Massacres of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia

The violence in the Colombia continues to escalate, resulting in a 
series of massacres of ethnic minorities near the Venezuelan border

By Gaëlle Sévenier, Freelance Reporter, South America

June 21, 2004


Wyuu women and children refugees
(Photo by Madeleine Diaz, La Verdad)

More than 34 farmers from the Colombian region of the Catatumbo, near the Venezuelan border, were massacred, on June 15th, by an armed group alleged by the Colombian authorities to belong to the FARC movement. This massacre followed soon after the genocide of a Wayuu Indian village perpetrated on April 18th by a group of paramilitaries in the Guajira desert of Colombia.  Both tragedies are directly linked to drug production and trafficking, which is the main income of the paramilitaries and FARC guerillas, which are fighting a civil war in Colombia. This series of massacres resulted in an additional massive displacement of indigenous people toward the Venezuelan border.

 

On June 15th, at 5 am, 34 farmers from the Tibu municipality, in northeastern Colombia, were massacred, allegedly by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, according to Colombian official sources. Their hands and feet were tied up by the ropes of their own hammocks. In addition to those murdered, five people were injured. According to the survivors, the farmers, the majority indigenous, were accused by the FARC of collecting coca leaves for the paramilitaries.

About two months ago, the paramilitaries massacred an entire indigenous village on the Venezuelan border in order to control one of the main drug trafficking zones of the country. Maria Pinallo, a 40-year-old woman, is one of 700 Wayuu refugees in Venezuela. They are the survivors of the genocide which took place on April 18th  in their native village in the Guajira desert. The genocide was perpetrated by the paramilitaries, otherwise known as the AUC, United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia.  The AUC, formed by 20 000 men, have often worked closely with government military forces, and have been responsible for an estimated 3,500 murders per year. On July 1st , the AUC plan to start peace negotiations with the Colombian government. 

Wyuu child refugee
(Photo by Madeleine Diaz, La Verdad)

Maria once lived raising goats with her six children in Bahia de Portee, a little port in the Guajira desert of Colombia. Three years ago, Jose Maria Borros, a.k.a. ‘El Che Mabala”, increased drug trafficking in the port. “A drug factory was built, planes would land there, many foreigners came to buy contraband,“ recalls Maria. “When the wind would blow hard, our children would get sick from the sulphuric acid and all the ingredients they put in cocaine. News of the indigenous families´ complaints soon found its way to El Che Mabala. One morning, they came with the paramilitaries to exterminate us.”

On April 18th, at 7am, about 200 armed men surrounded the 50 ranches of Bahia Portete. “In the desert, we can see people coming from far away, which saved our lives,” explains Maria. She didn’t have time to close her door or to take any of her belongings. She just grabbed her youngest child in her arms and told everyone to run as fast as they could.  Many didn’t have time to escape.

Jose Vincente is only 8 years old. His mother told him to run and hide, otherwise they would kill him. “I was running so fast... the sand was coming in my eyes... I was blinded” says the child. “I didn’t have time to put my shoes on - my feet were hurting me so much.” Jose Vincente draws in the sand how he escaped from the paramilitaries. He is certain that “they had my name on a list, they wanted to kill me…” The young boy describes the paramilitaries he saw as all wearing moustaches and military suits with 40 buttons. He saw them killing men, women and children without mercy, decapitating them, cutting them in pieces, “like raw meat with their machetes”.  He also reported seeing people being burned alive.

Jose Vincente, 8-year old survivor of
a massacre in his village
(Photo by
Gaëlle Sévenier)

Luis Angel, a fisherman of Bahia de Portete, not only left his house behind, but also the dead bodies of his two sons, 5 and 7, burned alive in his own truck. “I was visiting my mother that day, and I wanted to leave earlier but the truck didn’t work.” He heard his children screaming but there was nothing he could do. The mother of the two boys now lives with her cousin, Maria Pinallo, who takes care of her as she still suffers from psychological trauma. Luis Angel now only thinks of one thing: revenge. “There I have my animals, my land. I don’t want to leave them to the paramilitaries. Of this I am certain: we will have our revenge for our dead family members.” 

The paramilitaries massacred everyone who did not escape. They only let one old man go after shooting him in one hand and cutting his other hand to pieces, ordering him to tell the others to never come back. The wounded hands had to be subsequently amputated in a Venezuelan hospital. The victim says he does not ever want to return to his home.

