astonishing act of civil disobedience, local residents of Toribio, a small town in southwest Colombia, demanded that government forces fighting the rebel FARC go home — and destroyed their fortifications to underscore the point. The town has been witness to especially brutal violence in recent days that has left a number of people dead, and scores more injured and homeless. Yesterday afternoon, up to a thousand indigenous community members stormed the local police station in Toribio and destroyed the trenches fortifying it.
The concern, of course, is that the further the police dig in near the community, the more they’ll attract unwanted attention from nearby insurgent outfits. “We do not understand how strengthening the security forces would defend the population,” said Marcos Yules, governor of Toribio. “To the contrary, the strengthening of the security forces increases the fighting.”
But locals didn’t stop there. They then marched into the surrounding jungle to confront rebel fighters directly in their camps. From the BBC’s reporting, we learn that they communicated the exact same message in no uncertain terms. “One thousand of us went to see the guerrillas, to tell them to leave, that we don’t need them, that we want them to leave us alone,” said a representative of the Cauca Indigenous Committee. If they don’t pack up their camps, we’ll pack them up for them.” The protesters gave the rebels two weeks to scram.
Marching against Militarization
Colombia Reports has been monitoring increasing protests in the region demanding an end to the violence that has inflicted serious harm to innocent bystanders. In late June, “More than 1,500 people marched… in solidarity with local protests against the new ‘Tres Cruces’ army base in the southwestern Cauca department… The marchers explicitly asked for the “demilitarization” of the area, known as Miranda, claiming the constant battles between left-wing guerrillas and Colombian security forces in the area put the lives of the community members at risk… Expressing the sentiments of several residents, one of the marchers, Orlando Buitron, said ‘the earth belongs to us, the Army should not be here. Their presence means we risk getting in the middle of a firefight at any moment. We ask them to leave.”
The logic is clear. If government security forces and the FARC want to duke it out, that’s their business. But residents won’t passively tolerate being in the middle of a warzone any longer. Said Marcos Yules, the indigenous governor of the Toribio, “The population has not been consulted. This is a fight between armed groups. We suggest that they fight where there is no population.”
They certainly caught the attention of the president, Juan Manuel Santos. The unprecedented nature of these acts led Santos to make an emergency trip to the town with a team of high-level security advisors to assess to the situation and determine the way forward.
Seemingly proving the very point local residents have been making, Santos’ visit achieved little aside from inciting yet more violence in the area. Before the president’s helicopter landed in Toribio, federal police dug up bombs purportedly planted by FARC rebels near where Santos was scheduled to set down. Reutersreports as well that “Local television showed attack helicopters shooting into surrounding mountains where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels were believed to be.” At the same time, a FARC motorcycle bombkilled one child and severely injured five more in the nearby town of El Plateado.
When the president arrived, he was greeted with chants of “get out,” which intensified when Santos refused to meet with local leaders to hear their demands. The government offered to send representatives of the president to meet with the townspeople, an offer that was immediately rejected. Carlos Andres Alfonso, a local indigenous leader, told Fox News Latino that “under Colombia’s constitution indigenous people are autonomous and have the right to exercise control over their territories. ‘We have full legitimacy to exercise territorial control,’ said Alfonso, who vowed that the Indigenous Guard will continue to dismantle military and police posts and encampments and destroy barricades.”
Protests Fall on Deaf Ears
For its part, the government was clear that it has no intention of changing course. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon issued a statement, before heading himself to Toribio, that restated his commitment to battling the FARC in Cauca province. “We have to keep going onward, keep on going against these base areas that the FARC established decades ago, we will make more efforts. In the last two months more than 2,000 men of the armed forces have arrived in Cauca and we will consider if we have to send more troops to keep guaranteeing security, but it remains clear that we can’t lower the guard,” said Pinzon in a press release from the defense ministry.
Seemingly not understanding that local residents were not criticizing the government for being ineffective, but were demanding that all fighting between security forces and the FARC be taken elsewhere, Carlos Pinzon remarked that his soldiers were making great strides against the rebels. And as Colombia Reports notes, he “claimed the best solution to the problems of public order was to ‘increase the amount of troops.’”
In the face of this news, the residents of Toribio are holding firm to the line that they will not tolerate any more fighting in their towns and the surrounding jungle. “We’ll continue asserting territorial control without asking anyone’s permission,” Carlos Andres Alfonso said, arguing that they won’t give up until they are allowed “to live in peace and be an example of coexistence.” — Michael Busch
Michael Busch is a political science and international studies professor at CCNY and a program coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Read more about him and our other bloggers.