air chapel. Many of the victims are buried in unmarked graves.

"You cannot allow this to happen again," admonished Father Javier Giraldo in stark tones.

About 4,000 Nayas have returned to Alto Naya, reachable only on foot or by mule. But there is still fear and suspicion, as indigenous authorities claim that history could easily repeat itself.

Farther down the mountain in Santander de Quilichao, 200 displaced indigenous people are living in the town's former bullring, preferring to sleep seven to a room below the former bleachers rather than risk returning to their land.

Angie Mestizo, 8, one of five children living with her mother in a makeshift shelter outside the bullring, said she remembers the day the right-wing fighters came. She recounted how they gave her and her classmates 15 minutes to leave or face death. She casually described how there was so much blood spilling onto the street from six bodies that it looked as if a cow had been slaughtered.

Standing inside the bullring nursing her daughter, Maria Eugenia Ramos said that she didn't like living there but felt there was no other option.

"We don't know where we are going," she said. "We will continue moving forward and will fit in anywhere we can."

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