Indigenous Leader Arrested on Trumped-Up Charges: Government Criminalizing Indigenous Autonomy

The last time that I saw Feliciano Valencia we were on our way to the Minga for the Liberation of Mother Earth in his bulletproof car provided by Colombia’s National Protection Unit. During our conversation, he described how the Nasa people have been attacked and threatened by rightwing paramilitaries, leftist guerrillas, and the Colombian government for defending their territory and autonomy.feliciano

Yesterday, Valencia was arrested and condemned to 18 years in prison on charges of kidnapping. The case dates back to 2008 and relates to the 14-hour detainment of Jairo Danilo Chaparral Santiago, a soldier that infiltrated an indigenous protest. Articles 246, 247, and 330 of the Colombian Constitution recognize the right of indigenous peoples to implement their own judicial systems, and Chaparral Santiago was detained, tried, and sentenced before an indigenous tribunal in exercise of this right. Valencia was acquitted of the bogus charges in March 2015. Nevertheless, in the lead up to yesterday’s arrest, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the case, and the Superior Court of Cauca revoked his acquittal.

Valencia’s arrest followed the release of thirteen social movement activists that were accused of belonging to insurgent movements in July 2015. All thirteen activists were released last week after months of protest against the manipulation of the judicial system in order to persecute social movement leaders. If this scenario seems familiar, that is because the government’s criminalization of social protest is not a new phenomenon. For example in June 2012, a historic Afro-Colombian activist– Felix Banguero – was arrested for supposedly having ties with the FARC in a two-day operation that resulted in the arrest of 27 black and indigenous people in Northern Cauca. Banguero was exonerated after spending nearly two years in prison.

This persecution occurs in a context of racist stigmatization and attacks on black and indigenous communities. For example, the program Séptimo Día TV on Canal Caracol ran a show entitled “Did Corruption Arrive in the Indigenous Cabildos?” where it linked indigenous peoples to illegal armed groups and discriminated against their cultural practices and autonomy.

Valencia and Banguero are casualties of a system invested in eliminating opposition to exploitative policies at any cost. By collapsing the difference between social movement activists and left-wing guerrillas, the government demonstrates that it is not committed to guaranteeing the safety and wellbeing of oppositional political activists in a post-FARC negotiations context.


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