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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Colombia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Colombia : Overview, May 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce5dc.html [accessed 29 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated May 2008


Environment

Colombia is the fourth largest country in Latin America (1,141,748 square kilometres) and has the second largest population (over 44 million inhabitants). Colombia is bordered to the east by Venezuela and Brazil; to the south by Ecuador and Peru; to the North by the Atlantic Ocean, through the Caribbean Sea; and to the west by Panama and the Pacific Ocean.


Peoples

Main languages: Spanish, 64 official indigenous languages, Bande, Creole, Palanquero

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), Judaism, indigenous and Afro-Colombian religions.

Main minority groups: 1,378.884 (3,4%) people belonging to various indigenous groups, 4,261,996 (10,5%) Afro-Colombians and 4.832 (0.01%) Roma (gypsies), Mestizo 58%, White 20%, Mulatto 14% (DANE 2005, CIA Factbook 2006)

Colombia has more than eighty indigenous peoples living in a variety of ecological zones and the second largest African descendent population in Latin America after Brazil which includes palenqueros, the descendants of maroon communities, and raizales, the English speaking Caribbean communities, in San Andres and Providencia.


History

Colombia's history has been characterized by frequent periods of political violence and protracted civil war dating back to as early as the second half of the 19th century. The historic origins of the conflict can be traced back to traditional power struggles for political dominance and control of natural resources (e.g. land) waged between ruling political elites of the conservative (PC) and liberal parties (PL). The periods of 1899-1903 and 1948-1953 (La Violencia) were marked by bloody civil war and enduring phases of high intensity violence resulting in at least 200,000 deaths. (International Crisis Group – ICG, 2006).

In 1958 the PL and the PC formed a power sharing arrangement which excluded other political parties, sparking the emergence of the left wing guerrilla movements: Ejercito de Liberation Nacional (ELN), Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejercito del Pueblo (FARC-EP), and into the 1970s the M-19 movement whose leaders eventually laid down their arms in 1989 and later became highly visible and influential in conventional politics.

The nature and roots of Colombia's conflict have evolved over time. Today the conflict is deemed to be less based on political ideology and much more rooted in territorial and natural resource control involving international private capital, drug traffickers, right wing paramilitaries, leftist guerrillas, government forces, and military and economic interventions from powerful western governments such as the United States.

Initially the ELN and FARC declared their aims to be ridding the country of corrupt neo-imperialistic ruling elite whose power had always been based on patronage and exclusion (ICG, 2006). According to guerrilla propaganda such elites remain guilty of dispossessing the masses of their right and access to the land, and continue to exclude them from enjoying the benefits of the country's wealth.

But the conflict has persisted with both left wing and right wing armed groups becoming heavily involved in and reliant on the narcotics trade as a means of funding their war and amassing private wealth. Today the paramilitaries and drug traffickers are said to control over 40% of the nation's cultivable land and the FARC are currently recognized as being the most wealthy and powerful organized rebel group in Latin America, who now control a quarter of Colombian national territory (American Anthropological Association (AAA), 2003).

The greatest number of victims are civilians, and the majority of these are drawn from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, who as a result of the conflict have become victims of severe human rights violations, including forced displacements and disappearances, kidnappings, massacres, selected and systematic killings of their leaders, and the illegal usurpation of their lands, amongst other crimes. Such groups have become deeply marginalized and neglected by the state, and are worst affected by the violence. They also continue to suffer the highest levels of poverty and lack access to basic social services such as healthcare and education.

However, it must be stressed that this pattern of abuse did not start in the present round of conflict, but throughout their collective history, beginning in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the conquest of the Spanish colonists.

The indigenous peoples were known to have lived on their territories for hundreds of years before Columbus' arrival. The conquest led to the enslavement, and physical and cultural decimation of the indigenous peoples, forced displacement from their ancestral lands, and the plundering of the natural resources found within them. 100 years after the colonial invasion the indigenous population had been reduced by 90% and by the beginning of the sixteenth century the colonists were shipping in African slaves to replace them as manpower. (DANE, 2005).

