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The Plot Thickens In Southwest Colombia

July 12, 2012

Indigenous activists wasted no time in following through today with their threat to push out police from the southwest Colombian town of Toribio.  The Spanish-language news agency EFE reports that this afternoon “Members of the Indigenous Guard took down gates and filled in the trenches of the military outpost” near Toribio. ‘“At this moment we are advancing in the seizing of control,’ Feliciano Valencia, leader of the Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca, told EFE by telephone from Toribio.”

The actions come on the heels of a visit by President Juan Manuel Santos to the village yesterday. Santos refused while there to meet with local residents in person, instead opting to discuss the town’s demands—that the military withdraw from the region—privately with indigenous leaders—demands Santos rejected in no uncertain terms.  “Our military and police are here to protect you,” he said. “They are here and they’re going to stay.”

In the face of government resistance, locals broadened the fight by appealing to Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón to act as a go-between in negotiations between the government and leadership in Toribio. Garzón, most famously, was the judge who issued an arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet. He is also, more importantly, close with Santos, an advocate of indigenous rights in Colombia, and a man who attracts a ton of controversy. At the time of writing, there has been no indication that Garzón has responded to the request.

The crucial question is what steps Toribio residents take next to secure the other part of their agenda—forcing the rebel FARC out of town, as well. On Tuesday, hundreds of activists marched to rebel positions outside of Toribio to demand that they pack up and take their operations elsewhere. On the one hand, rebel leaders know all too well that in their fight with the government, where they are massively outgunned, a key source of strength lies in courting local support. On the other hand, if activists return to forcefully reclaim the land as they did with the government outpost, the worry becomes that FARC insurgents will hit back violently. The recent uptick in egregiously violent attacks, the most recent of which killed a child and wounded five others, suggests that civilian protection is increasingly low on its list of priorities.

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