• The Star Staff

Indigenous Colombians, facing new wave of brutality, demand gov’t action

By Julie Turkewitz and Sofia Villamil

Protesters descended by the thousands on Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, this past week, horrified by a brutal wave of violence sweeping the country — one so intense that mass killings have taken place every other day on average.

Most traveled hundreds of miles from the rural Indigenous communities that have been particularly ravaged by the violence, which they trace to government failures to protect them under the country’s halting peace process.

They call their movement the “minga Indígena.”

Minga is an Indigenous word, one used long before the Spanish arrived in South America, to refer to an act of communal work, an agreement between neighbors to build something together: a bridge, a road, a government.

But minga has also come to mean a collective act of protest, a call to recover what a community believes it has lost: territory, peace, lives.

And the protests, which lasted all week, punctuated by a large march last Wednesday, have amounted to an extended, cooperative howl.

“If we don’t stand before the world and say, ‘This is happening,’” said Ermes Pete, 38, an Indigenous leader from the country’s southwest, “we will be exterminated.”

The demonstrations are another sign of public frustration and anger over the pace of peace in Colombia.

Four years ago, the government signed a historic peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, ending the longest-running conflict in the Americas. The accord called for the Colombian government to provide basic services — education, health care and safety — in areas battered by the long civil war.

But many protesters said that when the FARC moved out of their communities, the government never moved in. Instead, new criminal groups arrived.

“We fear for our lives,” said one protester, Samay Sacha, 61, “and that is why we are here.”

Protesters — many of them farmers, teachers and community organizers from small towns — arrived by bus, pooling their salaries to rent colorful vehicles called “chivas” and leaving children and jobs back home.

They camped in a sports arena provided by the city or on the grass outside and gathered around fires to cook, plan and share stories.

As new criminal groups have moved into former FARC territory, Indigenous communities, often located on drug routes and in areas rich with minerals and timber, have been among the most vulnerable. The criminal groups have used deadly violence to stifle dissent and discourage people from working with rivals.

Community leaders who speak out against the brutality have become targets. This year alone, at least 233 civic leaders have been killed, according to the human rights group Indepaz. More than 1,000 have died since the peace accord was signed.

Mass killings, defined as three or more deaths, have shot up as well. Indepaz has counted 68 this year, with a marked uptick between July and September.

The killings come after decades of strife in which communities were squeezed between the FARC and the military in a war that left well over 200,000 dead and displaced an estimated 6 million people.

Many thought they would find relief after the peace accord. But that has not always been the case.

“After the peace deal, the war worsened,” said Aida Quilcue, a leader in the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, a union of the country’s Indigenous groups.

Protesters demanded a meeting with President Iván Duque, a conservative elected after the adoption of the 2016 peace accord, which his party had opposed on grounds it was too lenient on the FARC.

Duque’s critics have accused him of not doing enough to carry out the deal, pointing out, for example, that only a limited number of families have been able to participate in a program that would help them switch from growing coca — the plant used to make cocaine — to legal products.

Many have continued growing coca, and drug trafficking and associated violence have proliferated around them.

Duque did not meet with the minga in Bogotá, instead sending a delegation to meet with people in the country’s southwest, which has been hit hard by the violence. His office said that it was spending millions of dollars to address the problem.

In an interview earlier this year, his high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, urged Colombians to be patient with the peace process.

“Give the man a chance,” he said, speaking of Duque, who took office in 2018. “We cannot undo 56 years of war in just two years.”

Pete, one of the protest leaders, recalled growing up with war in his home in the department of Cauca, the FARC sleeping on his doorstep.

At the time, the military accused his family of collaborating with the guerrillas — and the guerrillas accused them of collaborating with the military. Some days, he would watch helicopters fly overhead. Occasionally, bullets would rain down.

The violence pushed Pete to run for a leadership position in his community, and when the FARC left, he urged his neighbors to abandon coca cultivation. He thought the state would move in to protect them.

“The state,” he said, “never arrived.”

Pete soon became a target himself. In 2017, as he left his home, two men began to shoot at him. He hit the ground and survived.

Another protester, Bertha Rivera, 53, came to Bogotá from an Indigenous territory nearly 400 miles away.

She slept in a tent overnight at the arena. The following day, she marched with the minga through the streets of the capital.

“We had so many dreams,” she said of the peace process. “It was, ‘Now we won’t hear the dead, we won’t hear the bombs, we won’t hear the threats.’”

She went on: “When we were just beginning ‘peace,’ we thought it was the best thing, and though we had heard from other nations that the post-conflict era was often more difficult than the conflict itself, we didn’t believe it.

“Today,” she said, “we understand that they were right.”