CALI, Colombia – Thousands of indigenous people fed up with violence in their territories set off on Thursday in a protest caravan for Bogota, where they intend to express their grievances directly to President Ivan Duque early next week.
Roughly 10,000 native Colombians, most of them from the southwestern department of Cauca, are making the journey from Cali, capital of the neighboring department of Valle del Cauca, according to the organizers of this latest “minga” (mass mobilization of indigenous peoples).
The 460-kilometer (285-mile) journey took them on Thursday to Armenia, capital of the west-central department of Quindio; they will next travel to Ibague (Tolima department) on Friday before reaching Fusagasuga and Soacha (both in Cundinamarca) on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
The idea is to arrive in Bogota on Monday.
“We’re not after money. We’re not asking for money. We want peace to be established in all reservations and municipalities in the department of Cauca,” the authority of the Nasa (Paez) people, Emerson Chilgueso, told EFE.
The indigenous people of Cauca – a turbulent region of southwestern Colombia beset by illegal armed groups, drug trafficking and other criminal activities – have been pressing their demands for decades and received numerous promises that have gone unfulfilled.
The Cauca department is currently trapped in a spiral of violence fueled in large part by territorial disputes involving dissident members of the FARC, a former guerrilla group that gave up the armed struggle in recent years and became a political party; the National Liberation Army rebel organization; and drug cartels.
Indigenous communities and their leaders have found themselves stranded in the middle of this fighting and forced to risk their lives to defend their lands, even as they face accusations of collaborating or serving as pawns of illegal organizations.
Tired of violence and government neglect, these indigenous people launched a minga last weekend to pressure the government into action.
The Association of Indigenous Cabildos of Northern Cauca (ACIN) says 76 indigenous people have been killed this year alone in that department, which is home to 84 reservations and to Colombia’s largest indigenous population.
“They kill people and nothing happens. (We want to) set a precedent in the country because we’re receiving support from Afro-descendants, our peasant brothers, mestizos, students, the elderly. All of them are joining us because we’re tired of this massacre,” Chilgueso said.
The demobilization of the FARC, which at one time controlled large swaths of Cauca, left a power vacuum that was filled by dissident rebel fighters and drug cartels that now are looking to seize control of coca- and marijuana-growing territories, as well as smuggling routes leading to the Pacific coast.
The Interior Ministry said on Thursday that the national government has fulfilled its promises to the minga with investments exceeding 344 billion pesos (roughly $89 million at the current exchange rate) between 2019 and 2020.
But the indigenous people say that beyond money they need protection from groups that place their lives at risk.
At the start of their mobilization last weekend, the minga participants demanded that Duque meet with protest leaders in Cali, but in his place the head of state sent a high-level commission on Monday make up of several Cabinet ministers and other officials.
The Colombian government and the Bogota mayor’s office are both unsure of how to handle the logistics of such a large crowd of people once the caravan reaches the capital.
The mayor’s office said on Thursday that it will be up to the national government to manage the situation, but Interior Minister Alicia Arango pointed out that local authorities in Cali took on that responsibility.
With the time now ticking down, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office has offered to facilitate a meeting between Duque and 100 representatives of the minga at that entity’s headquarters in Bogota, although it warned of the COVID-19 infection risk.
Duque also could still agree to meet with caravan members before they reach Bogota, but the indigenous demonstrators say that if the president does not heed their demands, they will join a national strike scheduled for Oct. 21.
“On this trip we expect that all of Colombia and all the people (from the places) we’ll be heading to will come out and support us in this great minga. We’re going to Bogota to see if (the president) comes out or not. If not, we’ll block the roads, but we hope it doesn’t come to that so we don’t harm the community,” Kevin Yande, a young Napa indigenous man, told EFE.