By 1520 the colonists were shipping in 4000 African slaves every year, the majority of whom ended up working the plantations and mines. However by the end of the 16th century slave revolts and break-outs began to constitute a grave problem for the Spanish crown, as escaped slaves, who became known as Cimarrons began to organize politically and militarily in maroon or palenque communities which they protected with fences and arms (DANE 2005). The palenque community of San Basilio in the municipality of Mahates de Bolivar established in 1603 has been declared as the first free town of the Americas. It was able to survive through colonialism and its inhabitants have been able to preserve their culture until the present day, which is expressed through their language and traditional Afro-centric culture (DANE, 2005).

The Roma also constitute a significant ethnic minority in Colombia and their roots can be traced back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus who was said to have brought 4 gypsies to the Americas on his third expedition. These four were said to have been beneficiaries of a 'pardon' granted to them by the Spanish crown which gave them the opportunity to set up home and begin afresh in the newly discovered Americas (DANE 2005).

By the 1970s indigenous and Afro-Colombian political and social movements became more consolidated and coherent in their strategies for the defence of their cultures, identities, land rights, traditional knowledge systems, languages and autonomy. Such struggles were later to be brought to fruition in the Constitution of 1991 which made minorities more visible in national life and sought to guarantee their fundamental human, political, social, economic and cultural rights.


Governance

Before the 1991 constitution, indigenous peoples were not recognised as equal citizens within the Colombian state and were not granted individual or collective civil, political, cultural, social and economic rights under Colombian law. Until then, indigenous peoples were defined and treated by the terms laid down in the law 089 of November 1890 which determined that the government in agreement with the church would decide on the way in which the Salvajes (savages) should be governed. The same law reduced the indigenous peoples to the status of children or 'minors' specifically in regards to the management of the reservations 'resguardos' which had been created and granted to them under Spanish colonial rule (DANE, 2005).

Although the original resguardo system established by colonists represented a strategy for social control, exploitation and segregation of the indigenous peoples (DANE, 2005), it later became the legal entity in which indigenous land rights became vested, and for which indigenous groups fought as part of their struggle for the reclamation of their rights. The movement initiated by the Paez farmer Manuel Quintin Lame, between 1910 and 1940 became the leading model and source of inspiration for successive indigenous movements and activists during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

After much protest and organizing during the 1970s and 1980s there was large-scale titling of forest lands in indigenous communities. The government recognized the territorial rights of indigenous groups over some 1.8 million square kilometres of its Amazon area. Until the late 1980s it applied only to the lands of indigenous groups outside the forest areas who could base their claims on ancient title.

Colombia's constitution of 1991 drawn up by the National Constituent Assembly recognizes and protects the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Colombian nation. It concedes to minorities, ethnic, cultural, and territorial rights, and the right to autonomy and participation. It also declares the equality and dignity of all cultures as fundamental to national identity. It recognizes the languages spoken in Colombia as being official in the territories in which they are spoken. The Constitution also enshrines the right to bilingual and ethno-education for all minority groups and proffers double nationality to indigenous communities living in border areas (DANE, 2005).

As a result, minority ethnic groups have gained greater access and representation within national government and actively participate in political life at both regional and local level. Such developments have also led to the creation and development of independent and state funded minority focused institutions which have offered minority issues greater visibility and led to the limited political empowerment of these communities. Such institutions, include the Department for Ethnic Affairs within the Ministry of the Interior, the National Commission on Indigenous Rights, the National Indigenous Policy Council, the Afro-Colombian Mayors Council (AMUNAFRO) and the Congressional Black Associates, amongst many others. Indigenous councils and organizations have also become legally recognized and in ancestral territories or resguardos indigenous systems of justice are also officially recognized as holding jurisdiction.

In 1993 the National Constituent Assembly passed the law 60 (ley 60) which stipulated that the indigenous reservations would benefit from a certain percentage of state resource allocation proportional to the population found in the designated territory. In the same year, as a result of intense political pressure and campaigning from Afro-Colombian communities, the Constituent Assembly passed the law 70 (ley 70), which granted land titles for the collective territories of Afro-Colombian communities.

