Beset by Violence, Colombia’s Nasa Women Resist


“C’mon, muchachos, let’s go!” With this abrupt order, Celia Eumesa and a group of the Nasa Indigenous Guard under her command jumped into a van and drove off in hot pursuit of a handful of guerrillas that had just kidnapped some people from her community. Armed with no more than decorative staffs, which they carry to symbolize indigenous authority, they sped behind the guerrillas’ car with a caravan of 60 other Indigenous Guards trailing behind her.
 
When they had inched close enough to the car, Celia told her driver to beep the horn to see if the men would pullover. When the guerrillas refused, she told her driver: “Punch it. We have to pass them.” As Celia’s van lurched forward, so did the guerrillas’. “More! More!” she yelled, and eventually they managed to pass the car.
 
When they reached a safe distance ahead of the guerrillas, she ordered the van parked sideways to block the dirt road. Celia figured that since she had a bigger van, and the road was flanked by thick brush on both sides, the rebels wouldn’t try to recklessly bust through the makeshift roadblock. She was right.
 
The Nasa people, who number around 300,000, are Colombia’s second-largest indigenous group, mostly concentrated in the departamento (province) of Cauca. Their traditional homeland in this southwestern part of the country has been wracked by some of the worst violence in the country’s 42-year civil war. The armed conflict pits the Communist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC in its Spanish initials) and smaller leftist insurgent groups against the Colombian military and its right-wing paramilitary supporters.
 
Despite having long-declared their “active neutrality,” the Nasa are often caught in the crossfire of the fighting or targeted for supposedly sympathizing with one or another armed group. But since they are equally critical of all the conflict’s actors—including the military—the Nasa’s fiercely independent stance has often been reason enough to provoke harassment, kidnappings and assassinations or, worse, wholesale massacres of their peoples. Tired of suffering the brunt of the country’s bloody history, in 2001 the Nasa organized the “Indigenous Guard” as a permanent, non-violent, civil defense organization.
 
Celia Eumesa was instrumental in the creation of the Indigenous Guard. In fact, Nasa women have played key roles in building and fortifying all facets of Colombia’s vibrant indigenous movement. In ever-growing numbers, women have become governors, mayors and council members in the autonomous local governments of the Nasa indigenous reserves and have reached the upper echelons of the Indigenous Guard.
 
“Not because we want to like fight against the power of the men,” says Celia, “but, rather, because we can.”
 
The leaping strides made by Nasa women are of course fraught with danger, opposition and self-sacrifice. They are continually confronted with the constraints imposed by Colombian society at large as well as lingering chauvinism within their own communities. In the country’s famously conservative and machista culture, indigenous women are twice discriminated: once for being a woman and a second time for being indigenous—and then perhaps a third time for being poor.

The Rescue

The main duty of the Guard, with an estimated 6,000 active members, is to protect communities by preventing the incursion of armed groups and drug traffickers into the Nasa’s territorial reserves. Guard members describe it as a “humanitarian group in unarmed resistance” that also alerts communities about the presence of armed actors, recovers the bodies of slain community members and serves as a buffer between police and protestors during demonstrations. But perhaps its most dangerous activity is conducting rescue missions of kidnap victims. It was one of these rescue operations that Celia Eumesa was leading when she drove off chasing the guerrillas’ car.
 
Getting out of their car at the impromptu roadblock, the FARC guerrillas were furious and began frantically pointing their rifles at Celia and her fellow Guards, ordering them with insults to move the van or else “be filled with bullets.” The other Indigenous Guards trailing behind soon arrived on the scene.
 
“Well, if you’re going to kill all 60 of us, then go right ahead. But the people you have in your van are our problem, not yours,” said Celia staring up at the biggest guerrilla, who she assumed was the commander. The man stuttered as he spurted out insults, clearly livid that this petite indigenous woman was giving him orders. But before he could muster a determined response, she demanded that the guerrillas move the kidnapped people into her van. Without waiting for an answer, she immediately forced her way through the guerrillas and their drawn machineguns to open the doors of their van and let out the victims.
 
Being forced to decide between relenting and massacring all 60 Nasa Guards—a public relations disaster by any measure, even in the FARC’s deranged logic—the guerrillas relented and let them go.
 
In recalling the story, Celia laughs, wondering how she mustered the courage to confront the guerrillas so boldly. This modesty is classic Celia: in my conversations with her she repeatedly played down her bravery and even her role as a member of the Indigenous Guard, preferring instead to credit the entire Nasa community for these small but significant victories.
 
Since its inception, the Indigenous Guard has conducted countless other similar missions, sometimes deploying thousands of Guards at a time. Their tactics rely on their lighting-fast ability to mobilize, their military-like discipline and, above all, their strength-in-numbers approach.
 
