When Manuel Rozental got home one night last month, friends told him two strange men had been asking questions about him. In this close-knit indigenous community in southwestern Colombia ringed by soldiers, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas, strangers asking questions about you is never a good thing.
The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, which leads a political movement that is autonomous from all those armed forces, held an emergency meeting. They decided that Rozental, their communications coordinator, who had been instrumental in campaigns for agrarian reform and against a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, had to get out of the country–fast.
They were certain that those strangers had been sent to kill Rozental–the only question was, by whom? The US-backed national government, which notoriously uses right-wing paramilitaries to do its dirty work? Or was it the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s oldest Marxist guerrilla army, which does its dirty work all on its own? Oddly, both were distinct possibilities. Despite being on opposing sides of a forty-one-year civil war, the Uribe government and the FARC wholeheartedly agree that life would be infinitely simpler without Cauca’s increasingly powerful indigenous movement.
Prominent indigenous leaders in northern Cauca have been kidnapped or assassinated by the FARC, which seeks to be the exclusive voice of Colombia’s poor. And indigenous authorities had been informed that the FARC wanted Rozental dead. For months rumors had been circulated that he was the worst thing you can be in the books of a left-wing guerrilla movement: a CIA agent. But that doesn’t mean the strangers were FARC assassins, because there had been other rumors too, spread through the media by government officials. They held that Rozental was the worst thing you can be in the books of a right-wing, Bush-bankrolled politician: "an international terrorist."
On October 27 the Indigenous Council, representing the roughly 110,000 Nasa Indians in the region, issued an angry communiqué: "Manuel is no terrorist. He is no paramilitary. He is no agent of the CIA. He is a part of our community who must not be silenced by bullets." The Nasa leaders say they know why Rozental, now living in exile in Canada, has come under threat. It is the same reason that this past April two peaceful indigenous villages in Northern Cauca were turned into war zones after the FARC attacked police posts in the town centers, giving the government an excuse for a full-scale occupation.
All of this is happening because the indigenous movement is on a roll. In the past year the Nasa of northern Cauca have held the largest antigovernment protests in recent Colombian history and organized local referendums against free trade that had a turnout of 70 percent, higher than any official election (with a near unanimous "no" result). And in September thousands took over two large haciendas, forcing the government to make good on a long-promised land settlement. All these actions unfolded under the protection of the Nasa’s unique Indigenous Guard, who patrol their territory armed only with sticks.