In 1999 the Roma population was recognized for the first time as a national ethnic group through resolution 0222 of 2 September of that year (DANE, 2005).

Non-implementation of Laws

However, despite these important political advances, in reality, application of these laws has been somewhat inconsistent and patchy, and in the worst of cases simply disregarded. For example, in the same year of 1993 when the law 60 and 70 were passed, ONIC, the National Colombian Indigenous Organization, issued a region by region protest concerning government failure to provide land titles, and against continuing invasion by colonists. ONIC sees the granting of land to forest peoples under the resguardo system as an advantage, but this land is subsequently being declared 'empty' and therefore the property of the state.

Among Afro-Colombians, Federal Law 70 only applies to the Pacific communities, but while it limits the use these communities make of natural resources, no such limitations are set on the activities of private national and international logging, oil, mining and biofuel companies. Subsequent laws on mining and other forms of resources extraction have served only to undermine provisions outlined in the constitution of 1991 guaranteeing minorities territorial rights and the right to manage the resources found within those territories.

Laws to limit migration from the mainland of Colombia in order to protect the indigenous Afro-Colombian raizal community in San Andres and Providencia have been poorly enforced and the raizal language and way of life are threatened by the wholesale buying and appropriation of the islanders lands by the tourism industry and foreign and mainland Colombian colonists (OHCHR, 2004).

Military aid and coca production

After Israel and Egypt, Colombia is the third largest recipient of US military aid. Since the signing into law of Plan Colombia in 2000 under the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Andres Pastrana, Colombia has received an estimated $US 600 million dollars annually in aid according to BBC reports 2003) and the large flow has continued during the Uribe administration.

Plan Colombia represents the US' controversial anti-narcotics strategy in the country which provides both military assistance (80%) to the government (technical and economic) to fight the 'war on drugs' and assistance for the restructuring of the country's economy (20%) (AAA, 2003). To date the plan has largely failed to meet its stated objectives of eradicating or substantially reducing the area of coca crops growing in the region. In contrast studies have shown that since its implementation in 2000 the area of crops grown has actually increased by 27% (Guardian, 05/06/07) and the price of cocaine on US streets has largely remained intact (AAA, 2003) Moreover Colombia still accounts for nearly 60% of the world's supply, according to the US drug enforcement administration.

Aside from these failures the Plan has been associated with much controversy. It has been criticized by human rights and civil society organisations for the adverse effects of the aerial fumigation program on the country's environment and civilian populations. The Plan is also criticized for the countless human rights abuses committed by paramilitaries working in conjunction with the state military in receipt of US aid. In particular, indigenous and other minority groups have been detrimentally affected and consider Plan Colombia to be "the military arm of a repressive U.S. economic policy in Latin America" (AAA, 2003).

According to the U.N.-sponsored International Verification Mission on the Humanitarian and Human Rights -Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia, 45 percent of all of the indigenous deaths in the last 30 years occurred within the first Uribe term which coincided with the beginning of Plan Colombia.However despite such controversy and criticism, under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Velez, Colombia continues to push for the continuation of the Plan and is considered as one of Washington's closest allies in the wider 'war on terror' in South America.

President Alvaro Uribe Velez

Alvaro Uribe Velez whose father was assassinated by the FARC in 1983 , came to power in 2002 with a hard-line election promise of cracking down on the guerrillas through his policy of 'democratic security'. Uribe was formerly governor of the department of Antioquia (1995-1998) where he proactively pushed for the creation of the network of rural security co-operatives, known as CONVIVIR, which sowed the seeds for the later establishment of the powerful right-wing paramilitary organization: Autodefensas de Colombia (AUC) ( BBC, 07/08/02).

From 2004 Uribe worked towards securing the demobilization of the paramilitaries and pushed through the new and extremely controversial Justice and Peace Law of 2005 (ley 975/05) which forms the legal basis for the process of justice, reconciliation and reparation for victims of the crimes perpetrated by the illegal armed actors within the conflict.

