The roots of Colombia’s armed conflict runs deep. According to Darío Mejía, a social leader of the Zenú people, the fight for peace and equality dates back to the arrival of Spanish colonizers on the continent. This episode explores why the 2016 peace accord’s commitments on land reform are critically important for Indigenous social leaders, and how the current fight is the culmination of 500 years of oppression.
Rebuilding Peace was created by the Washington Office on Latin America for the Con Lideres Hay Paz Campaign. If you would like to learn more about the campaign and this podcast, please head over to conlidereshaypaz.org.
Hello, my name is Darryl Chappell. Welcome to Rebuilding Peace. This series, from the Washington Office on Latin America, will share the stories of social leaders in Colombia, who every day, under threat to their lives, search for truth and work towards reconciliation, fight for justice for victims of the Colombian conflict, and ensure the government lives up to the guarantees it made to ethnic and rural communities in the historic 2016 peace accord.
The pandemic, police violence, the extraction of resources, the fight for land rights. All of these have been part of the concern that the peace accords have become tenuous. Social leaders, like Leyner, Danelly, and Erlendy have been fighting tirelessly, in the face of threats, because they believe in a peaceful future for Colombia. And more voices in Colombia have been joining the call for peace.
So, at the end of 2019, we saw mass protests all around Latin America. And Colombia was no exception to that.
Chappell: Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America.
The protests in Colombia were really focused on rejecting a lot of the policies that the Duque government had put in place, including policies that would reform labor rights, policies that favored basically corporate and company interests over basic human needs, educational reforms, and there was also a general malaise from the public about the rising number of killings of social leaders, displacements, and lack of implementation of the 2016 peace accord.
Chappell: And then, in September 2020, anti-riot police killed thirteen protestors during two days of protests against police brutality.
While the repression and the excessive use of force by the ESMAD, the anti-riot police, is not new in Colombia. What was new about it was that it affected more urban areas of the country, more middle class peoples, and that combined with videos basically made everyone a lot angrier than they would have been if this had happened in a more rural area, which is where it normally would happen. So, with COVID, all of this quieted down. There was an effort by a good number of the groups involved in the protests led by the trade unions to try to dialogue with the Duque administration. However, the Duque administration really said they were dialoguing, but in fact were bringing in other interests to sit around the table and to talk with these groups, and basically ignoring their demands, and in the end, those dialogues led to nothing.
So, with COVID, all of this quieted down because of the mass restrictions that took place, but the latent anger, resentment, and lack of response of the state to all of the concerns the various sectors had brought up in the protests at the end of 2019 laid dormant. That was until we also started to see the response of the government in terms of COVID and trying to get funds out to marginalized and other communities weren’t getting there due to mass corruption. And at the same time, that the restrictions in place around the country due to COVID were basically affecting and disenfranchising large sectors of the population that depend on the informal economy. And so, then we started to see a resurgence of these protests.
Chappell: In a time where the Colombian government is pushing back against the fight for peace, where does that leave the future of Colombia? Is there a way forward? This is a country that suffered a 50-year conflict and a long path to a peace accord. Is there another point of view that can provide perspective on Colombia’s relationship to conflict and peace?
Dario Mejía: In addition to the armed conflict of the last 50 years, how is it that this framework has been established in the region, and how is there a spirit of domination and enslavement over the Indigenous and the campesinos? What gives armed groups some legitimacy to act in the way they did? I think that’s the context in which we can understand this story.
Chappell: That was Dario Mejía, a political scientist and a leader of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or ONIC. He is part of the Indigenous Zenú Peoples of San Andrés Sotavento, located in the Córdoba Department, northern Colombia. He is also one of 16 members of the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In order to better understand the current wave of conflict, Dario believes there’s a need to understand the greater scope of conflict in Colombia in order to position where the country is today.
In the 1970s, the Zenú began a process of recovering their ethnic identity, mainly through their struggle for the recovery of land. Although starting out as an economic struggle for land ownership, eventually their goals broadened to a growing national Indigenous movement. It was also at this time that the armed groups were fighting for power and land.
Mejía: So, the armed groups of the radical left see political capital in the Indigenous movement and want to capture it, and the way to capture it is by offering support, right? They wanted to capitalize on that popular legitimacy, as they call it, and they began to raise popular struggles in their speeches. But they do not distinguish between campesinos and Indigenous, or Afro-descendants, or anything, right?
Chappell: Dario points out that eventually many of the fights for land and political recognition by Indigenous leaders were conflated with armed groups’ talking points. Dario, who was a youth leader in the late 90s, remembered the stigmatization occurring while he was organizing youth of the resguardos, Indigenous reservations in Colombia.
