BOGOTA – The death of an indigenous man at the hands of Colombian soldiers increased tensions Wednesday in the strife-torn southwestern province of Cauca, where thousands of Indians have mobilized to drive both government forces and leftist guerrillas off their lands.
The fatal incident occurred in a rural area of the municipality of Caldono, the army’s 3rd Division said in a statement.
Troops carried out “military operations to neutralize any terrorist attempt against the community (and) a person ended up dead,” the statement said, providing no further details.
Media accounts said the Indian was shot after refusing to stop at an army checkpoint.
The indigenous government of Caldono identified the dead man as Fabian Cuetia, a 22-year-old member of the regional peasants movement.
“They killed him in cold blood,” Caldono senior councilor Albeiro Calambas told Efe by telephone, adding that residents were holding several soldiers from the unit involved in Cuetia’s death.
The army will conduct an internal investigation of the shooting and has already contacted the Attorney General’s Office, the 3rd Division said.
Cuetia belonged to an indigenous group known as the Nasa or Paez, who occupy 14 reserves in the northern part of Cauca.
The fatal shooting in Caldono came just hours after riot police evicted scores of Nasa from a hilltop military outpost in the municipality of Toribio.
Elements of the Nasa Indigenous Guard – armed only with ceremonial batons – first occupied the post last week. On Tuesday, they bodily removed around 100 soldiers from the installation.
More than a score of Indians were hurt in Wednesday’s police operation to retake the hill, the Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca, or ACIN, said.
ACIN had set a deadline of midnight Monday for all “armed actors” to vacate the 14 Indian reserves in the region.
Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzon, said the armed forces would remain in Cauca, echoing President Juan Manuel Santos’s vow last week during a visit to Toribio not to demilitarize “a single centimeter” of the country.
Fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were in the process of removing their encampments from indigenous territory on Monday, ACIN said.
Intense fighting in Cauca between government forces and leftist FARC guerrillas has driven more than 2,800 indigenous and mestizo people from their homes in the past two weeks.
Santos said Wednesday that his government is ready for dialogue with the Indians “when they cease aggression.”
“Many economic interests of multinationals, mining companies, interests in crops such as sugarcane and in large-scale cattle farming, come together” in North Cauca and exacerbate the armed conflict, ACIN’s Feliciano Valencia told Efe earlier this week.
The area around Toribio also offers “natural corridors” for drug smuggling, he acknowledged, while insisting that the indigenous people are not involved in growing coca – the raw material of cocaine.
Both the FARC and remnants of Colombia’s ostensibly demobilized right-wing militias derive income from the trade in illegal drugs.
Colombia’s constitution recognizes the autonomy of the indigenous peoples and their right to exercise control over their designated territories.
The Nasa are one of several Colombian indigenous groups to proclaim their neutrality in the internal armed conflict and demand that both sides leave them alone. EFE