 

The Birth of the Guard

When the Nasa governor of the Tacueyó reserve, where Celia lives, first approached her about helping him form an Indigenous Guard in the area, Celia was reluctant. “How, can we be proposing to confront the guerrillas, the military and the paramilitaries? That’s way too scary,” she complained. But the governor promised that although she’d be in charge of recruiting others for the Guard, her tour of duty would only last for a three-month trial period, so she agreed.
 
She convinced two male friends to join her for the initial meeting held May 28, 2001, that formally made the Guard permanent, making the three of them the first Indigenous Guards of Tacueyó. But it was up to her to get more recruits. This was a particularly difficult task at the time, because the area surrounding Tacueyó had become a guerrilla stronghold, making it the epicenter of a turf war between the armed groups. “No one wanted to be a guard,” remembers Celia. “I was so fed up, I just wanted my three months to be over, so I could retire.”
 
With the conflict heating up, the governor again insisted that Celia build up the Guard in the hope of extending its security duties to all the communities inside the Tacueyó reserve. He figured since there were 33 hamlets in the reserve, the Guard needed ten people from each place, or a total of 330 people. “You’re a dynamic person, Celia, don’t worry you’ll be able to do it,” were his only words of advice. Celia went from town to town, house to house, and in a month she had personally recruited a 330-strong all-volunteer force for the nascent Indigenous Guard.
 
Celia’s three-month “trial period” eventually turned into three long years, during which she served as regional coordinator—the top post—for her local branch of the Guard. Thanks to her pioneering efforts as the first woman Guard, she estimates there are now about 160 women guards in her area.
 
“For us, that’s big progress,” says Celia, “because when we started the only woman was the secretary, which was pretty common in our organizations, so I do think we’ve moved forward.”
 
In the early days of the Guard, Celia remembers the male leader of the entire Nasa Guard only reluctantly let her join. “I’m a short little woman, and back then I was pretty skinny—I’ve fattened up a bit,” she laughs, “but he was pretty skeptical.” In retrospect, Celia actually credits this weariness from her male colleagues as a factor in helping her persevere: “Of course I think that men should treat women gentler than porcelain,” she chuckles, “but that can also debilitate us more. Sometimes they’re hard on us, but we are also hard on them. But that’s good, it makes all of us stronger.”
 
Through her determination, including her heroic leadership in hostage rescues, Celia says she wholeheartedly gained the respect of her male colleagues. But again, she modestly preferred to credit the support of her colleagues and her community with the success she has enjoyed as a Guard and a community organizer.
 
At the end of one of our conversations, she shared with me her outlook as a woman in these efforts. “One does not have to stop being a woman to do these things,” said Celia. “To be successful, we shouldn’t copy the things men do, because then we’d be just like them. Instead, I do things my way, from my space as a woman.”
 

Learning to Govern

Alicia Chocué, who served as governor of the Nasa reserve of Pueblo Nuevo from 2003 to 2004, notes that for an indigenous woman in a position of power, the already heavy responsibility of governing is doubled. “One has to not only leave the name of your office in good standing,” she explains, “but one also has to leave a good impression of a woman having held that position, so these spaces remain open for more women in the future.”
 
“It’s very difficult,” she continues, “because you have to practically abandon your family to serve the community, and we received a lot of death threats, because the indigenous movement has a lot of enemies.” Indeed, taking public office anywhere in Colombia, but especially as an indigenous leader, means putting yourself and your family squarely in the crosshairs of the armed groups—and even more so in the countryside.

Alicia never aspired to hold public office, much less become the governor of her reserve. Her first paying job was in domestic service, cleaning the palatial homes of society’s upper crust in the nearby city of Cali. Unsatisfied, she began taking night-classes in the hope of someday getting a better job and to pass the time. When Alicia returned to her community in Pueblo Nuevo, she became involved in education, which soon became her passion.
 
The people of Pueblo Nuevo gave her the task of working with the region’s dense network of indigenous organizations to devise a bilingual elementary school curriculum that emphasized Nasa history and culture. The process also involved training sessions for the participants to later become the teachers charged with implementing the bilingual curriculum. Upon finishing, Alicia devoted herself to launching the pilot schools for the new program and to professionalizing more teachers. It wasn’t long before she was chosen to be the educational coordinator for the entire indigenous region in the departamento of Cauca.
 

The Challenge of Governing

As it was with Celia in the Indigenous Guard, when Alicia was chosen by her community to become governor, she accepted the job reluctantly and with deep reservations. “But in such cases it is not about what one wants, but rather what the community asks of you,” Alicia reasons. This subordination of individual preferences and interests to those of the community is a pervasive ethos in all aspects of life in Nasa communities, where the most important decisions are taken collectively in huge assemblies.
 
Alicia credits her previous work in education as a tremendous asset that helped her navigate the daily complexities of governing her community. As governor, she had to reconcile the decisions of nearly 90 different representatives from community councils, which are the most localized administrative units.
 
