Colombian Indians with sticks holding war, drugs at bay
Armed with ceremonial staffs, elders guard traditional lands
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
JAMBALO, Colombia -- Eliseo Ipia never saw it as a crazy idea: that fellow Paez Indians wielding only sticks could expel heavily armed leftist guerrillas, rightist militias and drug lords from their reservation.
``We have no guns, but we have the bastón,'' Ipia said of the three-foot stick, decorated with silver rings and multicolored tassels, that symbolizes Paez tribal authority in the Andean mountains of southwestern Colombia.
Literally shaking their sticks at the intruders, the Paez are
desperately trying to avoid being sucked further into the vortex of political
and criminal violence of Latin
America's bloodiest conflict.
Deploying volunteer civil guards armed only with bastónes, they have demanded that guerrillas move their camps out of the reservation, rescued Paez children recruited by the rebels, destroyed cocaine laboratories, blockaded their roads and imposed nighttime curfews.
In most cases, they have been surprisingly successful.
And while Paez hotheads are demanding weapons for self-defense, tribal leaders insist that everything be done peacefully, with no weapons, just the abstract power of a small palm wood staff.
``Our life's project is not armed, not taking another's life, but respect for life,'' said Ipia, 33, governor of the Jambaló reservation astride a 9,000-foot mountain range 200 miles southwest of Bogotá.
The Paez are Colombia's largest indigenous group, with 95,000
members spread around the southwestern Cauca state along with 12,000 Guambianos,
Yanaconas and 5,000 Coconucos.
Colombia's 450,000 indigenous citizens, little more than 2 percent of the country's total population, have long been unwilling victims of the war between the armed forces, leftist rebels and illegal right-wing paramilitary militias.
Living in remote mountains and jungles where the armed forces have little presence, they have been forced to cohabit with the guerrillas, and thereby become targets for the paramilitaries, soldiers and police.
``They get kicked by both left and right military boots,'' said Gerardo Delgado, an indigenous rights activist from the Cauca capital city of Popayán, a 30-mile, 2 1/2 hour drive on washboard roads from Jambaló.
Six Indian leaders were killed or disappeared in the past two months and the violence ``is getting worse, progressively and systematically,'' Anders Kompass, head of the U.N. human rights office in Bogotá, said on International Indigenous People Day, Aug. 9.
The victims included Cristóbal Escué, a Cauca Indian
rights leader killed in June near Jambaló, and Misael Chepe, deputy
governor of a Paez reservation in the
neighboring state of Valle Del Cauca.
But the 12,400 Paez of Jambaló, a 62,000-acre reservation where dirt-poor families grow potatoes, onions, coffee, coca and opium poppies, the raw materials of cocaine and heroin, took a stand beginning last summer.
Refineries that process semifinished coca base into cocaine had
been moving into the reservation, offering attractive salaries and even
handguns to Paez workers and
guards and upsetting the Indians' way of life.
``The easy money brought alcoholism, family fights, school dropouts and weapons, and undermined the authority of the tribal councils,'' Ipia said. ``We had to put our house in order.''
It wasn't easy. Paez who rented their lands to the refineries balked. Owners made death threats. And the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which collects protection payments from the drug traffic, ``counseled'' against driving away a business that also profited the Indians.
But on the morning of June 21 last year, after deputizing 800 men as guards -- 20 from each village -- the reservation's ruling cabildo, or council, started cleaning out the Paez homeland.
Over two days, they shut down five refineries, ordering workers
to return home and driving the equipment to the borders of the reservation
so that they would not be
accused of destroying or stealing anything.
``Almost no one resisted because we had the bastón,'' recalled Ipia, one of the leaders of the raids. A Paez guard who did was subdued by the civil guards and sent before a tribal court. His punishment: 20 lashes with a leather shepherd's whip and eight minutes of cepo -- hanging by his heels, a traditional Paez punishment.
``The traffickers have never come back,'' Ipia said proudly.
But traffickers were easy targets compared to the FARC, Colombia's largest rebel force, and other armed political groups.
Paez leaders notified FARC regional commanders in December that while they were free to pass through the reservation, they could not establish permanent bases there, Ipia said.
The same message went out to two other tiny guerrilla groups,
the Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Authentics, known as JEGA, and the
Jaime Bátteman, both known to use the
area to keep victims of kidnappings-for-ransom.
When the FARC recruited six Paez teenagers into its ranks in June, cabildo leaders walked right up to the rebels' base on the edge of the reservation and took the boys home, Ipia said.
Contacts in Popayán also succeeded in persuading the paramilitaries to lift their checkpoint on the main road into the reservation, where six Paez had disappeared since January, Indian officials said.
Some 350 civil guards now move tree trunks across all eight roads leading into the reservation at night and enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew to keep guerrillas and drug traffickers from infiltrating the area. And there's talk of expanding the Nasa Yup, Paez for Indian Guard, for daytime patrols.
``Without arming themselves, but only through the bastón,
the Paez have done it, and they have done it well,'' said Cauca Gov. Floro
Tunubalá, a Guambiano Indian
elected last year as Colombia's first indigenous governor.
Still, there are many reminders that in Colombia the power of the bastón seldom trumps the power of an AK-47 rifle.
Last week, when guards tried to take back a truck stolen by FARC rebels, the guerrillas cocked their guns and drove off, telling the Paez that ``with those sticks you're powerless,'' Ipia recalled.
Two weeks ago, paramilitaries beheaded a Paez farmer who had gone into the nearby city of Santander de Quilichao to sell his potato crop.
And three weeks ago, Paez leaders who walked to a FARC camp to demand the release of three German development workers kidnapped July 18 by the FARC inside a Guambiano reservation were told to buzz off.