- By Lilian TimmermannLilian Timmermann is a researcher at Foreign Policy.
On Tuesday, indigenous residents of El Berlin, a small rural town in southwestern Colombia, forced the Colombian military off its mountaintop base. Members of the Nasa indigenous community surrounded several soldiers, picked them up, and dragged them away from their posts. The military eventually retook the facility using tear gas to disperse the protesters.
Tuesdays’ confrontation started after government forces ignored an ultimatum from indigenous authorities demanding an end to what they saw as government occupation of tribal lands, according to La Semana. Over 1000 members of the indigenous community had been staging a sit-in at the base for nearly a week in preparation for the showdown with the government forces. The soldiers were at the outpost protecting an antenna but the community claims that the military outpost was built on a sacred mountain.
The clashes have caused at least 30 injuries and one death, and confusion remains about how events are unfolding. The scene is further complicated by the suspected presence of FARC soldiers on the outskirts of the town who fired shots in the air amidst the clashes.
President Juan Manuel Santos has demanded an end to the violence, asserting "we will not tolerate attacks against those who defend us." Last week, Santos had promised, "we will not cede a single centimeter of land of El Cauca or of the nation’s territory."
The ongoing crisis has seized national attention and touched off a flurry of debate in Colombia about indigenous rights, the military’s human rights record and the stability of the state. Some discussion boards are suggesting that the images from this debacle could cost Santos his reelection. Others are lauding the soldiers’ restraint in not firing on the crowd during the kerfuffle, and images of a soldier crying after being carried down the mountain by protestors has elicited sympathy for the military.
Government supporters have revived the standard charge that the indigenous groups must be tied to the FARC. Santos himself claimed that there were "links" between the indigenous tribe and guerrilla groups. Other critics claim the indigenous tribes are seeking to return to highly profitable coca cultivation that the military is trying to eradicate.
El Berlin is located in southwest Colombia in El Cauca department (state), which was once host to the late FARC commander, Alfonso Cano, who was killed by government forces in 2011. Indigenous communities in Colombia have suffered the most during the protracted armed conflict of the past six decades. Their national representation has strengthened in recent years and has increased their appeals for various levels of autonomy from the government.
Indigenous leaders have called for both the military and the illegal armed groups to quit the area and let the local communities live in peace after six decades of suffering FARC, paramilitary and military clashes that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.
Santos says that they will negotiate with the Nasa community only if they end the attacks on the soldiers. Several national leaders, including former president Ernesto Samper, suggested solutions to the crisis ranging from the creation of a humanitarian zone to international intervention.
Tension remains high after protestors captured 30 military guards, since released, and four FARC combatants. As of Thursday morning, the military retained control of the mountaintop base. The local civilian police force is charged with responding to protestors.