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The Power of Nonviolent Resistance and Protective Accompaniment in Colombia

As day broke in the small town of Toribio, a voice on the loudspeaker warned the civilian population to flee. The FARC was preparing to attack the Colombian security forces’ headquarters in the town center.  

As people fled, homemade mortars began to rain down on the humble buildings and homes. Colombian troops returned fire. Civilians, as always, were caught in the crossfire of Colombia’s brutal war.  One ten-year-old boy was killed.

  More civilians would certainly have died during the ten hours of fighting if not for the heroic efforts of a group of nonviolent indigenous guards that marched into town and led civilians to safety.

But the indigenous guard itself has also come under attack. Members of the guard have been taken hostage, threatened and murdered. The guard knows it needs international support and has looked to Witness for Peace for physical accompaniment and human rights advocacy.

Since 2000, Witness for Peace’s Colombia-based International Team has provided solidarity and support from Urabá to Cali.  The work follows in a proud tradition of nonviolence stemming from Witness for Peace’s original accompaniment work in Nicaragua during the Contra War of the 1980s.  And when it’s paired with mobilizing our U.S-based grassroots network, Witness for Peace holds Washington accountable for foreign policies towards Colombia.

The Nasa people of southwestern Colombia took the world by surprise when they developed a pacifist army of 5,000 guards to protect their communities and other civilians in the midst of the Western hemisphere’s longest-fought internal war, subsidized since 2000 by U.S. military aid.  Thanks to their work nonviolently protecting 305 communities and 93,000 hectares of territorial reserve, they were awarded Colombia’s National Peace Prize.

And given Witness for Peace’s mission of nonviolent opposition to the U.S. military influence in Colombia, the Indigenous Guard was a natural ally.

The Guard stands up to the guns of all armed groups with their unity and their bastones—their symbolic staffs of authority.

“Weapons represent death.  The baston represents strength,” said German Valencia, coordinator of the Indigenous Guard of the Nasa people’s Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN). “The difference between us and the armed actors is our level of organization.  The strength we have in unity.  We don’t need the supposed ‘protection’ of the armed forces, not their arms, not even this great quantity of resources they spend on their tactics.”

How, you may ask, does this pacifist army stand up to soldiers and guerrillas wielding machine guns? “We walk the word,” explains German.  “If dialogue doesn’t dissuade them, the sheer number of us does.  Normally it’s them who retreat.”

To further support the Indigenous Guard and the communities they protect, Witness for Peace staff in Colombia has accompanied Nasa communities under threat, the Indigenous Guard during protests, and ACIN leadership at high-profile summit events.  According to the Indigenous Guard itself, this international accompaniment is becoming increasingly important.

“We hope that the countries and communities of the world continue to accompany us,” said German. “Because we know that the decisions we’ve made involve risks, and we expect those risks to come in the form of attacks against the Nasa.”

Tragically, Nasa civilians have been murdered by the weapons of every armed body active in the area. The Colombian security forces have killed indigenous people standing up against free trade agreements. Paramilitaries send them death threats almost daily.  Guerrillas have kidnapped Nasa leaders and brutally attacked their communities. 

With that reality in mind, the ACIN’s work protecting their communities starts by making sure that no armed groups set up outposts on their land.

“They must remove the army battalion camps that…have been established in our territories,” said German. “Why?  Because neither the national security forces nor the guerrillas have ever guaranteed our safety.  We’ve been victimized equally by both groups.”

Armed groups even target children. In recent years, the Bogota-based human rights organization Minga Association has reported an increase in the forced recruitment of indigenous boys and girls not only to the ranks of the guerillas, but also to the military.  

“Sometimes the military recruits child informants, promising prestige and money,” explained Minga representative Maria Victoria Alvarado.  “This puts the children directly at risk with the insurgency, who will say the children and their families sympathize with the military.”  

Indigenous leadership believes the group’s autonomy can help the ACIN mediate between insurgents and the Colombian Government to bring peace to the region.

And however numerous the Indigenous Guard, the number of armed actors in Nasa territory is far greater.  In July, the ACIN reported an estimated 15,000 soldiers in their territory of 93,000 hectares.  The true influence of the Nasa Guard, then, is less a function of its numbers than of the political and social legitimacy of a group formed by unity and just cause, rather than coercion and scare tactics.

“We must open the debate between all armed actors,” said German. “You have to ask the guerrilla why he victimizes the communities while pretending to act on their behalf, and the government and the military as well for failing to defend the public good by fighting among us and victimizing us.”

A month after the attack on Toribio, a few thousand ACIN Indigenous Guard gathered in a meeting space overlooking the valley.  Members of the Guard wore matching red and green scarves and carried their brightly decorated sticks of authority.  Children played on the fringes of the crowd.   

The discussion, however, was of the utmost seriousness. The ACIN was strategizing over how best to fulfill their mandate: end the war, defend autonomy, and plant peace.

“Those are bold goals to make publicly when you live up in these mountains, away from the watch of the world,” says Colombia-based Witness for Peace International Team member Jeanine Legato.  “That’s why solidarity with the ACIN is so important.  They are a living example that peace can be as powerful and active response to war, and more effective than the fight to out-arm the enemy.”