Mejía: We were practically on the verge of being prosecuted because officials claimed we were actually organizing with FARC militias, when in reality what we were doing was organizing the youth so that we could strengthen the local councils.
Chappell: Activist groups in Colombia still face this kind of demonization. Dario believes that this strategy is an easy way for those in power to push back against those questioning the status quo.
Mejía: I don’t think it’s a pattern. We must not forget that when the Spaniards arrived, Indigenous people were classified as savages, ignorant, infantile, and this is a phenomenon that is present today. That is, those who organize to protest some type of government measure of some type of injustice, they are classified as terrorists, unhinged, or antisocial. It is nothing more than the same colonial method that has been maintained for five centuries.
Chappell: In the view of the Indigenous people in Colombia, the rise of the FARC is intimately tied to the land. Growing up in the ‘90s, Dario saw the struggle in his own hometown, Las Flechas.
Mejía: It is very difficult to describe Las Flechas. It’s like being asked, “How would you describe your belly, your chest?” Because it is part of yourself. But what I can tell you from a distance compared to other territories is that they are undulating savannas. It is a very rare thing. We are at the end of a mountain range. We are in a certain high part of those floodplains. We are very close to the sea. From certain heights, one can see the Caribbean. You are 40 minutes, an hour away from the sea by vehicle. And it is a very nourished land. It has many nutrients. It grows all kinds of crops.
And that is why it is also a highly-coveted land. I also came to understand it a long time later. This was an area where the armed actors were making incursions in a very determined way.
Chappell: In the 1990s to the early 2000s, Colombia became heavily militarized. This was in part due to Plan Colombia, signed in 2000, which delegated immense U.S. aid to the Colombian military during the armed conflict, and as a part of the hemisphere’s “War on Drugs.” Dario experienced this militarization firsthand.
Mejía: The region I grew up in was considered a red zone at the time. School, at the time, was run by the national army. Our teachers were military. They educated us with military discipline, in military lines, in training, in learning the national symbols. In other words, we were indoctrinated as children on the one hand, and we learned the distinction between good soldiers and bad soldiers.
Chappell: Dario contrasts this experience with that of his engaged community, of growing up attending community meetings and protests.
Mejía: I remember when marches were held. As a child, I went to a march, the furthest march that I went was the municipal seat where I lived. It was an important experience as a child, being out in the field and walking on a march and carrying my food for the day in my backpack alongside my parents.
Chappell: ONIC, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, was formed in 1982, in response to the government’s attempt to end collective land titles, among other threats to dismantle Indigenous political power. ONIC led the push for Indigenous inclusion in the National Constitutional Assembly, until finally, in 1991, a single Indigenous representative was elected. That same year, the National Constitutional Assembly led to a new constitution that recognized the autonomy and the fights for Indigenous people and their participation in national political processes.
This opening of access did not have the desired effect, however. The internal conflicts between the state and armed groups were increasing. There was no political will to actually enact or enforce many of the provisions in the constitution.
Why was that such an issue? Well, first of all, this is an area that was very hard hit by the massacres, and displacements, and killings committed by the Self Defense Forces of Colombia, the AUC paramilitaries, who acted basically in collusion with members of the military in that region, and with the financing and support of third parties, mostly companies and large landowners in those areas. This is an area that is basically controlled by a few elite Colombian families whose lands were gotten by displacing Indigenous and Afro-descendant people from those areas.
Chappell: After 46 Zenú leaders were reported assassinated in the early 2000s, the Colombian Constitutional Court (CCC) introduced an “Ethnic Rescue Plan” in 2009. However, much like other promises made by the Colombian government to the Indigenous people of Colombia, the “Plan de Salvaguardia” was never implemented.
Mejía: We lived many moments of anxiety, of anguish, due to armed confrontation. The murders, the massacres, let’s say it was a very difficult moment of this period. The Zenú people had very strong leaders, huge Indigenous leaders in Colombia, many of whom were massacred. There was the massacre of the Zenú people, where they practically beheaded the mayor council and the ONIC leadership.
Chappell: ONIC and other Indigenous rights organizations continued to push for recognition, justice, and political power, despite these attacks. In 2010, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing, a bipartisan congressional caucus in the U.S. House, Dario wrote to U.S. policymakers directly.
Mejía: We were worried about the role of the United States in supporting policies that affect our cultures and can put our existence at risk.
Chappell: Dario’s involvement with ONIC was rooted in his family and his education. In college, he developed a nuanced understanding of the conflict that defined his and his people’s lives.