These moves have been welcomed as advances and funded by certain sectors of the international community, but indigenous, civil society and human rights groups have been less satisfied believing that law 0975/05 in reality serves only to consolidate impunity, does not offer adequate justice or reparation to victims, and excludes the investigation or prosecution of crimes committed directly by the state. In response, civil society and indigenous communities have organized national and regional victims' coalition movements (Movimiento de Victimas de los Crimines del Estado) which call for greater justice and reparations for victims and their loved ones, including the return and/or information on the whereabouts of the disappeared. They also specifically work to expose the crimes committed by the state including those carried out jointly by the army and AUC.

In 2006 President Uribe was re-elected for a second term . During his time in office he has pushed through radical economic neo-liberal reforms, which while pleasing to the US, the World Bank and IMF, have been strongly rejected by many sectors of civil society. In particular, and worst hit by far-reaching structural adjustments programmes, are small farmers and the wider rural population. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians have been disproportionately affected due to the fact that the majority of these populations reside mainly in rural areas (AAA, 2003), which are also the main zones of conflict

The Government continues to be eager to sign new trade agreements with the US however as of June 2008 these remain stuck in the US congress due to a refusal to act until the Colombian government deals with a number of human rights violations.

Large-scale anti-agreement protest marches in different parts of Colombia have been organized over the years against the TLC. On many occasions these have been met with blockades, open violence from state-security services, and the illegal detention of indigenous rights activists who are often accused of being collaborators with the FARC.

However with the advent of left wing administrations in Andean states like Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela that are openly critical of US domination and free-market economic policies, the Uribe government also increasingly risks being perceived as a marginalized symbol of US geopolitical designs in the region. These neighbouring states have already established an alternative-trading bloc ALBA (Bolivian Alternative for the Americas – Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) which they argue will better achieve social, political and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

ALBA which is spearheaded by Venezuela presents itself as an alternative to the US promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and a counterweight to trade and economic relationships with North America.

Moreover in a country where 49% of people live in poverty, increasing numbers of Indigenous and Afro Colombian poor are ever more likely to look favourably at any real or apparent social gains brought about in the neighbouring countries by the so called "Bolivarian Revolution": the name by which the processes of radical change led by Venezuela's Chavez is known.

President Alvaro Uribe Velez

Alvaro Uribe Velez whose father was assassinated in 1983 by the FARC, came to power in 2002 with a hard-line election promise of cracking down on the guerrillas through his policy of 'democratic security'. Uribe was formerly governor of the department of Antioquia (1995-1998) where he proactively pushed for the creation of the network of rural security co-operatives, known as CONVIVIR, which sewed the seeds for the later establishment of the powerful right-wing paramilitary organization: Autodefensas de Colombia (AUC) ( BBC, 07/08/02).

In 2006 he was re-elected for a second term running. From 2004 Uribe worked towards securing the demobilization of the paramilitaries and pushed through the new and extremely controversial Justice and Peace Law of 2005 (ley 975/05) which forms the legal basis for the process of justice, reconciliation and reparation for victims of the crimes perpetrated by the illegal armed actors within the conflict.

These moves have been welcomed as advances and funded by certain sectors of the international community, but indigenous, civil society and human rights groups have been less satisfied believing that law 0975/05 in realty serves only to consolidate impunity, does not offer adequate justice or reparation to victims, and excludes the investigation or prosecution of crimes committed directly by the state. In response, civil society and indigenous communities have organized national and regional victims' coalition movements (Movimiento de Victimas de los Crimines del Estado) which call for greater justice and reparations for victims and their loved ones, including the return and/or information on the whereabouts of the disappeared. They also specifically work to expose the crimes committed by the state including those carried out jointly by the army and AUC.

During his time in office Uribe has pushed through radical economic neo-liberal reforms, which while pleasing to the US, the World Bank and IMF, have been strongly rejected by many sectors of civil society. In particular, and worst hit by far-reaching structural adjustments programmes, are small farmers and the wider rural population. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians have been disproportionately affected due to the fact that the majority of these populations reside mainly in rural areas (AAA, 2003).

