Following the murder of Colombian Indigenous leader Albeiro Camayo Güetio in January 2022 by FARC dissidents, independent digital media outlet 070 interviewed human rights activist and legal representative of the Kokonuko people, Johe Sauca, and co-founder and researcher of Conflict Responses Foundation (CORE), Kyle Johnson, to understand the crime and the government’s and FARC dissidents’ responsibility for it. The interviews were originally published in 070. Colombian Journalism student at University of the West of England and LAB intern, Valentina Hernández Gomez, translated the piece for LAB.
At the end of January 2022, Colombia had already seen 13 massacres and 13 murders of social leaders. These numbers continue to rise and the crimes continue to go unpunished. Indigenous communities from Nasa, in the North of the Cauca region, believe the same will continue to happen following the death of Albeiro Camayo (RIP), the regional coordinator of the Indigenous Guard, who was assassinated by FARC dissidents.
Albeiro Camayo died in the same Indigenous reservation where he was born, Las Delicias. He was dedicated to strengthening ancestral leadership here in the territory as a means for the community to defend their land. Camayo had already eluded death threats and assassination attempts by illegal armed groups who opposed his communal mandate. He was clearly at risk, despite the security measures put in place by the National Unity of Protection, which were clearly not enough – nor were the early alerts by the Ombudsman Office right before his death.
On 24 January 2022, the day the crime was committed according to the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), a group of men who identified themselves as part of the FARC dissident group Columna Móvil Jaime Martínez forced the Indigenous community to meet with them. Camayo asked them to leave. However, two hours later they began to shoot, with a clear target: Camayo.
We talked with Johe Sauca, Human Rights advocate and legal representative of the Kokonuko people, to fully comprehend this affront against the Guard and the level of governmental responsibility for the crime. We also talked to Kyle Johnson, co-founder and researcher of the Conflict Responses Foundation (CORE), who explains how FARC dissidents operate in Cauca, a strategic area of territorial control for the drug smuggling bands.
These criminal groups, in this case a group of FARC dissidents, have been strengthened by the poor implementation of the Peace Accords in Cauca, an area where, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ), over 238 social leaders and Human Rights advocates have been murdered since November 2016.
Interview with Johe Sauca, Humans Right advocate and Legal counsellor of the Kokonuko people
070: The Indigenous people from the North of Cauca have gathered in collective protest (in a ‘Minga’– a reunion of diverse Indigenous leaders and groups) after the death of the Guard’s founder, José Albeiro Camayo Güetio. What did he represent and how have you dealt with this violent episode, which you have all been victims of?
Johe Sauca: Our comrade Albeiro Camayo, born and raised in the territory of Las Delicias, began his career in the Association of Indigenous Councils in the North of Cauca and spent his whole life studying the region. In 2017, he was appointed as one of the three regional coordinators for the Regional Council (CRIC) due to his continuous work and Human Rights advocacy.
He received death threats and suffered murder attempts a while ago, that’s why he had security measures in place, especially considering the northern Cauca context: this is a region historically occupied by illegal armed groups, military, and illegal crops.
Albeiro began to be recognized as a leader in the municipalities of Cauca and even outside of the department thanks to his hard work. However, this caused him to suffer, and he was wrongly accused by the Prosecution of alleged connections with the ELN guerrilla and other criminal groups. None of the legal processes were successful and eventually they ended up being archived due to a lack of legal or factual grounds. The continuous stigmatization Albeiro was subjected to made him even more aware of the risks he was facing.
We are convinced that his murder was premeditated. If we look carefully, death at the hands of an armed group is always political. At the same time, there’s a shared responsibility with the Government, which has fallen short in the prosecution of the crime itself, and the threats that came before it.
The official statement released by CRIC affirms that at around 3:15 PM, armed men arrived, and that at 5:30 PM, the same individuals shot at the gathered community. Why do you think that Camayo was their target?
He was clearly defined as a strategic target by the illegal groups because, according to statements from Camayo’s security guard, they shot him seven times and wounded him in the chin with a machete during the murder. Briefly after, the armed group took his bag and baton like a spoil of war. It was clear that he was delineated as a military target on their part.
The CRIC identified that the attack was carried out by the FARC dissidents, but the constant threats and attempts to assassinate him beforehand – do you know where they came from? What was the relationship between the Indigenous Guard and the FARC before the demobilization process?
In the past, the threats were usually carried out by the ‘Aguilas Negras’ and other paramilitary groups. After the Peace Accords, the threats were coming from the FARC dissidents and drug smugglers. First the ‘Columna Móvil Jaime Martinez’ and then the ‘Columna Móvil Dagoberto Ramos’. Then it also came from the Sinaloa Cartel and so on.
Today we are in an extremely tough situation in terms of Human Rights, we are in crisis: the number of massacres is once again rising. We stand for territorial control; the preservation of both life and community. And I think this is an important statement to remember because, under this premise, we make it clear that we have never had any kind of links with armed groups.
We have never made any pacts with them, and we have always aimed to resist their presence in our lands. We have continuously insisted on the implementation of the Peace Accords, especially in terms of illegal crops substitution.
