Tag Archives: conflict

The Indigenous Struggle in the Chocó

and Terry Gibbs

Our indigenous guide maneuvered the dugout canoe cautiously through the shallow waters of the Río Opogodó deep in the rainforest of Colombia’s Chocó region. We had traveled almost 12 hours from the departmental capital Quibdó down the Río Atrato and up the Opogodó when we approached a collection of canoes moored on a pebbled embankment. After seeing few signs of human existence during the previous three hours, the sight of a small Embera indigenous village consisting of some 20 open thatched huts on wooden stilts was a magical vision. Walking up a green and muddy hill into the mist-enshrouded village was like traveling back a thousand years in time. But the sense of peacefulness that greeted us as we entered Egorokera proved to be mostly an illusion. The modern day reality for the Embera is far from peaceful as communities from this indigenous tribe struggle to cope with malnutrition, disease, governmental neglect, and constant confrontations with Colombia’s armed groups.

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Informers for a Day

In war-torn Saravena, a town of 30,000 in Arauca department in eastern Colombia, soldiers dressed as clowns befriend local children by offering them candy, rides on armored personnel carriers, and the use of the army’s swimming pool in return for the opportunity to pummel them with pro-army and anti-rebel propaganda. Children have become the focal point of Psychological Warfare Operations (PsyOps) being conducted by the Colombian army in this embattled town that is currently home to 40 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers who arrived in January as part of the Bush administration’s global war on terror. Like the PsyOps used by the U.S. army as part of the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War, these programs are not only geared to winning over the “hearts and minds” of locals, they are also being used to elicit information from the civilian population, especially children, about rebel activities in Saravena.

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Caught in a Colombian Crossfire

Many Colombians were concerned that President Andrés Pastrana’s recent suspension of peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would dramatically escalate the civil conflict. Their fears appeared to be well founded when the Colombian military initiated a massive bombing campaign against the former zona de despeje before sending in thousands of ground troops to retake the zone’s principal towns. The FARC retaliated by launching an extensive bombing campaign against urban targets and the country’s infrastructure. But for indigenous groups in the southwestern department of Cauca, the violence began escalating long before the collapse of the peace process. In recent years, both paramilitary and guerrilla forces have increasingly violated the neutrality of indigenous reserves, known as resguardos.

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The Embattled Streets of Barranca

In the poor neighborhoods of Barrancabermeja, urban guerrillas belonging to the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been desperately trying to stave-off an urban offensive by right-wing paramilitaries. Most of these neighborhoods have been firmly under the control of the ELN, with a few in the hands of the FARC, since the 1960s. But in recent months, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) have successfully gained control of many guerrilla-controlled neighborhoods in Barrancabermeja, known locally as Barranca.

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Interview with AUC Commander Enrique

It was just after dark on the evening of February 7, 2001 when I arrived at the restaurant in the center of La Hormiga, Putumayo at the pre-arranged time. The restaurant was closed and I waited on the sidewalk until a pick-up truck pulled up. In the back were two large men who jumped down onto the sidewalk as another man got out of the passenger side talking on his cellular phone. He was Comandante Enrique, alias “the Cobra,” and at 28 years of age the commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia.

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