The government and the US Congress remain eager for the signing of a new TLC agreements which are due to be ratified later on this year. In response large scale protest marches in different parts of the country have been organized over the years which have been met on many occasions with violence and brutality from state-security services, blockades and the illegal detention of indigenous rights activists often accused of being collaborators with the FARC, who in turn have been seen as guilty of infiltrating such marches.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Despite the rights outlined in the Constitution of 1991 and the process of paramilitary demobilization – which began in 2002, minority ethnic communities have not seen great improvements to their quality of life and continue to be the victims of grievous human right abuses committed within the context of the conflict. Communities steadily witness the illegal usurpation of their lands by colonists, international private capital, powerful landowners, drug traffickers and illegal armed actors (www.etniasdecolombia.org), and many remain excluded and without access to basic health services, education, housing and secure food supplies. At the hands of the church and international religious missionaries minority communities are also subject to forms of cultural aggression (www.etniasdecolombia.org), which they see as indirectly capitalizing on their physical and economic vulnerability, and geographical isolation and displacement.

War and poverty

Overall, Colombia's minorities are disproportionately affected by the violence of the war while also experiencing some of the highest levels of poverty. Many analysts on the reasons why such a situation has emerged point to the fact that 1) most communities are rural and up to now the insurgency has been waged mainly in rural areas 2) many minority communities live in the zones of highest conflict disputed by armed groups because of their strategic importance and 3) nearly 80% of the mineral and energy resources of the country (water, minerals, oil, biodiversity) are found in the 27% of the national territory that is collectively and inalienably owned by indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities (Jackson, American Anthropological Association, 2003, OHCHR, 2004). These resources are of interest to many parties resulting in minorities frequently finding themselves caught up in the midst of the cross fire (AAA, 2003). The most historically tragic example of this kind to occur was the death of 119 people of the Afro-Colombian community of Bella Vista, Bojaya in 2002, who were caught up amidst fighting between warring leftist guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary forces.

"A slow and systematic ethnocide"

Afro-Colombian and indigenous social and political activists consistently reiterate the fact of their communities being victim to slow and systematic ethnocide, and such claims were supported in the 2004 reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous issues and the UN Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia. There are no exact figures which disaggregate the number of fatalities due to the conflict based on ethnicity, despite calls for the government to do so by the same UN Rapporteurs. However according the CRIC ( Colombia Regional Indigenous Council), from 2002-2006 584 indigenous people were murdered for political or social reasons. The number of such murders since 1974 is said to have reached 2,036 (www.americas.org).

The current state of Colombia's indigenous and minority populations continues to be a point of grave concern to various agencies of the United Nations. In April 2005 UNHCR issued a press release in which it cited Colombia's indigenous population as being in danger of extinction as a direct result of the conflict. This claim was again repeated in OHCHR's report of March 2007 on the human rights situation in Colombia. Although indigenous peoples make up 2-3% of the population they account for 8% of all internally displaced peoples. Virtually all indigenous groups in Colombia have been affected by forced displacement or are at serious risk of being displaced from their ancestral lands (UNHCR, 2005). Similarly Afro-Colombians are also disproportionately affected by this phenomenon, representing 17% of all IDPs.

Mega-projects

The illegal development and implementation of mega-projects on ancestral lands and collective territories represent another source of aggression against minority communities and an obstacle to their enjoyment of the rights assigned to them under the constitution of 1991. The implementation of mega-projects in the name of economic development and modernization, together with state authorized fumigation programmes carried out with funds provided by Plan Colombia, have been rejected and resisted by communities who view such projects as violating their individual and collective human rights by fuelling environmental and social conflict in their territories.

