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Colombian Indians Resist an Encroaching War: Indigenous People Join To Search for Leader

By Scott Wilson, Washington Post,
Monday 18 June 2001; Page A10

TIERRALTA, Colombia—For the past several days, they have been arriving on airplanes and in caravans of cramped buses and wooden rafts, filling the central square of this frontier town with garish hammocks, tarps and the acrid smell of campfire smoke.

More than 1,000 of Colombia's indigenous people have traveled to Tierralta, where the country's northern plains give way to lush mountains, to protest a war that is consuming their land, language and people.

Their stand has taken the form of a largely symbolic search for Kimy Pernia Domico, a leader of the Embera Katio tribe that controls strategic stretches of northwestern Colombia. Domico was seized here June 2 by three gunmen presumed to be members of the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). He has not been seen since.

The Indians gathered in the cluttered square—their faces and legs marked with ritual tattoos, walking on bare, broad feet, speaking in languages that predate the Spanish colonization—hold out little hope that Domico will be found alive. But in the coming days, without government sanction and with little security, they will venture onto the cattle ranches of Cordoba province, whose owners help fund the AUC, and seek the return of a man who tried to keep war and economic interests from overwhelming tribal land.

We want him given back to us—dead or alive, said Luis Ondino Duave, 23, a student and Embera Katio member who traveled three days by bus from Choco province along the Pacific Coast. We may be here for weeks, it all depends. If God permits, we will find him.

As Colombia's decades-old civil war has expanded in recent years, so has the threat to the country's 700,000 Indians, who belong to 84 tribes and speak 64 languages. They live on more than 50 million acres of land granted to them by the government, much of it located in strategic, resource-rich regions coveted by the armed groups.

In recent years, the government has signed accords with the Indians ensuring their autonomy and human rights, but tribal members say those agreements have been largely ignored as the war has sprawled into virtually every corner of the country.

The objective of this search is a call to the state to respect our autonomy and territory, said an Embera Katio leader who said he feared being identified by name. The government must comply with these accords.

The Latin American Association for Human Rights says that half of Colombia's indigenous tribes face extinction because of the encroaching violence. Displacement is fracturing families and diluting tribal languages, and forced recruitment into guerrilla ranks and selective assassinations by paramilitary forces are scattering tribes like the Embera Katio that have lived along Colombia's swift rivers and thick jungles for centuries.

In southern Amazonas province, the leftist guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) requires each indigenous family to provide two people to its ranks, according to the human rights group. FARC seeks recruits as young as 14 who are prized for their knowledge of jungle terrain. In past three years, more than 1,500 Indians have been forced into guerrilla ranks, the human rights group said.

Domico's disappearance followed a rash of violence against indigenous leaders by paramilitary forces and the FARC. The AUC, especially here in northern Colombia, has chosen to eliminate powerful tribal leaders who resist the right-wing group's territorial ambitions. At least 10 leaders of the Embera Katio and Zenu tribes in Cordoba, and neighboring Antioquia and Choco provinces, have been killed by the AUC in the past three years, according to the human rights association. Embera Katio leaders say 16 tribal members have been killed over that period, half by the paramilitary forces and half by the FARC.

For these groups, it is dangerous to have a leader who is much listened to by his people, someone who says, 'This is our territory, not yours,' said an adviser to the two Embera Katio leaders who oversee tribal land between the Sinu and Verde rivers southwest of here. We have come here to look for [Domico] in [the paramilitary forces'] house.

Domico's plight is in some ways similar to that of the thousands of Colombians trying to remain neutral during the intensifying civil conflict, which is fueled by the vast profits the armed groups receive from the drug trade. Tribal members say that in recent months, Domico was resisting pressure from the AUC to begin growing coca—the raw material used to make cocaine—on tribal land.

Tierralta sits on a volatile border between the two military forces, and in the past 18 months drug crops have sprung up on land once used to grow bananas, rice and timber. Last month, FARC forces operating along the Sinu River slaughtered more than two dozen farmers, sometimes using machetes, who were allegedly working AUC-controlled coca fields.

At the same time, Domico was continuing a long battle against the government and international corporations over a dam erected against the tribe's will in Embera territory. After decades of study, a corporation comprising Canadian and Swedish interests began building the Urra Dam on the Sinu River six years ago. The tribe won a brief injunction suspending construction, but subsequent legal rulings resulted in the 1998 flooding of a fertile valley filled with the tribe's banana plantations.

For the first time in their history, many of the 142 Embera Katio families living between the Sinu and Verde rivers were going hungry after the flooding devastated the fishing stock. Domico had been leading the crusade for government compensation, angering many powerful business interests.

Colombian officials have shown little interest in the Domico case. Col. Henry Caicedo, Cordoba's police chief, said without offering any evidence that Domico's disappearance was related to involvement in the drug trade. He retracted his comments, but only after Abadio Green of the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia said: If they kill Kimy [or] any other of our colleagues, the colonel will be responsible.

Then, Cordoba Gov. Jesus Maria Lopez prohibited the indigenous caravan from entering his state on the grounds that it could interfere with a national ranching festival. He said he would do nothing to stop the procession, but offered no security.

So those who arrived here did so under less than safe circumstances, and remain vulnerable during what could be a weeks-long demonstration. The main square, strung with hammocks and draped with scraps of plastic that serve as tents, offers the Indians little protection from paramilitary or guerrilla forces.

A few army patrols stand guard as dozens of children, barefoot and dirty, play ball and tag in the streets. Around each person's neck hangs a laminated picture of Domico on a string, a crude credential meant to identify participants.

Three hundred people arrived by raft from Alto Sinu, the Embera Katio region that is Domico's home, including Rigoberto Domico, a member of the tribe, his wife and 6-month-old son. He was our leader, and we will stay until we find him, he said. How long it takes is not important.

Hundreds more arrived in a caravan of buses from Medellin to the south, braving perhaps the most contested stretch of highway in Colombia with little protection.

The government should be looking for Kimy's killers and arresting these paramilitaries, said Jennifer Harbury, an American lawyer who has accused the CIA of complicity in the 1992 death of her husband, a Guatemalan guerrilla. She made the trip from her home in Texas to search for Kimy, whom she showed around Washington two years ago. These people should not have to risk their lives for this.