BOGOTA – Scores of Paez Indians bodily removed Colombian soldiers from an outpost on Tuesday as part of a push to expel both security forces and leftist rebels from indigenous reserves in the southwestern province of Cauca, authorities said.
“That has made the situation more tense,” the city clerk in Toribio, Jose Miguel Correa, told Efe by telephone.
He said he saw a large group of Paez moving toward the army post on Berlin mountain, occupied last week by members of the Indigenous Guard, who – armed only with clubs – dismantled some of the fortifications.
The Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca, or 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.
Gen. Jorge Humberto Jerez, the top military officer in Cauca, told reporters the Indians were trying “to remove the soldiers.”
“It’s difficult situation,” according to the commander of Task Force Apollo, a unit created to drive rebels from Cauca.
The Indians “passed to attacking the soldiers of Colombia,” he said.
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.
“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 Paez are one of several indigenous groups to proclaim their neutrality in the internal armed conflict and demand that both sides leave them alone. EFE