Awá Massacre Highlights Desperate Need for Fresh Approach to Drugs in Colombia

Early this month, a brutal massacre of Awá indigenous people left 27 dead in Colombia’s southern Pacific region of Nariño. According to various media sources, 17 were killed in an armed attack on February 4, during which 120 community members were captured and held against their will. Ten more were killed two days later. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group claimed responsibility for eight of the killings in an online statement. The guerrillas described the murders as acts of retaliation against the Awá for cooperating with Colombian Military forces, but confusion and fake information may also have played a role, and several sides share the guilt.

According to a statement released by the Awá People’s Indigenous Unity (UNIPA) and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), on February 1, a military battalion “abusively entered people’s homes and, through various mistreatments, obligated members of the community to give information about the location of the FARC-EP guerrillas.” Three days later, the FARC began their horrendous attacks in “retaliation.”

This tragic massacre is not an isolated event. In fact, over 200 indigenous people have been killed and thousands displaced as a result of similar attacks in the region over the past decade. In July 2006, fighting between Colombian army units and an “irregular armed group” caused more than 1,300 civilians to flee their homes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During this particular incident, a group of 92 indigenous people were trapped in the crossfire. Unable to flee, they took refuge in a local school and were without food or basic humanitarian assistance for more than a week. Refugees International (RI) reported in July of 2008 that fighting between the Colombian military and guerrilla forces in Nariño had brought about the displacement of almost 95,000 people who were forced to abandon their homes in an attempt to escape violent attacks. Also, RI reported that the FARC as well as right-wing paramilitary groups extensively used landmines and other terror techniques against local communities.

At the center of the turmoil in Nariño is the coca factor, the ancient crop which today is used, among other things, for the production of cocaine. The “war on drugs,” funded largely by the United States and to a large extent carried out by the Colombian government, has been a major factor in bringing violence to the region in the course of the past decade. Under the U.S.-government funded Plan Colombia, aerial fumigations, starting in 2000, significantly reduced coca cultivation in the region of Putumayo, which neighbors Nariño. In the first two months of the operation, fumigation destroyed 75,000 acres of coca crops in Puntamayo. As the result of spillage and drift, many farmers lost all of their crops. One migrant told a reporter in 2001 that the chemical attacks ”got everything, my plantains, my coca, all of it.” Within the first six months, an estimated 10,000 had fled the region, many of whom would establish new coca fields in Nariño. Soon after, reports of increased murders and other violent acts in the region began to surface, and have been relayed ever since.

Colombian authorities have chosen to employ draconian measures to crack down on coca cultivation. As cocaine production has increased in Nariño, so has the destructive presence of the Colombian military and security forces. Through his “Democratic Security Strategy,” President Uribe has dramatically increased the military presence in Colombia’s remote rural regions. The Awá, along with other rural communities in the area, have inadvertently found themselves caught in the middle of the conflict between the military and narco-trafficking groups. At the same time, Bogota has failed to adequately respond to the deteriorating human rights situation in the region. On January 8, 2009, about a month before the most recent massacre, the local government issued a report through its Early Warning System, that the community was at risk as a result of increased fighting between the Army, FARC, National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, and other paramilitary groups. Rather than taking action to protect the indigenous, Colombian government forces caused a dangerous situation to escalate into targeted attacks.

The tragic events of this month reveal a pressing need for the United States and Colombian governments to re-evaluate their anti-drug strategies. In 2006, community councils in the country’s Pacific coast region proposed a plan of crop-replacement, in which the government would convert money currently funding fumigation to subsidize the cultivation of traditional crops in the area. The government still has not responded to the proposal. A characteristically indifferent President Uribe failed to address these underlying issues in his reaction to this month’s massacres, stating that his government “must reinforce [its] anti-terrorist policies.” Harry Caicedo, a refugee community leader in Nariño, told the Colombia Journal that “so far, instead of an answer, we have been subjected to repression, imprisonment and displacement.”