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Colombia: Debate about indigenous people during protests

In shaky cellphone videos you can see people shooting. A woman yells, "Get out of here, Indians." A car with members of the Minga, a protest group of several indigenous peoples, tries to drive down a street. They are stopped. More shots are fired. In the end Daniela Soto has to go to the hospital. She is one of the leaders of the indigenous youth. She is said to have been shot twice in the stomach area received and had an operation.

The scenes take place in Cañasgordas, one of the wealthy neighborhoods in southern Cali. It is not the only violent confrontation the Minga have seen since joining the protests that are currently shaking Colombia. The confrontations and the extensive discussion in national media and on Twitter provide an insight into a society in which indigenous peoples are still seen as an outside group.

"Citizens and Indigenous People"

Although only a few thousand indigenous people take part in the protests, making up a smaller proportion of the strikers, their presence has led to a heated debate between protesters and supporters.

In a television report, a reporter spoke of "citizens and indigenous people", implying that indigenous people are not citizens. In many tweets, people write that the Minga are "besieging" Cali and using gun violence against citizens. President Iván Duque even asked them to return to their territories to avoid further "unnecessary confrontations".

Aquilino Cuene from the people of NASA

"The state and the national media want to blame us for the violence," says Aquilino Cuene. The 50-year-old belongs to the Nasa people and lives in the north of the department of Cauca. "That is a lie. We followed the protesters' request to act as mediators in the strikes. "

Racist backgrounds

However, there are overlaps between the demands of the protesters and those of the indigenous peoples. "Social inequality and violence," says Cuene. "The Colombian people must stand together to solve these big problems." The indigenous people are just as affected by the disappearances and the murder of people as other sections of the population. If not more: According to the NGO Indepaz, at least 300 indigenous leaders have been killed since the 2016 peace treaty.

There is no question that the strong rejection of indigenous peoples and their participation in the protests has a racist background. It's about how land should be redistributed and whether populations who resided here long before colonization have to bow to the rules of a state that killed their ancestors.

It was not forbidden to hunt and kill indigenous people until well into the second half of the 20th century. In 1991 they received state permission for the first time to establish autonomous courts in their areas, provided they did not violate human rights standards. "The courts also work outside the territories," says Oscar Manuel Cárdenas Avendaño, a sociologist in Medellín. "But actually only to detain the accused and hand them over to the authorities."

Indigenous peoples and drug trafficking?

During the protests in Cali, the Guardía Indigena - a kind of security service in the protected areas that carries no weapons - detained an armed police officer who is said to have mixed with the demonstrators in civilian clothes. This incident fueled many people's opposition: In their opinion, the indigenous people come to the cities to put their agenda in the foreground, to cut off the population by blocking food or to enforce their own rules without observing Colombian laws.

Mayor of Cali: Jorge Ivàn Ospina

In addition, there is the allegation that indigenous people from the region of the Department of Cauca in particular are members of the guerrilla and are financed through drug trafficking. Now, during the protests, so the argument goes, guerrillas from the ex-Farc and ELN came to Cali under the guise of indigenous resistance to stir up unrest.

He knows these arguments, says Fabian Mulcue, member of the Guardia Indigena. "Many people tell us that we belong to the guerrillas, the guerrillas tell us that we are agents of the state. They don't want to understand that we are on our own." He could not rule out that paramilitaries mingled with the protesters in order to target the Minga.

Because the conflict, especially in the department of Cauca, is complex. At least one indigenous leader from the region has confirmed in an interview with El Pais that some indigenous people there have grown coca for drug trafficking in the past. At the same time, around nine percent of the country's coca-growing areas are said to be in indigenous territories, according to a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

On the other hand, the cartels and other armed actors such as paramilitaries are often a threat to the indigenous population. The areas in which they live are important transit zones for drug trafficking. And armed groups are not known for their diplomacy.

Further hardened fronts

The resistance of the indigenous people in Colombia has a long tradition. Their demands and their presence do not meet with approval everywhere. Their participation in the current protests made up only a small proportion of the demonstrators, but against the background of the heated atmosphere and the lack of understanding between protesters and protestors for one another, their presence hardened the fronts.

Noelia Campo is the spokesperson for the regional council of indigenous peoples in Cauca, Colombia

At least if you trust the comments on Twitter - Jorge Ospina, mayor of the city, disagrees. "Although the minga is another ingredient in the current confusing national situation, I am convinced that it has a calming effect on the negotiations with the demonstrators."

Last Wednesday, the Minga left Cali on their colorful buses, called Chivas. Noelia Campo, spokeswoman for the regional council of indigenous people in Cauca, CRIC, is convinced: "We have fulfilled our contribution to a peaceful protest here." Now it is time to go. "We will not give up the resistance. The strike is not just in Cali, the strike is taking place across the country. And we indigenous people are making the best contribution in our territories."