Awá Massacred in Colombian Village
On July 11th, 64-year-old Segundo Ortiz was displaced from his land along with 1,700 other indigenous Awá in a remote jungle region in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in southwestern Colombia.
He and the 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 Ataquer 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 communities in rebel-controlled areas often are accused by the military of being guerrilla sympathizers.
"Helicopters, planes, and soldiers enter our territories to search for armed groups but then they terrorize the people and displace many communities," said an Awá spokesperson in Ataquer. "This has been happening for the past three years."
The killers—nine gunmen dressed in black tee shirts, camouflage trousers and military boots—arrived in Ataquer at four o’clock in the morning on August 9th with a list of six names. They dragged five of the targets out of bed and shot them to death in front of their homes. 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 Ataquer, "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 Ataquer 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), said, "We don’t understand how this could happen in a place as heavily militarized as Ataquer." A female Awá elder in Ricaurte was also skeptical of the official story, saying, "I believe it was the self-defense forces [right-wing paramilitaries] that massacred our five leaders. They have previously threatened our communities."
In order for rebels to have perpetrated the massacre, they would have had to walk 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. Furthermore, there was 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 Ataquer and Ricaurte wear black tee shirts under their camouflage uniforms.
For its part, the government suggested that some of the victims might have been guerrillas, a strategy often employed to imply 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 were 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.
Meanwhile, several days after the massacre, Brigadier General Hernando PÃ©rez, 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 Ataquer points out, "We were displaced by the military operations of government forces and then the massacre occurred while the public forces were here." Nevertheless, as so often happens in Colombia’s dirty war, the fox was once again being sent to guard the henhouse.
Sources and Further Reading:
[International Day of the World's Indigenous People] September 14, 2006
[UNHCR Colombia] September 14, 2006