In early July, 64-year-old Segundo Ortiz was displaced from his land along with 1,700 other indigenous Awá in a remote jungle region in southwestern Colombia. He and many others had to walk for as long as two days to escape Colombian army operations in the region, finally seeking refuge in the small towns of Altaquer and Ricaurte. But one month later, tragedy struck the displaced Awá again when five of their leaders were dragged from their beds and shot to death on World Indigenous Day. It appears to many observers that the very forces that were charged with protecting the displaced Awá were the likely perpetrators of the massacre.
Under the government of President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian military has intensified its operations in regions of the southwestern department of Nariño that have historically been controlled by Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). As a result, there has been an increase in violence against the civilian population as many communities situated in rebel-controlled areas are often accused by the military of being guerrilla sympathizers.
On July 11, a new army offensive forced some 1,700 Awá—including more than 400 children—to flee their reserve in Chaguí Chimbuza. An Awá spokesperson in Altaquer blames the government for his people’s displacement, calling on the state to “end its military operations because helicopters, planes and soldiers enter our territories to search for armed groups but then they terrorize the people and displace many communities. This has been happening for the past three years.”
Approximately 1,200 of the displaced Awá found refuge in the town of Ricaurte, while the remainder established a refugee camp on the grounds of a school in the village of Altaquer. Despite receiving some humanitarian aid from the governmental agency Acción Social and the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the displaced community struggles daily to obtain sufficient food, clothes and other essentials.
Some Awá women spend much of their time each day scraping together enough ingredients to cook the vast amounts of soup and rice required to feed the displaced population. Meanwhile, most of the other Awá pass the days pondering their uncertain future in an unfamiliar concrete environment far removed from their rainforest homes. As Segundo Ortiz notes, “We don’t have problems with the people in the town, but we don’t have any work here. Meanwhile, our animals are dying back home; our chickens and pigs.”
According to Ernesto Moreno, a social worker for Acción Social who has been working with the refugees in Altaquer, “The displaced Awá have suffered greatly as a result of human rights violations. And now they need food and clothes. But more importantly they need to be able to return peacefully to their homes. They have a culture that is closely connected to the land; the land and animals that they have been forced to abandon. This is a humanitarian tragedy.”
The Awá children, who constitute a quarter of the displaced population, are arguably the ones most affected by the displacement and violence. As Moreno points out, “The whole community is suffering, but particularly the children. We need to understand what they are feeling, thinking, and to help them express themselves. It is a very complicated situation; they have been collectively threatened.”
One month after their displacement, violence struck the Awá again when nine gunmen dressed in black tee shirts, camouflage trousers and military boots massacred five of the indigenous community’s leaders in Altaquer. The killers arrived at four o’clock in the morning on August 9 with a list of six names. They dragged five of the targets out of bed and shot them to death. The victims were Juan Donaldo Morán, former governor of the community, and Adelaida Ortiz, Mauricio Ortiz Burbano, Jairo Ortiz and Marlene Pai. The sixth person on the list, current Awá governor Doris Puchana, was in Bogotá attending a World Indigenous Day conference in order to raise awareness of the plight of her displaced community.
According to an Awá spokesperson in Altaquer, “When the massacre happened, the army was stationed 500 meters away and the police were also here in the town. The people were sleeping in the school and our leaders were in people’s homes. They came in the morning and took them out of the houses and shot them like animals.”
The heavy military presence in Altaquer at the time of the massacre has led many to question claims by both the army and the National Police that FARC guerrillas were responsible for the killings. Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), stated, “We don’t understand how this could happen in a place as heavily militarized as Altaquer.” A female Awá elder in Ricaurte was also skeptical of the official story, stating, “I believe it was the self-defense forces [right-wing paramilitaries] that massacred our five leaders. They have previously threatened our communities.”
The circumstances surrounding the massacre lend credence to those skeptical of the official version of events. For instance, in order to perpetrate the massacre, armed rebels partially and conspicuously clad in combat fatigues would had to have walked brazenly through the town from house to house opening fire on multiple occasions in the still of the night while essentially surrounded by soldiers and police—all in all, an unlikely scenario.
There was also a noticeable lack of an immediate response on the part of the public forces, despite their close proximity to the killings. Additionally, many counterinsurgency soldiers from the army’s Grupo Cabal Mechanized Battalion stationed in Altaquer and Ricaurte wear black tee shirts under their camouflage uniforms. And while an Awá elder believes that the self-defense forces were responsible for the massacre, such paramilitary groups often consist of off-duty, partially uniformed soldiers. Finally, according to several displaced Awá, it is the army, not the guerrillas, that has threatened them in the past and is primarily responsible for their displacement.
For its part, the government suggested that some of the indigenous victims might have been guerrillas, a strategy often employed to implicitly suggest that the killings were justified. The day after the massacre, the office of the governor of Nariño revealed that two of the victims had been arrested in the previous four months and had been accused of being guerrillas. Ultimately, no charges were filed and they were later released. But in Colombia, such an arrest labels a person as a “subversive” in the eyes of the military and paramilitaries who routinely carry out extra-judicial executions.
Several days after the massacre, Brigadier General Hernando Pérez, commander of the Colombian Army’s Third Division—which includes the Grupo Cabal Mechanized Battalion—announced that he would deploy a second counterinsurgency battalion to the region to “guarantee” the safety of the civilian population. In other words, more soldiers from the same army division responsible for the displacement of the Awá—and possibly for the massacre too—were being deployed to protect the displaced indigenous community. This cruel irony is not lost on the Awá, whose spokesperson in Altaquer points out the government’s failure to protect his people, “We were displaced by the military operations of government forces and then the massacre occurred while the public forces were here.”
According to the U.S. State Department, the Colombian Army’s Grupo Cabal Mechanized Battalion, part of the 3rd Cavalry Group and likely perpetrator of the massacre in Ataquer, was vetted for human rights in July 2006 in order to receive U.S. military aid. Nevertheless, the displacement of the Awá and the massacre in Altaquer appear to be the latest examples of the increasing number of human rights violations in which Colombia’s U.S.-backed state security forces are directly implicated. Consequently, an Awá spokesperson in Altaquer has called on “the international community and the United Nations to pressure the Colombian government to make sure these types of incidents don’t occur in our territories and that they respect indigenous peoples.”
A different version of this article appeared in Cultural Survival