Mejía: I started to understand the dynamics of youth recruitment, the dynamics of the armed conflict, what recruitment was like, and that led me to read the history of the region with bibliographies, stories, and interviews with the elderly. But I was only able to question the conditions of being “indigena” when I was away, and I was outside, and the fact that I could see my territory from a distance, I was able to understand the context in which my territory was located and why it was a strategic corridor for armed groups and for drug trafficking. And that leads me to confront those issues whenever I am in a position to raise them.
Chappell: Dario did continue to raise these issues. In 2014, Dario contributed to the fight for land rights by coordinating the adoption of Decree 1953, the Indigenous component of the National Development Plan. Decree 1953 of 2014 was created following Minga demonstrations in 2013. These demonstrations were provoked by incompliance to prior consultation with Indigenous communities.
Minca or Minga is a word of Quechua origin. It is associated with the everyday actions of communal life where land is collectively owned. In the past few decades, mingas have also been the rallying point for Indigenous rights.
Mejía: Initially, it is a word to indicate collective action in relation to other activities in the community. In the community of shepherds, in the community of farmers. For what? To signal that everyone comes together to make an effort and achieve a common goal.
Mejía: So, what I want to tell you is that when a minga is called, it is actually a process of collective participation, of a collective subject, of a people in this case that summons all the members of the community. Some are helping to cook. Others are helping to get the resources for transportation. Others are helping to organize the Indigenous guard. In other words, to the extent that we have more tranquility in the territories, we can walk more calmly through the territories. We can plant crops. As long as we do not have crops for elicit use, we can grow our own seed. We can recover our culture. And we can provide more peace for the youth. We can achieve the right to education. We can have better access to all and not just some. This is what it means, what the convocation of a minga also means, and in this case it means peace in coexistence, with respect to the territory, which is the common objective of all.
Chappell: Alongside the fight for Indigenous land rights, during this time the peace process between the Colombian state and the FARC, leading to the historic peace accords, was also happening. It was during this process that the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities demanded representation through strategic advocacy.
It’s important because it was really something that the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples joined forces themselves and proposed, and sort of imposed on the state. They forced themselves into the negotiating table. They weren’t there. They weren’t invited. It was after an international global advocacy effort that that happened. But it’s also really important, because it restates basically the rights that they had been able to gain in the past 400-plus years since, you know, the Spaniards and then later the Republic of Colombia came into being. It’s important to understand that the recognition of rights for Indigenous and Afro-Colombian people came very late.
Mejía: The Zenú people voted yes to peace en masse, totally yes to peace, because they had lived through the war. That was the argument, because here the war was lived, and how the war has been lived, because we want to know peace for this new generation.
Chappell: This coalition of ethnic minorities created one of the crucial cornerstones of the peace accords, the Ethnic Chapter, which identified the importance of addressing discrimination in the context of the conflict and the enduring legacies of colonialism.
The reason that this was necessary besides that is because disproportionately Afro-Colombian and Indigenous have been more affected by conflict, and because of their particular relationship with their ancestral lands, which are spiritual and cultural deeply-rooted places, displacement from those lands or the losing of those lands had a whole other connotation beyond just the loss of land that also led to basically a destruction of their culture and extermination of different groups. It was necessary to do this and in the preamble of the Ethnic Chapter, you actually have mention and recognition of the colonialism and the racism, and how that has affected these populations.
Chappell: Indigenous rights groups were also involved in the peace accord’s implementation framework plan. As members of communities who were affected by the armed conflict, they argued that they had the right to determine how peace would be best implemented in their territories.
Mejía: And we had many difficulties in being able to incorporate specific goals because all that mattered for the government was it had come to an agreement with the FARC.
Chappell: The goals of the government at the time were also tied to international pressure that did not always meet the realities on the ground. These global goals or the peace accords included certain development plans for things like land banks and territorial rights, while critical to peace, were often very general benchmarks that did not take into account the ethnic dimensions of these affected communities.
Mejía: Although the government had agreed with the FARC these global goals, said global goals made the rights of Indigenous peoples invisible. It was necessary to incorporate specific goals, such as the number of hectares that could be established in said land bank, to be taken into account for Indigenous peoples. Or what was the number of reservations that were going to be incorporated in the area where the programs were to be implemented?
Chappell: Dario also helped develop the shortened period procedure, Fast Track, which would be a part of the final peace accord. The overall goal of the Fast Track was to quickly design legislation needed to implement the peace accord. Then, more specifically for Dario and Indigenous communities, it was to set up effective mechanisms for territorial autonomy.