Mega-projects pushed forward at the behest of oil, logging, mining and biofuel multinationals with the consent of the Colombian government have been accompanied by large scale forced displacement, massacres, selective killings, death threats and intimidation, further impoverishment and increasing environmental degradation in minority territories. Such abuses are reportedly perpetrated by all armed actors, although communities insist that there are established links/contracts between multinational corporations and right-wing paramilitaries who are instrumental in implementing powerful corporate interests through the use of violence and terror (www.etniasdecolombia.org).

The process of prior consultation with minority communities by multinational corporations requesting permission to exploit the natural resources found with collective and ancestral territories, as enshrined in the constitution of 1991, is a process which has either been completely disregarded by such actors, in collusion with the government, or if and when carried out, has been done so in a way that is deceptive and misleading to communities.

In July 2007 600 members of the Awa indigenous community, who were returnees from earlier displacement in 2006, once again came under pressure due to alleged FARC minefields planted throughout their Magüí reservation. In July 2007 five community members including two children, were killed by landmines prompting another mass exodus into neighbouring rural areas and the urban zone of Ricaurte.

Also in July 2007 OCHA was informed of an increase in the forced recruitment of Afro-Colombians in the Pacific Coast town of Olaya Herrera. This is part of a countrywide pattern whereby young people are forced to join the fighting forces. Students in some areas stopped attending classes during 2007 out of fear of paramilitary unit recruitment.

In July 2007 a coalition of national and international NGOs presented a formal report to the Inter-American Commission Human Rights focusing on child recruitment and demobilisation. An estimated 13,000 children comprising 25% of all combatants in the Colombian conflict are now under 18 years old.

Land and aid

Meanwhile the US government aid agency USAID in 2007 continued to fund projects in which the demobilized rightwing paramilitary members are given land to cultivate in an effort to resettle those who agree to be disarmed. Activists point out this resettlement is usually at expense of Afro-Colombians since the lands are mostly located in historically Afro-Colombian areas.

The issue is further complicated by the increasing interest of wealthy Colombian investors in bio-fuels. In 2007 oil palm planters took advantage of the growing depopulation of the Afro-Colombian countryside to expand their holdings. They are accused of using armed guards and paramilitaries to drive reluctant people off the land as well as assassinating Afro-Colombian activists

In September 2006, paramilitary gunmen invaded the home of Juan de Dios García, an Afro-Colombian community leader in the city of Buenaventura. As a member of Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) he had been trying to recover land inhabited by Afro-Colombians for five centuries.

Advocates for Colombia's 3.6 million internally displaced population continued to insist in 2007 that land taken over by paramilitaries should be returned to former owners; mostly poor and marginalized Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. García escaped but seven members of his family were killed by the gunmen who reportedly arrived in police and army vehicles.

State forces also acted against protestors on 15 and 16 May 2007 in Cauca and Nariño Departments. Security agents allegedly used excessive force during mass demonstrations that involved Afro-descendant and Indigenous protesters. At least one demonstrator died.

In July 2007 over 2200 people including small farmers, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous people, gathered in Bogotá to protest attacks. They reaffirmed that crimes committed by paramilitary groups were part of systematic, planned actions directly permitted by the State. Thereafter the National Coordinating Organization of Displaced Persons CND and the Yira Castro Legal Corporation who function as rights defenders, began receiving threatening e-mails.

Nevertheless such protests seemed to have had some effect. In January 2008 prosecutors opened a formal investigation into 23 oil palm plantation owners in Uraba for alleged links with paramilitary forces.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Rights defence has long been a high-risk occupation in Colombia. On 4 July 2007, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Colombian state for the 1998 extra-judicial execution of the Nasa Yuwe indigenous community leader and rights defender Germán Escué, who fought against territorial dispossession.

The Court held the Colombian state responsible for arbitrary and abusive intervention in the home of Germán and his family, and for making them wait four years for the return of the remains. This had spiritual and moral repercussions since indigenous Nasa Yuwe culture considers interment a mandatory sacred act that ensures collective harmony and balance.

As reparation the Court required the Colombian government to very publicly acknowledge its responsibility. This involves prosecuting those responsible, establishing a Community Development Fund in German Escué's memory, providing his daughter with a full university scholarship, and specialized physical and mental healthcare for family members.

