Colombia’s Powerful Organization, Guardia Indigena, Speaks Out

Marco Teruggi
Indigenous protesters attend an anti-government march in Cali, Colombia, Wednesday, May 12, 2021 – Sputnik Mundo

The Guardia Indigena, one of the most important organizations in Colombia, has been a part of the mobilizations during the outbreak between April and July of this year. It is composed of about 70,000 members. Its coordinator, Lucho Acosta, spoke with Sputnik from Cauca, in the southwest of the country.

The department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia, is one of the most conflict-ridden territories in the country. It is a mountainous, jungle area, with large plantations of illicit coca and marijuana crops, armed groups, an escalation of violence with 14 massacres in 2020 of the total of 91 nationwide, and 11 of the 61 that have occurred this year.

Cauca is also the department where the most social leaders are murdered, most of whom are indigenous and peasants. Political violence for control of territory is not new in the country or in this region, which is key due to its geography that connects to the south with Ecuador, to the east with the Amazon jungle, to the northwest with Bogota, and to the coast with numerous river mouths on the Pacific Ocean.

To confront this armed violence, the Indigenous Guard was organized, composed of 70,000 members, 13,000 of whom are in Cauca, where its national coordinator, Lucho Acosta, spoke with Sputnik. Around him there are mandarin plants, bananas, laying hens, dogs napping, a table where he serves a tinto, as the cup of coffee is called in Colombia.
Lucho Acosta, national coordinator of the Guardia Indigena (Indigenous Guard)
© Sputnik / Marco Teruggi

Acosta is from the Nasa people and years ago, in the 1990s, he was a teacher. Now he is a recognized figure for his leadership position within the Guard, a structure of the indigenous movement that is organized from the local to the national level in the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia. He, like the movement as a whole, was in the streets during the weeks of the uprising between April and July, particularly in the city of Cali and in Cauca.

The defense of the territory

“The Indigenous Guard is a resistance movement created by the indigenous peoples of Colombia; it is dedicated to the defense of the rights of the peoples, the defense of the territories, the protection of life,” explains its national coordinator.

“We are an unarmed process that travels with sticks, which are a symbol of the indigenous peoples that represents the rejection of war, we are volunteers, no one pays us, we volunteer to defend life, it is an ancient guard, but it was created and structured when the situation of armed conflict was at its worst, in the indigenous territories, it was created as an unarmed civil defense to protect rights”.

The moment of greatest impact occurred at the end of the 1990s, when the large paramilitary structures, such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), arrived in Cauca.

There was an increase in displacements, “confrontations, guerrilla takeovers, pressure on the guerrillas to fight them, the guerrillas were very strong in the indigenous territories of Cauca, a war scenario that began to affect many people, entering the territories”.

The question was then, explains Acosta, “either we stayed in the territories or we left, the pressure was strong, to stay we had to have a strategy, so the Guard was structured and became officially established in a permanent way. Previously, it was only for events, marches, land recoveries”, like the ones that continue today.

The Guardia Indígena “played a role in preventing the war from being as harsh in the territories, to avoid displacement, recruitment, to avoid homicides. It has become an exercise in taking young people away from the war, a school for the political formation of the new leadership of the indigenous movement”.

The never-ending armed conflict

Just as the demobilization of the AUC in 2006 did not mean the end of paramilitarism, the Peace Agreement signed in 2016 between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) did not mean the end of the armed conflict in the country either.

“We thought that with the peace process the security and protection conditions in the territories were going to improve, then came a repopulation of dissident groups, paramilitary groups, groups at the service of drug trafficking that began to dispute the territory,” says the national coordinator of the Guardia Indígena.

“The most difficult thing is not knowing where they come from, who they are and the way they operate, one used to say ‘those are from the FARC’, but the way they operate now we don’t know if they are paramilitary, or where they are from”.

The demobilization of the FARC in 2016, the dissidence of some fronts that decided to remain in arms, the return to the armed struggle of former commanders like Iván Márquez at the head of the now called “second Marquetalia,” the continuity of the National Liberation Army, the resurgence of paramilitary groups, created a complex map of actors in the territories.

In Cauca, several of these armed structures coexist and, according to Acosta, they do not act in isolation. “I think it is a strategy, with the peace process there has been an international visibility, so the soldiers cannot shoot so they sent others to control, to generate fear, behind this is the government, the military forces, there are army commanders, one can see this, one knows it”.

The systematic assassinations of those who defend territories, who are community leaders, are an attempt to stop social organization. This is a situation that has been going on for decades in Colombia and has intensified again under the government of Iván Duque, of the Centro Democrático party, led by former president Álvaro Uribe. “Behind that is Uribism, it is their policy, there is justification in their way of speaking to assassinate anyone who protests, that is Uribism.”

The social explosion

Last April 28, a national strike began, which turned into an explosion for more than two months. Cali, a few hours from Popayán, capital of Cauca, was the main epicenter, with 24 points of resistance throughout the city. The indigenous movement decided to join the protests against the government and its neoliberal model.

“We are part of a society and we are affected by all the reforms in Colombia, the indigenous movement cannot feel left out, we decided to participate with our own symbology, with our order, with our solidarity, our strategy of resistance, in Cali, Cauca, and many regions followed”, explains Acosta.

“The role of the Guardia was to direct, to support, this was a very important exercise in accompanying this outburst, in demanding the rights of all sectors”. The indigenous movement was attacked in Cali with firearms by civilians allied to the State security forces, a form of repression that was repeated on several occasions.

Lucho Acosta, as national coordinator, was part of that mobilization: “I was struck by the strength of the pelados (the youth), the determination, the endurance that they have, the fact that they are prepared to die caught my attention, I saw their bravery, that impressed me, and also the emotion of seeing the indigenous people, and seeing the confidence, ‘the tough ones have arrived’, they said, ‘come, help us’, like an admiration”.

Protests dwindled in August, a product of attrition, repression and assassinations by the Government, which targeted those who mobilized as part of a strategy of “low intensity urban terrorism”, in addition to a necessary reorganization of a movement without a clear political direction. Acosta points out that there will be a “resurgence of the uprising” within an ever closer electoral context, with the legislative and presidential elections of 2022.

The electoral alternative

The indigenous movement has also drawn up a road map before the elections: “institutional support is needed, the political wager is that there is an alternative, a government that understands what the people and the communities want, there must be in that government people who listen to the needs, who respond to these young people who are in need of an embrace from their State, but who receive bullets and lead”.

That alternative is now found, Acosta explains, in the “historic pact”, the space of unity of different progressive and centrist political forces for 2022, whose principal figure is Gustavo Petro, who was at the Congress of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca held a few days ago.

The elections will take place within what will surely be a context of protests. “There is going to be very strong repression towards the mobilization for which we must be prepared, and before Duque leaves that is going to explode with much more force.” For the moment there is a tense calm that seems like it could break at any moment, in a country where there have been strong mobilizations since 2019.

La Guardia, the indigenous movement as a whole, is preparing for both scenarios, the ballot boxes and the streets, in a country plagued by uninterrupted political violence that has Uribism at the center of its equation. 2021 is possibly a pivotal year with the historic explosion, 2022 could be the year of an electoral victory of a progressive force, a confluence of numerous sectors, among which is the Colombian indigenous movement.

Translation by Internationalist 360°