The Colombian government’s claims that indigenous protestors are acting directly on behalf of insurgents are likely false, but complex local politics mean that the question of guerrilla involvement in the demonstrations cannot be completely ruled out.
The southwestern Colombian province of Cauca made headlines recently as a rapidly-escalating conflict broke out between local indigenous groups and the armed forces stationed in the area. When President Juan Manuel Santos visited the town of Toribio on July 11, to make the case that the security situation in the area was improving despite increasing dissatisfaction with his administration, he was given a less than warm welcome.
Fed up with a recent wave of violent confrontations between security forces and guerrillas that had resulted in several civilian deaths, the largely indigenous population of Toribio booed the president and demanded that he withdraw the police and military from the area at once. Santos, of course, rejected this, saying the presence of armed forces was necessary for public security and that they were “here to stay."
This sparked outrage amongst local indigenous groups, who organized a series of large-scale protests in and around Toribio against the presence of both security forces and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On July 17 demonstrators overran a military base, temporarily driving off the soldiers stationed there.
For its part, the government has described these actions as the work of rebel sympathizers. On July 18, President Santos released an intercepted email supposedly written in May by a local FARC commander which called for the "spread of propaganda in the municipalities of northern Cauca so that locals demand the withdrawal of security forces.” The president further cautioned that while not all the protestors were FARC supporters, several had direct links to the guerrillas and would be prosecuted for them.
Santos is not the only source of these accusations; a local indigenous association has made them as well. In an interview with Medellin's largest newspaper, El Colombiano, Ana Silvia Secue, a spokeswoman for the Cauca-based Multicultural Organization of Colombian Indigenous Peoples (OPIC), claimed that the demonstrators in the Toribio area are directly in league with the guerrillas. According to Secue, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and the Indigenous Authority of Northern Cauca (ACIN) -- the main organizations behind the protests -- have a well-established relationship with the FARC and are hoping to push out security forces in order to take pressure off of the insurgents.
Secue alleged that the CRIC and ACIN’s repeated calls for the FARC to cease its activities in the area are a ruse designed to mislead the government and civil society. The OPIC representative further claimed that a volunteer patrol group known as the Indigenous Guard had targeted her and other members of her organization for their anti-guerrilla stance, in some cases attempting to displace them and seize their land.
There is, however, reason to doubt the authenticity of these allegations. The OPIC is tiny and a relatively new arrival to the area, having only recently been established in 2009. By comparison, the CRIC and ACIN began in 1971 and 1994, respectively. Immediately upon its creation the OPIC endorsed the controversial security policies of then-president Alvaro Uribe, causing some to speculate over the group’s independence. It is not recognized by the foremost native rights advocacy group in the country, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), and is ultimately seen as a pawn for government interests in Cauca.
Also contradicting the government’s characterization of the protestors is the fact that they seem to be staying true to their stated desire to rid Toribio of all armed actors, legal or not. Demonstrators claim to have dismantled a FARC campsite in the area, and on July 18 the Indigenous Guard captured four alleged FARC members, which were subsequently sentenced to flogging by n indigenous community court. f the FARC were indeed behind the movement, this would seem counterproductive.
On the other hand, the detentions could simply have been a ploy aimed at preserving the protestors’ neutral image. Ties between the FARC and elements of the CRIC and ACIN cannot be entirely ruled out. Cauca has been a rebel stronghold for most of the country’s armed conflict, and it would not be out of the ordinary for the indigenous associations to have had friendly dealings with the guerrillas at some point, if only out of self-preservation.
The FARC have a history of infiltrating social movements in Colombia. Leftist student groups with varying levels of support for the guerrillas are a mainstay at universities across the country, and are commonly used as recruiting grounds for FARC-affiliated urban militias, on which the group is increasingly reliant. Labor unions and "campesino" organizations are also commonly targeted by FARC operatives and occasionally mobilize to defend guerrilla interests. A series of protests against government coca-eradication efforts in the northern municipality of Anori in January 2011, for example, were believed to have been organized by the FARC’s 36th Front to protect its drug profits. This was confirmed to InSight Crime during interviews with local community leaders at the time.
The possibility of FARC infiltration in the Cauca indigenous protests, however remote it may be, is not just troubling from a political perspective. The Cauca region connects coca-producing highlands in the south with the Pacific Ocean making it a highly strategic drug trafficking corridor. If government security forces were to withdraw or even scale down their presence in the area, it could have a massive impact on the regional drug trade, potentially allowing the FARC to increase its revenue from drug trafficking.