By Luciano Figari, Latin American Herald Tribune
At least 38 Indians, 20 of them minors and the rest no older than 25, have turned in their weapons and left behind the Colombian armed conflict thanks to a program sponsored by the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, or ACIN.
“In addition to numerous massacres and killings, (Colombia’s internal conflict has resulted in) the forced or voluntary recruitment of a lot of people into the country’s different armed groups,” ACIN leader Jorge Arias told Efe.
“When they take a (member of an indigenous community) away from us, it’s as if they’d cut off a body part. The pain we feel is the same. And when a community member or a family is attacked, it’s an attack on an entire group, an entire people,” Arias said.
In response, Indians in the northern part of the southwestern province of Cauca launched a non-violent demobilization campaign that is separate from the government’s efforts and aims at recovering young people who have been drawn into the conflict while also asserting traditional indigenous authority.
Thanks to the program, begun three years ago with the help of non-governmental and human rights organizations, 36 young people who had been recruited into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla organization – the Andean nation’s largest insurgency – and two who had become members of paramilitary groups have returned to their communities.
Once a mourning family brings the matter of a missing young person to the attention of the indigenous group and its leaders, the community as a whole embarks on a search that normally is “quite difficult and complicated” but does not end until the individual is located, Arias said.
Then, using the community’s spiritual and traditional authority, an effort is made to persuade the captors to allow the young person to return home.
“It’s a collective strategy that involves all members of the community and obligates the armed actors not to retaliate against children or the people who are recovered. In that way, the autonomy and dynamics of our authorities and our territories are strengthened,” Arias said.
Although the program thus far is exclusively for Indians, Arias said ACIN calls on Colombia’s armed groups to remove all defenseless civilians, and minors in particular, from the conflict.
The U.N. Human Rights Office in Colombia released a statement in December 2009 indicating that Indians and people of African descent suffer the consequences of discrimination and violence stemming from the country’s decades-old armed conflict.
Like other Colombian residents of rural areas, Indians are particularly vulnerable to violence and rights violations perpetrated by the FARC and another leftist guerrilla army, successor groups to the ostensibly demobilized AUC paramilitary federation and drug traffickers.
Colombia is home to about 1.1 million Indians.