After the massacre, hundreds of Wayuu walked for days in the desert, without food or water, until trucks picked them up and helped them cross the border into Venezuela. Five days later the Colombia army arrived in the village and found pieces of dead bodies spread all over the area. Only 30 bodies were found.  More than 80 are still missing. “Probably drowned in the sea or buried,” according to the Wayuu. By the time the army arrived, the paramilitary perpetrators had fled. “El Che Mabala has his contacts.  They knew the army was coming,” accuses Maria. Today there is no one left in Bahia Portete. “A ghost town, with the spirits of the dead,” continues Maria, holding back tears. “Why did they cut the people in pieces?  They are butchers. There was nothing left to bury”.

Wayuu indigenous women and children
who survived the massacre of their village
(Photo by Madeleine Diaz, La Verdad)

Some speculate that one of the prime reasons behind the genocide was to gain control of the network of drug trafficking ports in the Guajira area. The Human Rights Commission of the National Police published a report specifying that the situation is consistent with policy implemented by the paramilitaries. “They are fighting for the domination of Bahia Portete, a town that moves a lot of contraband. Cargo ships come into the port with goods and later leave with drugs,” official sources of the Colombian army indicated to El Tiempo. The paramilitaries and the FARC, “who are [both] illegal armed groups,” have been fighting in the Sierra Nevada, the Guabarra and the Guajira deserts for decades over control of the drug trade and production.

Every day during the past month, Wayuu Indians have crossed into Venezuela as refugees from Colombia.  Arcadio Montiel, indigenous legislator of the Legislative Regional Council says that only 309 refugees have been counted in Maracaibo by ACNUR [the United Nations Commissions for the Refugees].  But that doesn’t include the refugees in hiding or in exile, which Montiel believes there are many. “We believe that there are more than 700 in total. Culturally, the Wayuu are very discreet.  Sometimes they don’t even tell their neighbours where they come from.” Moreover, the Indians are very afraid to testify, knowing that some paramilitaries have also crossed the border to hide from the Colombian army.

“The situation is very complicated” explains the legislator. “The Wayuu will seek revenge.  This is their culture. They have their own law in the Guajira, a region split in two by the Colombian-Venezuelan border. For the Indians there is no border; this land has always been theirs. Another complication is the paramilitaries, the extreme right wing armed group of the country. They are fighting against the FARC, one of the various guerrilla groups. They are both involved in drug trafficking. Finally, there are the governments of Colombia and Venezuela. All of these parties have their own agendas and internal laws.”

According to Montiel, the Venezuelan Government has not responded adequately to the “Wayuu genocide”. “The political situation of the country, with an impending referendum on the revocation of President Chavez, keeps our government very busy. Any reaction against the genocide has been very weak. The Wayuu deserve more attention as human beings.”

Ricardo Ricon, President of the National Commission for Refugees in Venezuela says however, that “the government’s policies have always favored indigenous tribes. Our President Chavez has himself an indigenous background.” According to Ricon, the series of murders perpetrated against indigenous peoples recently in Colombia has resulted in massive displacements into Venezuela. “ The victims of both massacres and genocide are the indigenous people,” he says. “We are right now analyzing the relationship between the killings and the number of people arriving in the country. According to Article 69 of our Constitution, Venezuela recognizes and guarantees the Right to Asylum of refugees. It is the responsibility of President Chavez.” 

The series of Colombian massacres are now becoming an international issue. The "Wayuu genocide" was denounced on May 22 by Noeli Pocaterra, Vice President of the Venezuelan National Assembly during the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held this year in New York City.  “The Forum’s central theme was indigenous women involved in human rights, development and economic issues,” tells Noeli Pocaterra. “I used this opportunity to denounce the problem of the displaced Indigenous people in the high region of the Guajira, persecuted by the paramilitaries. I asked for international humanitarian attention so that the High Commissioners of the United Nations would investigate the matter. A real genocide happened in Colombia, and we need international help.”

The Colombian government authorities are afraid of a resurgence of the internal war between the paramilitaries and the FARC over control of cocaine production regions in the country. According to Vice President Pocaterra, the problem of the civil war in Colombia is nowhere close to being over and will probably generate many more internal and international “displacements.”

Indigenous Wayuu women displaced
across the Venezuelan border
Photo by Jose Navajo, La Verdad)

To help the indigenous tribes displaced across the Venezuelan frontier, write to Noeli Pocaterra at the Wayuu Indigenous Women's Network at:

La Cruz Roja Venezuelana
Arcadio Montiel y Administración,
Desplazados Colombianos
Avenida 11 con calle 82 y 83
Sector Veritas
Maracaibo Estado Zulia
Venezuela