How does the Indigenous Guard feel about the dissidents? What were they gaining from attacking someone like Camayo?
The message they’re sending out is one of a false ‘revolution’; they’re killing their people. With Camayo’s murder, they’re showing that they only care about the individual interests of illicit economies, drug smuggling, and their strategic corridors.
We must remember that the regions of Suárez and Buenos Aires (Cauca) are located right on the route of alkaloids and their derivatives, like cocaine and marihuana, which make their way out through the Naya River (that connects the ocean with the Pacific Forest) up to Central America and the US.
In this sense it’s important to be straightforward: the FARC guerrilla no longer exists, it ceased to be with the signature of the Peace Accords, and these groups only defend drug smuggling pathways and that’s how they make a living, in addition to extortion and drug exports.
They’re also in alliance: dissidents, drug smugglers, and even the state itself. For example, when they murdered the liberal candidate Karina García Sierra, it was later discovered that the illegal groups were provided with guns by police officers from Valle del Cauca.
We can’t forget that the anti-narcotics airport allowed a plane with over 400 kilos of cocaine to travel to countries like Nicaragua. We can’t forget the San Clemente estate, where they set up labs to process cocaine. And we’ve witnessed various political figures being involved with it all.
That’s why we say that it’s not just FARC dissidents, but all kinds of illegal groups involved in illicit economies. At least the FARC guerrilla tried to have a political approach, but the dissidents aren’t open to any kind of negotiations, they only commit crimes against our Indigenous people both in Cauca and Colombia.
Camayo is the third kiwi thegnas [Defenders of Life and Territory group of The Indigenous Guard of Cauca] who has been killed in this territory. How does the community make sense of all the violence you have faced under the current government?
To this date, 250 of our Indigenous leaders have been killed, alongside spiritual authorities, guards, and presidents of community action boards. We also include the families of those in leadership positions in these figures, because they have been impacted by the violence, like Camayo’s brother and nephew who were kidnapped just after Camayo’s death.
We recognise that every violent action has a domino effect on the community’s processes, and we are extremely worried about this government’s approach, which is merely to deploy more military personnel, even when these measures only tend to exacerbate murders and massacres.
The most visible case of this is in Arauca where military personnel have been deployed. We are still counting the deaths of civilians this week. In Cauca, this phenomenon is so strong that it only encourages us to consolidate our authority even more, since institutional action has been absent, and early alerts have been repeatedly ignored.
Are you afraid of a rise in violent events during this election period?
Cauca has been historically impacted by violence during election periods. We are entering a moment of social and political violence which impacts communities’ democratic participation, even in the interior of the country. We are seeing a rise in crimes against humanity, and physical and cultural extermination – which we could even call genocide. Various of our fellow leaders have also been threatened, which is impacting their mobility and ends up confining rural communities during these moments of transition from one government to another.
What are the urgent matters here?
What we have always demanded on behalf of Indigenous people, farmers, and Afro-Colombians who have suffered war, is the fulfillment of promises made to us. Colombians as a society have spoken for a long time about integral rural reform and land restitution, but no one complies with their promises. We have asked the international community to follow humanitarian issues in different regions of Colombia like Cauca, Nariño, Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Huila, Putumayo, and Arauca – territories that have suffered from the impacts of the war and are tired of unfulfilled promises.
A serious evaluation process is required to see the real implementation of the Peace Accords. The Constitutional Court pointed out that the government has contributed almost nothing to implementation efforts, while they have fragmented and violated the agreement. Ours is a painful reality; inequality continues to go through the roof while people in Puerto Carreño eat from the bins to sustain themselves. It’s not just that our Human Rights are being infringed upon, but also that the country is constantly acting against International Humanitarian Laws.
Will Camayo’s death go unpunished? Are his nephew and son at risk after the kidnapping?
Impunity in Cauca is high. There are very few cases where crimes have been solved and perpetrators sentenced. We don’t have high hopes. We know for a fact they won’t investigate the intellectual and material authors of the murder.
And the rest of Camayo’s family is still at risk. Three members of the Camayo family have been murdered: Albeiro Camayo, his brother, and his brother-in-law. Another one of his brothers is still recovering after a murder attempt. The situation in the Indigenous reservation of Las Delicias is quite serious; we have no option but to find spiritual strength.
Interview with Kyle Johnson, co-founder, and researcher from the Conflict Responses foundation
070: What’s behind the conflict in Cauca right now? Is it a territorial dispute between the dissidents? Does it have anything to do with the murder of Alias Jhonier?
The conflict in the North of Cauca has been ongoing for the past few years for the same reasons: there’s a clear confrontation between Indigenous communities aiming to control their territories and the armed groups who’ve arrived – in the last few years this has specifically been FARC dissidents (the Columna Móvil Dagoberto Ramos and the Columna Móvil Jaime Martínez groups).
We don’t see a clear correlation between the operation and capture of Jhonier – who was the commander in chief of the Gentil Duarte dissidents – and Alias Ivan Mordisco in the South of Colombia, with this wave of violence against the Indigenous Guard. What we do believe is that it is related to a series of attacks against the Public Forces in Timbío, Suárez, El Bordo, and other municipalities.