Hostility, hostages and helicopters

In early 2008 the continuing violence in Colombia assumed a decidedly international dimension and turned the spotlight on a prominent advocate for the Afro-Colombian population. In March 2008 a raid by Colombian troops on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory heightened diplomatic tensions and prompted Ecuador and Venezuela to send troops to Colombia's borders.

Rights activists including a spokesperson from the American Friends Services Committee have pointed out that such cross border raids have been a regular experience for indigenous and African descendants on the Ecuadorian side of the border for at least the past few years and especially following the initiation of Plan Colombia.

However this particular raid set off a chain reaction internationally and within Colombia itself with further implications for Colombia's best-known Afro-Colombian politician, Liberal Party Senator Piedad Córdoba.

The March 1 2008 cross border assault included the use of US provided smart bombs which killed FARC second-in -command and hostage negotiator Raul Reyes and 25 others, but apparently left three laptop computers intact and able to provide allegedly incriminating information, according to Interpol.

In May 2008 following an investigation of the retrived computer files the Colombian Government announced the opening of an international legal investigation of contacts between FARC rebels and journalists, foreigners, human rights activists and opposition politicians including Afro Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba.

Since August 2007 Senator Córdoba under the direct authorization of President Uribe, had been playing a major and very visible international mediating role, helping Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez broker the release of six out of FARC's 45 high profile hostages in a prisoner swap deal. Some of these like Córdoba 's onetime Liberal Party colleague the French-Colombian politican Ingrid Betancourt, have been held by the rebel group for over six years.

Senator Córdoba who has survived two assassination attempts and continues to receive death threats, is herself a former hostage, having been kidnapped and held captive in 1999 by the AUC paramilitary group. After her release she sought asylum in Canada, and returned to Columbia 14 months later when the authorities deemed it safe.

Requests for access to the relevant computer files by 11 other governments and even by the Colombian Supreme Court, during June 2008 have been ignored by Colombian and U.S. officials in whose custody the materials remain.

Meanwhile the Colombian government has indicated it is waiting on the International Police Organization (Interpol) to support the findings implicating Córdoba, at which point they will hand over the information to the country's Prosecution.

In May 2008 Interpol said it had found no indication that anyone had tampered with the computer files Colombia claims belonged to the FARC and which were in the governments' custody one month before being handed over to the international police body.

However according to a missive released by the Ecuadorian Foreign Relations Ministry Interpol has informed the Ecuadorian Presidential office that its investigation of the laptop computers "does not determine if the computers provided were (actually) found in the FARC guerrilla camp during the incursion on March 1st, (or) if they effectively belonged to Raúl Reyes, and even less so their contents."

On the other hand Córdoba has accused the government of trying to use -what has come to be called – 'farcopolitics' as a means of diverting attention from the ongoing 'parapolitics' scandal that erupted in late 2006, according to Colombia Reports, an independent news organization based in Medellín, Colombia.

The 'parapolitics' scandal also involves a retrieved computer files and has caused severe political damage to the Uribe administration and its allies in the Colombian Congress More than 60 legislators are under investigation or in jail awaiting trial for suspected collaboration with paramilitary bosses, their associated assassinations and instances of military imposed electoral fraud.

Several very prominent members of the Government including the defence minister, regional governors and Colombian foreign service officials are accused of having secret political ties to right-wing paramilitary groups which have been responsible for thousands of murders of indigenous people, rural families, worker rights advocates and human rights defenders.

In the meantime the families of prisoners held by FARC continued to call for a resumption of the mediation process and in early June 2008 Yolanda Pulecio, mother of FARCs highest profile hostage Ingrid Betancourt, continued to publicly voice support for Senator Córdoba and her efforts to obtain Betancourt's release. However the overall dynamic including Córdoba's possible ongoing mediating role changed dramatically on 2 July 2008 when a joint US / Colombian Army special task force mounted a helicopter borne rescue operation on a FARC hostage camp in south eastern Colombia, freeing Bentancourt and 14 others who were also held captive.

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