The Alto de Berlin hill in Toribio, Colombia, witnessed quite a peculiar event on July 17. The troubled region has been a battlefield between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian army for the past five decades. The endless conflict has resulted in many casualties, but on Wednesday, one group decided it had had enough of being in the crossfire. This isolated incident might indicate both that the government should pay more attention to the inhabitants of the lands where it wages war and that greater communication might facilitate an end to conflict.
The Nasa people, an indigenous group from the region whose numbers are up to 100,000, decided to take the matters into their own hands and rose against both the government and the leftist guerrillas. Stating that they reject the presence of military groups on their lands, the Nasa inflicted a humiliating defeat on both the FARC and Colombia’s military. Cauca is a critical region for the rebels, as it is a vital corridor between the areas where coca (material used in making cocaine) is grown and where it is shipped. For the same reason, it is vital for Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos that he controls the area is his fight against organized crime.
So how did the Nasa Indigenous Guard, a self-composed security force armed with wooden sticks, manage to cause such trouble? Simply by marching on a military base, a strategic hilltop from which the soldiers kept their communication antennae and kept an eye on FARC movement, overrunning the six soldiers that protected it and driving them off. Through one soldier fired several bullets in the air, the indigenous group was left undeterred and merely marched on, overpowering the soldiers. Though the incident itself didn’t cause any casualties, images of the action circulated worldwide and represented a major setback for Columbia’s military.
The government immediately reacted by alleging that the Nasa are allies of the FARC, who purchase their marijuana. However, at the same time, the Nasa announced that they had captured four FARC members (carrying rifles and explosives) and put them to trial. Their court convicted the members for “disrupting the harmony of the community” and they were sentenced to flogging (30 lashes for the three adults and 5 for the minor). Though the Nasa did interfere with government forces, the government’s decision to publicly denounce them might not be the best solution to find allies in the struggle against the FARC.
These two incidents might indicate that, contrary to what the government argues, the Nasa are simply tired of being caught in the middle of the conflict. In face of the government’s inability to stabilize the region, they have simply decided to maintain their security through their own means. The government’s failure to control an area as important as Cauca and the humiliating experience with the Nasa people could jeopardize Santos’ chances of re-election and prolong the long conflict with the FARC.
More importantly, however, this event shows that both the government’s inability to control all of Colombia and the FARC’s brutality have exasperated a part of the population, at the risk of marginalizing them. For if the Nasa believe that they can guarantee their security only by more vigilante actions of this sort, then they will probably be less willing to cooperate with government forces, risking the further fracturing of the Colombian state. Though it is positive news that even Cauca locals are turning their back on the FARC, their mistrust of the government is also worrying.
Their resistance to a re-militarization of the Cauca region, a threat to their safety but crucial to the government’s war against the rebels, is a microcosm of the larger social problems that plague the country. As the government just announced it would send some 28,000 soldiers to the crucial region, greater co-operation between the government forces and local native population might be necessary for success in the long, dirty and bloody conflict with the FARC.