The Columna Móvil Jaime Martínez group fabricated and circulated a false communiqué which stated that the Indigenous Guard were armed with guns – this was later denied by Johe Sauca. How do you make sense of this negative propaganda against the communities?
The dissidents continue to defend its veracity. They believe it is true that the Guard is armed. It’s ridiculous, but it’s how they seek to justify their violence.
The dissidents believe that it’s easier to attack the communities if they’re armed because, in a sense, they wouldn’t just be attacking a group of people, but rather an armed group. It’s a strategy to vindicate the atrocities they are committing against Indigenous communities and even social leaders.
Who do they work for? Whose interests are they favouring? Who are they serving when they commit violent acts, like Camayo’s murder?
The dissidents work for themselves, they have their own interests. Obviously they have some partners in these crimes, like drug smugglers; that’s no secret. Despite this, they make their own decisions. They serve themselves.
This murder serves the narcos, facilitating their control over and protection of smuggling routes, but at the same time, it’s getting lots of attention which is not useful for them. Especially in the North of Cauca, where they aim to attract as little attention as possible.
Narcos began working alongside farmers and Indigenous communities a long time ago, but this relationship is much more complicated since the FARC dissidents have taken territorial control which is an altogether different matter to working with people on economic issues. Although the dissidents work hand in hand with the drug traffickers, they have their own interests and ways of handling things. I wouldn’t start from the idea that they work for others; they work with others, and that is different: you cannot take away their agency.
Johe Sauca states that the dissidents serve the drug smuggling business, as they guard drug corridors and strategic lands, and that they no longer have any political alignment. Additionally, there are claims of alliances between the dissidents and paramilitary groups. What do you think about this?
The fact that these groups are guarding the land makes them paramilitaries? I don’t think so. To believe they’re exclusively there to serve as that would be to oversimplify the issue.
Firstly, that would be assuming that the sole actors are the guerrillas and the paramilitaries when in fact there could be guerrillas, paramilitaries, organized crime, gangs and so on present. Secondly, FARC used to operate in the same area, protecting the drug smuggling routes and aiming to extend their territorial domain. In that sense, the dissidents represent a continuity of the FARC.
The dissidents have maintained the political discourse of the old FARC, even if it’s a weaker version. What we have witnessed is that they’re able to make sense of the current reality but without formulating any promises for the future, that’s to say, they still preserve some of that past but it could just be a facade.
You stated that back in 2016 there were four fully identified dissident groups in the country and that in 2020, the number went up to 25. How many are there now? How many of those operate in Cauca? How do they differentiate one from another? What has boosted their power?
In our most recent count, we identified 30 dissident structures in the country, that’s to say, 30 groups that were born under the ‘Segunda Marquetalia de Iván Marquez’ and ‘Gentil Duarte’ projects.
In Cauca, there are the ‘Columna Móvil Dagoberto Ramos’, the ‘Columna Móvil Jaime Martínez’, the ‘Frente 30’, the ‘Frente Carlos Patiño’ and the ‘Franco Benavides’ groups, who were moving up the River Patia, and possibly haven’t reached Cauca yet. On the other side, there’s the ‘Diomer Cortes Front’ that specifically operates in Argelia.
The armed groups in Cauca are without doubt the most active in terms of military activity. It is the area of Colombia with most attacks carried out by dissidents against public forces.
I’m not sure if it’s right to qualify these as the strongest structures now, but they’re strong and extremely violent, as shown by the stats, and this is because of territorial disputes, which could make them appear more robust. Not only that but they also have strong economic sources like control over illegal businesses – and therefore, control over the local communities. They’ve won battles with everything that this implies. The fact that they have control means they are recruiting more easily, for example.
All these factors contribute to their continued existence. The funds, the authority over the communities, and the failed government policies which haven’t managed to quell them nor even sufficiently affect them, have contributed to their gradual growth.
In this election period, what can be expected from the dissidents as agents in the conflict?
We’re going to see interference in local elections and of course, in the candidacy options for the special peace circumscriptions. [These aim to increase political representation for regions hit by the internal conflict, with more seats in congress.] We’ll see political violence against candidates and their campaigns, just as we did a few years ago.
We have yet to see if there’s going to be national coordinated action from the dissidents, because we have been talking about them as if they were one, big, cohesive group, when in reality they’re extremely heterogeneous and within them co-habit a variety of interests and action mechanisms. Some will say: ‘those who come to power have to work with us’, others will say: ‘we like this one, we don’t like the other’. The key is not to expect uniform action on their part.
Are the dissidents the new public enemy? The new monster to whom all crimes and outrages can be attributed?
That’s how the official narrative is portraying the situation, that the dissidents are the worst thing that has happened to this country. They’ve indeed been responsible for a certain amount of violence and humanitarian crises, there’s no way of denying these facts. But there’s a tendency for the government to oversell the power that these illegal actors hold, just to create a target, a scapegoat. We must be aware of this. They’re undoubtedly responsible for all the violence they have unleashed, but we shouldn’t buy the official narrative that seeks to justify their failed policies.