Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 11:27 UK

Violence traps indigenous Colombians

By Mark Doyle
BBC News, near Caucasia, northern Colombia

Mark Doyle holds piece of bloodied cloth
Members of the Senu group say this cloth covered their chief's body

A large piece of cloth that appeared to be covered in bloodstains lay abandoned in the bushes. In a country often wracked by violence, it was, on the face of it, an unremarkable find.

But for the ethnic Senu indigenous group living around this area it was a reminder of the anguish they felt over the death of their chief, Luis Manuel Martinez Velasquez.

He was allegedly murdered (there has been no court case) by unknown gunmen on 13 May this year in a small village three hours' drive from the city of Caucasia, in northern Colombia.

A local villager told me he had covered the chief with the cloth "because it was hot that day". The same villager said he had seen seven bullet holes in the body.

"He was a good friend," said another man, as he wiped away the tears flowing down his cheeks. "We are a close-knit community. It's so hard for us that he is gone."

The cloth placed over the chief's body also points to a failure of the legal and judicial authorities in this part of Colombia to take his apparent murder seriously.

The cloth was easily recovered by villagers poking around the scene when I was there, just a few metres from where the chief was said to have fallen.

That such potentially important evidence was overlooked suggests that the crime scene was not sealed off or studied in any serious way.

'We are scared'

"One of the armed groups came to the chief's hut at 7pm on 13 May," a local man said. "Then they brought him here and they killed him."

I asked people who had gathered around the site of the alleged killing the obvious questions.

Did they know these gunmen? "No."

Did they know why the chief was killed? "No."

Did the authorities investigate? "They came to record the case."

Have legal officials followed up? Have more police or prosecuting authorities visited the crime scene or come to ask eyewitnesses questions? Answer: "Nobody, nobody else has come."

And then, perhaps, the most revealing answer.

When asked if they had been to town to see how any investigations were going, they said they had not. Pressed as to why, one man said: "We don't know how. Maybe we are not capable of following up. And we are scared."

Mass displacement

The government of President Alvaro Uribe, first elected in 2002, has taken a hard line against left-wing insurgents and some other armed groups.

River in northern Colombia
A government crackdown on rebels has pushed violence out to rural areas

With military help from the US, he has pushed much of the violence that was endemic across Colombia for decades away from the cities and towards the country's borders and coastlines.

This has been popular in urban areas, which now feel relatively safe.

But the hardline government policy has done little to help rural people who are now the main victims of the violence and mass displacement that persists in the countryside.

The villagers I spoke to near Caucasia did not know if the chief had been killed by guerrillas, paramilitaries or drug-runners - or even if the killers might have had something to do with landowners or the authorities in some form.

The indigenous Senu group said they had been moved on several times in recent decades. The place in which I met them was not their ancestral land.

There are at least three million forcibly displaced people in Colombia - a figure only surpassed by Sudan.

Slowly, step by step, they have been exterminating us
Ivan Melendez
Indigenous leader, Tule tribe

The reasons for the displacement are many and varied.

Government army clashes with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) are just one factor. There are also remnants of supposedly disarmed right-wing paramilitary groups and very active cocaine gangs which defend their fiefdoms with guns and landmines.

Colombia's minorities - indigenous peoples and the Afro-Colombian descendants of slaves brought from Africa - are disproportionately affected by this violence because their population centres tend to be on marginal, rural land.

To reach the Senu, I drove past large, neatly-fenced ranches full of branded cattle and handsome horses.

But when I reached the land on which the Senu group had settled, there were no fences and very few cattle. There were donkeys and fields of yucca - a local root vegetable.

"Since the Spanish arrived 518 years ago," said indigenous leader Ivan Melendez Santacruz, "our numbers have been dwindling.

"Slowly, step by step, they have been exterminating us. But the few of us who now remain are trying to rebuild our communities."

Indigenous rights

The first shock to the indigenous people of Colombia was, of course, the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.


But then marginalisation, poverty and disease took their toll for centuries. Today there are only about one million indigenous Colombians out of a total population of some 46 million.

Mr Melendez is a spokesman in northern Colombia for the Tule tribe. He is a confident, articulate man who acts as a bridge between his traditional community and the modern world.

He wasn't speaking for the rural community of ethnic Senu that I met, but I feel sure they would agree with him (if they were not too scared to say so out loud).

Today, the Colombian government recognises the rights of indigenous people in the constitution.

Representatives like Mr Melendez have a voice and are given limited resources by the authorities. The indigenous people, in theory at least, have "reserves" that are supposed to be protected.

William Carupia, spokesman for the ethnic Embera group
Mr Carupia says Colombia's indigenous people just want to live in peace

But the government's recognition of indigenous rights has been a long time coming.

Indigenous Colombians have been caught up in the whirlwind of violence that - despite recent advances by the army under President Uribe - has characterised Colombia for the past several decades.

"Our position as indigenous peoples is clear," said William Carupia, a spokesman for the ethnic Embera in northern Colombia.

"We don't want to participate in any war. We don't want to be recruited; we don't want to be messengers or informers for any of them. We don't want to be with the government army, or the guerrillas, or the paramilitaries. And we don't support the growing of illegal coca. We are opposed to all these things."

Indigenous Colombians say they want to live in peace in their own communities.

But it may be too late for that.

Mr Carupia concedes that there is a terrible reality still to face: "For the state and for the guerrillas and for the paramilitaries, it's as if our wanting to have nothing to with them all is the same as opposing them. So they all treat us like enemies."

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