BOGOTA – Thousands of indigenous people fed up with violence in their communities protested on Monday in the streets of Colombia’s capital, where they have traveled in a bid to extract greater security commitments from President Ivan Duque’s administration.
As they have done throughout their more than 500-kilometer (310-mile) journey, which began last week in the southwestern department of Cauca, the participants in this latest “minga” (mass mobilization of indigenous peoples) moved through the capital carrying the flags of their communities.
At the head of the march were members of the Indigenous Guard, who held chonta wood staffs as a symbol of their authority and the protection they provide.
The mass demonstration in Bogota began at the Palace of Sports in Bogota’s El Saliter neighborhood, their designated place of lodging in the capital, and proceeded amid a festive atmosphere along Carrera 30, Calle 26 and other streets to downtown Bolivar Square.
The protesters played music, blared the horns of their chivas (brightly colored buses) and shouted out their demands that the national government intervene to protect indigenous people and their lands from illegal armed groups.
Amid the sea of flags, numerous signs spelled out the protesters’ demands.
“They kill us whether we speak out or stay silent, so we’re speaking out,” one sign read.
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.
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.
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 gangs that now are looking to seize control of coca- and marijuana-growing territories, as well as smuggling routes leading to the Pacific coast.
The minga participants had hoped to meet with Duque in the southwestern city of Cali, but the head of state did not make the trip and instead sent a high-level commission made up of several Cabinet ministers and other officials.
The government, however, has indicated a willingness to engage in dialogue, with Interior Minister Alicia Arango tweeting on Monday that it is a priority for Duque’s administration to live up to the agreements it signs.
“Hence the need to clearly establish the points of the minga. Sharpening the focus of their petitions to determine who the decision-makers are and the viability of the proposals,” Arango said.
Bogota’s mayor’s office said that once the minga arrives at Bolivar Square, it will be protected by the Indigenous Guard and a group of unarmed security personnel known as “gestores de convivencia.”
One concern expressed by the national government is that the crowds associated with the minga and the potential for a lack of compliance with bio-safety measures could trigger the spread of COVID-19.
In that regard, Duque said on Monday that nothing justifies putting people’s health and life at risk.
According to an Oct. 10 bulletin from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), there have been a total of 30,901 coronavirus cases and at least 1,117 COVID-19 deaths thus far among the Andean nation’s native communities.