Civil Resistance Against Colombia's Guerrillas

Rebels Without Weapons

Civil resistance against Colombia's guerrillas is not only a form of heroism—it is a symptom of the state's retreat from the rule of law. Throughout the country, hundreds of small towns suffer from malign neglect.

Anti-violence protesters in Bogotá, Jan. 18, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
In a normal country, the police take care of the civilian population. In many Colombian municipalities it is the other way around. Disarmed citizens are the ones who end up saving policemen from being gunned down by guerrillas. The slaying of Jimmy Guauña Chicangana, the Indian resident who was killed on Dec. 31 as he sounded a chirimía (a local handcrafted wood instrument) to proclaim civil resistance to the takeover of the town of Puracé, 36 kilometers (22 miles) from Popayán, by the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) illustrates the dangers confronted by these heroic resisters in the face of the inhumane cruelty of subversives and government neglect. That night Jimmy was preparing to greet the new year when he was taken by surprise, just like the other residents of Puracé, by the assault of Fronts 6 and 13 of the FARC against the police station. This harassment, which took the life of two policemen, began at five in the afternoon. The guerrillas sacked the Banco Agrario (farmers’ bank) and then destroyed the parish house. Sometime after 10 o’clock that night, motivated by the recent demonstrations of valor by people in other towns like Bolivar, Caldono, and Coconuco, also in the Cauca region, Jimmy persuaded several people to go along with him to the town’s central park. Along the way they invited their fellow townspeople to join in the civil resistance.

Armed only with their courage, ordinary citizens stand up to brute force and terror
Two blocks from the park, as a group numbering at least 100 people was already gathering, the group found itself face to face with several guerrillas, who intimidated them to get them to give up their idea. Jimmy, who had just finished his seventh semester studying law at the University of Cauca, answered that they had a right to celebrate the arrival of the New Year and pleaded with them not to destroy the town. The guerrillas allowed him to keep moving toward the central park, but on the condition that he would not summon any more people. But Guauña Chicangana had not walked more than 100 yards when the shot rang out that ended his life. Those walking with him fled in panic. The occupation lasted until about midnight, and the guerrillas destroyed 30 houses.

That same night, the FARC encountered civil resistance in three other towns. In Coconuco, located some 20 minutes from Puracé, the guerrillas attempted to make the people forget the lesson they had offered on Dec. 23, when the inhabitants continued praying their Christmas novena prayers as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Army of Liberation) attacked. To bolster their courage, the citizens lit candles and sang hymns.

This time the FARC managed to destroy the police station and the church, and they sacked the Banco Agrario before the people of Coconuco once again united to resist. Led by the pastor, they came out into the street armed with white sheets, which they waved as a sign of peace. In this way, for the second time, they prevented the guerrillas from demolishing the central part of the town.

In Berruecos, north of Pasto, guerrillas attacked the police station at 4 p.m. Amid the gunfire, townspeople came out into the street to ask that the attack be stopped. This allowed some of policemen to take cover and others to hide in the upper part of the church.

Three hours later, in Belén de los Andaquíes, three hours from Florencia, 100 guerrillas from FARC’s Front 61 attacked 14 policemen in their station. When the shooting stopped, at about 9 p.m., the townspeople came out of their houses and formed a cordon around the police station, holding white sheets and Colombian flags, as they sang the national anthem. Another crowd congregated in the park and shouted anti-war slogans. Faced with such a demonstration of citizen power and fearing that a [AC-47] “Phantom” [Colombian military surveillance] plane would arrive, the guerrillas fled.

All these are heroic examples of towns that rose up in valor to prevent armed perpetrators from using violence in their name. This phenomenon started in Caldono this past Nov. 12, when members of the Paeces Indian tribe showed exceptional courage: Carrying torches and with the music of Mercedes Sosa, Ricardo Arjona, and José Luis Perales, they prevented Front 8 and the Jacobo Arenas Column of the FARC from attacking the town by forming human cordons.

However, these demonstrations also highlight the tragic state of neglect in which hundreds of small towns find themselves. This seemed to be demonstrated with the official reactions in the wake of resistance by the residents of Bolivar one week after the resistance in Caldono. Most of Bolivar’s 28,000 residents faced off against more than 300 FARC guerrillas. Men, women, and children surrounded the subversives and let the air out of the tires of their vehicles. Eighteen policemen managed to escape, and six more were protected by the townspeople.

The commander of the District 2 police force, Col. José Edgar Herrera Betancourt, announced that he would not only reinforce police presence in the town, but would return to 12 other towns in the south of the district lacking protection. He anticipated the arrival of a mobile anti-guerrilla squadron for the Cauca district and promised 3 billion pesos for construction of new police stations in “recognition of the civil valor and community support that is building peace,” as reported in the media.

But many wonder whether police protection should be a prize rather than a constitutional obligation of the state. In the case of Caldono, this was the third attack in less than two years, during which the state failed to devise measures to protect it. In Bolivar, it was the third in less than six months.

No less pathetic is that the guerrillas fail to grasp the resounding message from the residents of these towns when they risk their lives, unarmed, so that the guerrillas, who are carrying rifles supposedly in the name of the people, will leave them in peace.