Colombia’s indigenous are facing rising threats as they demand a safer future

It’s been nearly a decade since Colombia’s indigenous people took to the streets to protest, kill and survive the damage done by environmental activists and armed paramilitary groups. Until recently, they remained largely peaceful. However, in recent weeks, the nation’s 1.8 million indigenous people are now facing increasing threats.

Activists warn that more than 20 indigenous people have been killed over the past 18 months. Of those killed, 13 were environmental activists. At least four were targeted by the Colombian military.

There’s little question that Colombia is a brutal country. There’s also little question that the environment is a battleground, where rebels, paramilitaries and illegal armed groups all compete for control. The threat of such killings has become a way of life for many indigenous activists, who fear that paramilitary groups have infiltrated the force of the state and are responsible for most of the killings. Many believe the military is also involved, and some argue that their government has not done enough to protect them.

Much of the controversy surrounds an indigenous organization called Awajún, who say that they have been victims of a series of murders and beatings, forcing them to move several times since December, most recently to Cali in the south of the country.

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed earlier this week that the Awajún have fled a joint military-police mission after the group refused to engage in peace talks with the government. “If the violence continues, we risk the population living in our homelands losing their patience and withdrawing,” the government said in a statement.

But Awajún leaders say they won’t negotiate with the government, and vowed to continue the fight with or without government mediation.

“We are not going to talk with the government without our bases, with humanitarian protocol,” said Alfredo David, an Awajún leader.

Colombia’s indigenous groups, including the Awajún, have long demanded a clear government policy to protect indigenous lands and resources, as well as the exclusion of paramilitary violence from the peace talks with the country’s major rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

They have been in these negotiations since 2012, but the talks still haven’t resulted in a ceasefire or a plan to dismantle all of the illegal armed groups in the country. The group has said they won’t put up with threats against their leaders and others until those groups are disbanded and their forces purged.

More than 200,000 Colombians have been killed during this armed conflict, and an estimated 7.7 million are now internally displaced. The effects of the war are still felt today, in areas on both sides of the conflict, from Colombia’s jungle to refugee camps throughout Central America. But Colombia’s indigenous groups say that none of the country’s recent conflicts have been as deadly and destructive as the fighting between the country’s government and rebel groups.

“It’s like anyone else was being slaughtered. How can you defend peace when you are suffering from violence yourself?” said Maria Fernanda Sáenz Guimarães, who is of central Colombia’s Indian community.

“We suffer, but we don’t abandon peace efforts,” she said.

This article was written by Andres Martinez for The Washington Post.

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