Mejía: So, what we were saying was that the implementation of the peace agreement should favor the victims, including of course the Indigenous peoples as collective subjects, as collective victims. In that sense, we do get involved in the task of promoting specific norms for Indigenous peoples in the Fast Track procedure.
Chappell: After the peace accords, the activities of Indigenous social leaders, including Dario, were centered around land rights promised by peace accords.
Mejía: What one could see was a lot of expectation, a lot of hope. Hopefully, it will be signed. Why? Because here one lived the time of cruel war and nobody wants to go back to that.
Chappell: The gains made during the peace accords have since been attacked by the very government tasked with enforcing them. Current President Ivan Duque, then a senator, was the main plaintiff in the case that Colombia’s Constitutional Court undertook in May 2017 to strip out much of the legislative Fast Track authority needed to pass laws to implement the accord.
What we saw in that process was that the different political parties threw in tons of other things that didn’t have to do with the peace accord, so it was a mass negotiation effort, not very transparent in terms of towards the victims, the Indigenous, or the Afro-Colombian. So, in that context, the Ethnic Commission, which was the grouping of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous authorities and groups that had really pushed for the Ethnic Chapter and written it, decided that they were going to form a legal defense that guaranteed that the framework for implementation of the peace accord included a differentiated ethnic approach.
And they were able to identify some 80-plus indicators that would show whether or not there had been advancements in terms of implementing the Ethnic Chapter. Within that, the Afro-Colombians were not able to get any advancements, but the Indigenous people in the end were able to get maybe five or six of those issues and those reinforcements of differentiation in the implementation plan. So, it’s no surprise that Duque was involved in trying to get rid of that authority or create obstacles, because they tried to basically make it seem as if they were negotiating something, but in reality they were basically creating obstacles to the advancement of peace.
And then we started rapidly seeing the circulation of death threat pamphlets, and death threats, by presumably paramilitary groups against these leaders, and unfortunately because of the lack of state response, lack of state interest, and the fact that these keep happening continually, it’s kind of become normalized that this is what happens after the Indigenous protest.
Chappell: In 2019, Dario was intercepted by two people as he was on his way to meet an ONIC colleague. The attackers stabbed the activist in the arm and leg, then stole his briefcase and computer. They contained information about ONIC and the major demonstrations that the Indigenous rights organization helped to stage between March 10th and April 8th along the Pan-American Highway in Central Colombia. The perpetrators have yet to be found.
Mejía: Just in those days, we learned of colleagues who were also leaving evaluation processes in regions like Chocó, and they were attacked with firearms. Many other authorities and Indigenous guards in the northern Cauca were unfortunately killed.
Chappell: ONIC works with other ethnic organizations, such as PCN, Proceso de Comunidades Negras en Colombia, to offer support and to co-organize responses to threats and to help support security mechanisms for those who are targeted with threats.
Mejía: I am also very sorry that institutional action has been quite slow. And often with an attitude that dismisses the facts, not only with me, but in general with the communities that they are facing on the ground. And I believe that neglect has been constant with the risk faced by Indigenous communities in general, and not only Indigenous communities, but also Afro-descendent peoples.
Chappell: In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic and the lack of government commitment to the peace accords, the Indigenous rights community again began to organize. They took the dangers of the pandemic into consideration, as well as the concerning level of violence in Colombia towards social leaders and human rights defenders.
Mejía: And I have to say that curiously, those of us who are in the Indigenous leadership at some point, mobilization is a last resort. That is paradoxical, but it is up to the Indigenous leadership to avoid mobilization. Because those who are most affected, who feel the wear and tear in a mobilization process, are the communities. And that wear and tear is not only economical, not only in time invested, but fundamentally in a risk for the exposure of the lives of our brothers and of oneself, because there is a risk of repression by government institutions through police forces. We are looking for a way to dialogue with the government instead.
Chappell: The latest minga coincided with the increase of protests, and have, in 2020, attracted other disaffected communities frustrated with the lack of government interest in addressing the problems.
The protests were really centered around Southwestern Colombia with the idea of meeting with Duque in Cali. However, Duque did not show up in Cali, and so they decided to mobilize thousands of people to Bogota to go talk to him. During that mobilization, those protests became larger than just Indigenous people. They included the Afro-Colombian movement and other rural peoples or peoples from the outside of the center of the country, and the fact that the government was particularly unwilling to listen to any of these demands basically I think angered and has brought to the forefront amongst a much broader sector of Colombian society that there’s a serious issue of governance taking place in the Duque administration.
