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Why controversy greets Colombia's Indigenous protesters

Antonia Schaefer
May 19, 2021

Tens of thousands of people have been protesting in Colombia in recent weeks. Many Indigenous people have also participated in the demonstrations — and their presence has intensified public debate.

Indigenous people protest
Activists say Indigenous peoples in Colombia have faced racially motivated attacksImage: Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images

People are seen shooting on shaky cellphone videos. A woman screams, "Get out of here, Indians!" A car carrying members of the Minga, a protest collective of Indigenous peoples, is trying to drive along the road. They are stopped — and shots are fired. Daniela Soto, one of the leaders of the Indigenous youth, is subsequently taken to hospital. She is said to have undergone an operation after being shot twice in the stomach.

These scenes played out in Canasgordas, one of the prosperous southern neighborhoods in the Colombian city of Cali. The Minga has encountered a number of violent confrontations since it joined the protests that are currently shaking Colombia. These confrontations, and the extensive debate around them in the national media and on Twitter, give an insight into a society in which Indigenous peoples are still regarded as outsiders.

'Citizens and Indigenous people'

Although only a few thousand Indigenous people have taken part in the protests, and so are only a small proportion of those on strike, their presence has sparked a heated debate between opponents and supporters of the protests.

In one television report, the correspondent referred to "citizens and Indigenous people," implying that Indigenous people were not themselves citizens. Many people have tweeted that the Minga are "besieging" Cali and using armed force on other citizens. President Ivan Duque even requested that they return to their territories to avoid any more "unnecessary confrontations."

Aquilino Cuene portrait
Aquilino Cuene of the Nasa Indigenous peopleImage: Antonia Schaefer/DW

Fifty-year-old Aquilino Cuene is a member of the Nasa Indigenous people. He lives in the north of the region called the Department of Cauca. "The state and the national media want to blame us for the violence," he says. "That's a lie. We responded to the demonstrators' request that we participate in the strikes as mediators."

Racially motivated

The demands of the protesters and those of the Indigenous people do, however, overlap. "Social inequality and violence," says Cuene, "The Colombian people have to stand together to solve these big problems." He points out that Indigenous people are being disappeared and murdered, too, just like people in other sectors of Colombian society. They may even be worse affected: According to the NGO Indepaz, at least 300 Indigenous leaders have been killed since the peace agreement between the government and Colombia's FARC rebels was signed in 2016.

The forceful rejection of Indigenous peoples and their participation in the protests are clearly racially motivated. The issue at stake is the distribution of land, and whether population groups who resided here long before the land was colonized should have to defer to laws laid down by a state that killed their ancestors.

Hunting and killing Indigenous people was not made illegal here until well into the second half of the 20th century. Only in 1991 were they first given official permission to set up autonomous tribunals within their territories, as long as these did not violate fundamental human rights. "The tribunals also operate outside the territories," says Oscar Manuel Cardenas Avendano, a sociologist in Medellin. "But all they actually do is detain suspects and hand them over to the authorities."

Jorge Iván Ospina standing in city
Cali Mayor Jorge Iván OspinaImage: Antonia Schaefer/DW

Indigenous people and drug trafficking claims

During the protests in Cali, the Guardia Indigena — a sort of security force in the protected zones that does not carry weapons — arrested an armed policeman who was said to have mingled with protesters in civilian clothing. For many people, this incident provided more fuel for condemnation. They believe that the Indigenous people have been coming into the cities in order to push their agenda to the fore, blockade the population's access to food supplies, or impose their own rules without reference to Colombian law.

They also accuse Indigenous people, particularly those from the Department of Cauca, of being members of guerrilla groups that finance themselves through drug trafficking. They argue that now, during the protests, former FARC and ELN guerrillas have come to Cali to stir up unrest, under the pretext of Indigenous resistance.

Fabian Mulcue, a member of the Guardia Indigena, is familiar with these arguments. "Many people tell us that we're members of guerrilla groups, while the guerrilla groups tell us we're agents of the state. They don't want to believe that we stand for ourselves alone." Mulcue says he cannot rule out the possibility that paramilitaries are mingling with opponents of the protests in order to target and shoot members of the Minga.

The conflict is a complicated one, particularly in the Department of Cauca. At least one Indigenous leader from the region has confirmed, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, that some Indigenous people there did in the past grow coca for the drug trade. At the same time, around 9% of the country's coca crops are grown in Indigenous territories, according to a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

However, the drug cartels, as well as other armed parties such as paramilitary groups, are often a danger to the Indigenous population. The areas where they live are important transit zones for the drug trade. And armed groups are not known for their diplomacy.

woman looking at camera
Noelia Campo is the spokesperson for the Regional Council of Indigenous Peoples in Cauca, ColombiaImage: Antonia Schaefer/DW

Hardened fronts

There is a long tradition of resistance by Indigenous groups in Colombia. Their presence and their demands have certainly not met with universal approval. During the current protests they have only made up a small percentage of the demonstrators, but given the lack of understanding protesters and opponents have for each other, and in this heated atmosphere, their presence has hardened the fronts on both sides. That, at least, is how it appears if you believe the comments on Twitter.

However, Jorge Ospina, the mayor of Cali, disagrees. "The Minga is another element in the current confused national situation, but I am convinced that it has a calming effect on negotiations with the demonstrators," he says.

Last Wednesday, the Minga left Cali on its colorful buses known as "chivas." Noelia Campo, the spokesperson for the Cauca Regional Council of Indigenous Peoples (CRIC), is confident that "we have made our contribution to a peaceful protest here."

Now, she says, it's time to leave: "We will not give up the resistance. The strike is not just happening in Cali; the strike is happening all over the country," she explains. "And it's in our territories that we Indigenous people can make the most effective contribution."