“The community is the motor that drives all our decisions,” says Alicia. And this has a practical rationale, too, she adds, “Doing things together and making our efforts collective, not only makes the projects we do easier but it also means we get better results.”
 
Still, being a woman governor was by no means a frictionless experience. “The spaces for the role of women have opened a lot,” she notes, “but of course there is still a lot of machismo because of Christianization and colonialism.” But whether leaders are male or female, Alicia admits part of the difficulty is that people within the communities are not always amenable to obeying indigenous authorities—particularly if a woman is making decisions. Opposition to her decisions sometimes took more overt forms, bordering on sabotage: “Sometimes people would actually get in my way by setting up obstacles to prevent me from doing my work.”
 
What’s more, compared to their male counterparts, the personal lives of women public office holders come under intense scrutiny, enhanced in this case by the negligible privacy afforded in the Nasa’s tight-knit communities. Besides judging a woman’s performance in office, notes Alicia, “People are also judging how well you are taking care of your responsibilities as a woman, how you are taking care of your home and your family. You’re being measured from all sides.”
 
Alicia counts this scrutiny of her home life as one of the most difficult challenges, not least of which because holding public office in Nasa communities is an unpaid job, and she has three daughters to support. Serving her community also put unbearable strains on her marriage, eventually forcing the separation of her husband. “He didn’t understand what I was trying to be, which in the end isn’t anything. I was just trying to help my community,” she laments.
 
Governing in Nasa communities is a 24-hour job. During her three-year tenure, people would come to Alicia’s house at all hours of the night to lodge complaints or to ask for help. She would frequently get home after ten or 12 hours at the office and there would already be a long line of people assembled out her door waiting for her. She took this in stride, though, because she considered a big part of her job was just to listen to people, even if just to make them feel better. Looking back, she considers the one or two hours she would spend listening to a person “more than fair,” despite sometimes “not having enough time to eat.”
 

Everything is a Process

Thanks to the Herculean efforts of women like Celia Eumesa and Alicia Chocué and, as they would be careful to note, their entire communities, the Nasa people are probably the most organized indigenous group in Colombia. Over the years, they have been recognized nationally and internationally as remarkable beacons of peace and hope amid the overwhelming dreariness of Colombia’s war. The Indigenous Guard received Colombia’s prestigious National Peace Prize in 2004 for their non-violent resistance to the conflict. That same year, the Nasa also won the esteemed Equator Initiative Prize from the United Nations for their sustainable, community-driven development programs.
 
Despite these impressive gains, the most menacing threat to the Nasa remains Colombia’s perpetual war. The government frequently accuses Nasa activists of being “terrorists” and guerrilla supporters. And in hundreds of cases, these accusations have been followed by arrests and imprisonment, but few convictions. The Nasa are still kidnapped and often killed by FARC soldiers, who accuse them of being informants for the Army or the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries, on the other hand—who are accused by human rights groups, of perpetrating the overwhelming majority of reported rights abuses in Colombia—continue to target the Nasa as supposed guerrilla sympathizers. (The most recent evolution of the paramilitaries into ultra-violent, tentacle-like crime syndicates as a result of a widely criticized government-brokered “peace agreement” is unlikely to stem neither the influence or violence of the paramilitaries. Indeed, in Cauca paramilitaries in their traditional manifestation as anti-leftist death squads remain active.)
 
The Nasa, however, have survived repeated cycles of violence throughout Colombia’s turbulent history. The initial devastation of colonization by the Spanish, the country’s post-independence civil wars and the blood-soaked period of the 1950s known simply as “La Violencia” have all come and gone. This conflict will come to pass, too, according to the Nasa’s eternally long view of time.
 
When the Nasa people describe anything having to do with their communities the word “process” is used almost obsessively. For the Nasa, everything they do is understood and described as a “proceso”—organizing is a proceso, governing is a proceso, the Indigenous Guard is a proceso, participation of women is a proceso. The wording is not a rhetorical flare. It is indicative of their expansive view of time and their belief that nothing is ever finished. In a practical sense, this means that all their initiatives, from education to governance and beyond, are constantly being modified, tinkered with and re-negotiated to meet the constantly changing needs of the present and the future.
 
Alicia summed it up once when asked why she became involved in the indigenous movement. She told me, “I’m just trying to support our community processes, because I think a lot about future generations and my daughters, and about the grandchildren that are coming.”
 
“I think about what future is waiting for them,” she continued, “one has to be conscious of such things, and can’t just sit there waiting for things to fall from the sky. One has to get organized.”
 
 

Teo Ballvé is a writer based in Bogotá, Colombia and a former editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas. He is co-editor (with Vijay Prashad) of the recently published book Dispatches from Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (South End Press, 2006) and can be reached at .

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