Chappell: ONIC continues its fight to overcome the challenges Indigenous people face in Colombia. Dario, as part of his work with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in the United Nations, addresses ongoing international Indigenous rights issues. This year, Dario dedicated himself to writing a report on the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, with plans to address the response of governments to manage the pandemic. He also emphasizes the importance of bringing regional and national Indigenous voices to a global stage.
Mejía: What has changed a bit is the way we have had to do it, precisely because of the quarantine. Indigenous peoples are located in rural areas, where there is the least connectivity, the least ease of remote work, so it has been difficult for Indigenous peoples to participate in dialogue scenarios and policy conversations.
Chappell: In 2020, Dario was one of the first leaders at ONIC to call for a unified Indigenous strategy against the pandemic. The organization has now created a system of territorial monitoring, and every day it publishes a bulletin curating on-the-ground information from reserves throughout the country that show the location of potential new coronavirus cases. Each bulletin concludes with the statement:
Mejía: The survival of Indigenous nations is an ethical imperative for all society as guardians of historical memory.
Chappell: As of the end of 2020, tens of thousands of lives have been lost to the pandemic and to increased violence in Colombia. The government continues to ignore its responsibilities and commitment to peace. Despite the challenges, social leaders continue to fight for the rights and lives of their people. So, what does all of this mean for the future of any peace accords? How might the promise for peace be realized in the midst of so many obstacles?
The social leaders we’ve interviewed have actively called for action from the international community to pressure the Colombian government to hold up its end of the peace accords. They have called on the U.S. policymakers to condemn impunity and the continued violation of human rights in Colombia. They have asked all of us to support their work and protect their lives. They have all said that peace is not possible without protecting the rights of ethnic communities, their right to security and territorial autonomy, and ending the cycle of impunity that allows violence against social leaders to go unchecked.
Leyner, Danelly, Erlendy, and Dario continue to work towards their vision of peace for Colombia.
Leyner Palacios: They need us to bring opportunity. They need us to bring recreation. They need us to bring health. They need us to bring interconnectivity. So, I dream of a different Colombia, an egalitarian Colombia.
So, our contribution is enormous because without arms or money, we are contributing through will and debate to keeping Colombia a pluriethnic and multicultural country. But above all, through our work we are guaranteeing the permanence of Black communities, of ethnic communities in Colombia.
Erlendy Cuero Bravo:
So, that’s why I’m always going to defend peace. I don’t care that it’s flawed or not. I believe that if we all find each other, we all speak with each other, we can build peace.
Mejía: Those who have had the most opportunity to develop their economic and social capacities, those who have been most able to take advantage of the resources of nature for their benefit, that is those who have been able to have some peace in their lives, are unaware of peace. They do not know the peace in their territories. They do not know the peace of the conflict. And peace is a dream of those who have not yet been able to live in happiness. The happiness of protecting your children from harassment. I would say those are different ideas about what peace is or looks like and the conflict between those visions means there is neither a harmonization nor a balance, and that is what I believe we need to do to reach a moment of coexistence and tranquility among Colombians. We need to find harmony between those visions of peace.
Chappell: Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, who has worked with these social leaders for years, knows how committed they are to finding that harmony for themselves and their communities.
One of the most amazing things about working on Colombia is meeting people like Leyner, like Erlendy, like Danelly, like Dario, who in the face of tremendous odds and extremely dangerous consequences continue to have a deep seated faith and belief that things can be different and that things can be more equitable, more just, more dignified for their communities and victims who they represent and advocate for. Those are the people really that give you hope about Colombia, because these are the people who are, without any support, without any financing, with probably everything against them, continuing to fight at the local, regional, national, even international level, for major changes that include basic protections to human life, basic respect for human life, negotiating conflicts without killing each other, and basically fomenting peace so that their communities and other Colombians can basically advance.
Chappell: Thank you for listening to the stories of social leaders in Colombia. If you would like to join the story to support their work and protect their lives, please head over to conlidereshaypaz.org. There, you can help change the story and find resources to engage in outreach to policymakers and help spread the word about the fight for peace in Colombia. Sign up for the newsletter to receive more insights, updates, and actions.
Chappell: Rebuilding Peace was created by the Washington Office on Latin America for the Con Líderes Hay Paz Campaign. Lantigua Williams & Co. produced this series. Edited by Virginia Lora, with help from Jen Chien. Mixed by Michael Aquino and Kojin Tashiro. Production help by Michael Aquino and Carolina Rodriguez.
Chappell, Darryl host. “Rebuilding Peace Episode 4.” Rebuilding Peace, Lantigua Williams & Co., March 25, 2021. conlidereshaypaz.org.