Yesterday’s dramatic protests by indigenous residents of southwest Colombia certainly caught president Juan Manuel Santos’ attention. As I wrote yesterday, residents of Toribio, a small town in Colombia’s Cauca province, tore up government trenches fortifying the local police station and confronted rebel FARC leaders in their jungle hideouts, telling each side that it was time to withdraw. This unprecedented act lead Santos to make an emergency trip to the town this afternoon with a team of high-level security advisors to assess to the situation and determine the way forward.
Seemingly proving the very point local residents have been making, Santos’ visit achieved little aside from inciting yet more violence in the area. Before the president’s helicopter landed in Toribio, federal police dug up bombs purportedly planted by FARC rebels near where Santos was scheduled to set down. Reuters reports as well that “Local television showed attack helicopters shooting into surrounding mountains where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels were believed to be.” At the same time, a FARC motorcycle bomb killed one child and severely injured five more in the nearby town of El Plateado.
When the president arrived, he was greeted with chants of “Get out,” which intensified when Santos refused to meet with local leaders to hear their demands. The government offered to send representatives of the president to meet with the townspeople, and offer that was immediately rejected. Carlos Andres Alfonso, a local indigenous leader, told Fox News Latino that “under Colombia’s constitution indigenous people are autonomous and have the right to exercise control over their territories. ‘We have full legitimacy to exercise territorial control,’ said Alfonso, who vowed that the Indigenous Guard will continue to dismantle military and police posts and encampments and destroy barricades.”
For its part, the government was clear that it has no intention of changing course. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon issued a statement, before heading himself to Toribio, that restated his commitment to battling the FARC in Cauca province. “We have to keep going onward, keep on going against these base areas that the FARC established decades ago, we will make more efforts. In the last two months more than 2,000 men of the armed forces have arrived in Cauca and we will consider if we have to send more troops to keep guaranteeing security, but it remains clear that we can’t lower the guard,” said Pinzon in a press release from the defense ministry.”
Seemingly not understanding that local residents were not criticizing the government for being ineffective, but were demanding that all fighting between security forces and the FARC be taken elsewhere, Carlos Pinzon remarked that his soldiers were making great strides against the rebels. And as Colombia Reports notes, he “claimed the best solution to the problems of public order was to ‘increase the amount of troops.’”
In the face of this news, the residents of Toribio are holding firm to the line that they will not tolerate any more fighting in their towns and the surrounding jungle. “We’ll continue asserting territorial control without asking anyone’s permission,” Carlos Andres Alfonso said, arguing that they won’t give up until they are allowed “to live in peace and be an example of coexistence.