Óscar Montero was born in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, home to four ancestral indigenous tribes: Kankuamos, Koguis, Arhuacos and Wiwas. He is Kankuamo but, due to the violence and persecution of social leaders, he has not set foot on his land for 15 years. His life is dedicated to carrying a message of peace on behalf of his people and all the indigenous peoples of the country. He is a political scientist from the Universidad Nacional, and has in mind the reality of these peoples like few others do. Here is his testimony.
Oscar David Montero de la Rosa, my name. Kankuamo indigenous, my origin. Born and raised in the Sierra, in the Chemesquemena community, between three departments: Magdalena, Cesar and Guajira.
My people live in the southeast of the Sierra, with the Guatapurí River at their feet. I am 32 years old and have a daughter who is the light of my eyes. She has dual indigenous nationality: from a Kankuamo father and a Nasa mother, the ancestral indigenous people that live in Cauca.
In the Sierra there are 12 communities in total and 36 hydrographic basins. Ancestral communities have our own cultural, political, judicial and territorial organizations and dynamics.
For us, the territory is sacred and we are united to it from the moment we are born, because when our mothers give birth they bury our navels in the ground. Thus, the force of the Sierra is always with us and we are always with it.
Violence against indigenous peoples has been relentless. The Kankuamo people in particular have suffered the greatest structural and cultural indigenous genocide in the country's history. Today, we have a Kankuama population in several cities such as Bogotá, Valledupar, Santa Marta, Riohacha, and Barranquilla.
We live outside our ancestral territory. We are more than 450 Kankuamos murdered over many years and by different types of violence: that of the FARC-EP, that of the public force and that of the State. This genocide does not end. Our memory is a tissue that is written with blood and shows our resistance.
Violence started in 1942. They branded us "savages" and exterminated our ways of life to make up "America." Then came other speeches that annihilated us. Colonization, Independence, The Republic and now the “Bicentennial”.
We live in strategic places that are the gateway to Cesar and Valledupar. Furthermore, our territory is always in dispute. A current example is that of the Guatapurí River where they want to build the Besotes dam.
When guerrilla violence arrived, they sought to dismantle and split the Kankuamo social fabric. The guerrillas forcibly recruited many members. They joined their ranks. Then the paramilitaries arrived, did the same, and we were left in a complex dispute in which we killed each other.
I have known violence since my childhood, when we were used as human shields in guerrilla confrontations in our territory. I lived it. Unfortunately I still live it. My daughter has the indigenous world in her head, her ability to perceive, and everytime, she tells me she doesn't want anything to happen to me.
In 2005, my father was assassinated by the paramilitaries led by Jorge 40 and Alias 39 who were in charge of the North Caribbean Block in Colombia. In that area they wreaked havoc. He was a Kankuamo indigenous leader and teacher in the Sierra.
They killed my father because, at that time, Consuelo Araujo Noguera was murdered in the Sierra. She was Minister of Culture and wife of former Attorney General, Edgardo Maya. Different versions surrounded her murder, and one said that those who had murdered her were indigenous Kankuamo guerrillas, with the surnames Arias and Montero. For this reason, they murdered all the Arias and Montero Kankuamo.
In the paramilitaries' trials, people involved in the case affirmed that he was executed because they said he was a guerrilla member and as political revenge.
Within my investigations, I was able to show that Hernando Molina Araujo, former governor of Cesar, ordered the murder of my father. We succeeded in getting the Pan-American Court to issue an arrest warrant against him for being the intellectual author of the crime. But in 2019, news showed that Mr. Araujo was released from guilt.
Escape to open dialogue
After the murder of my father, I left the Sierra because of threats, to Valledupar. There, I began to take his leadership, I began to open up to other spaces to seek justice for his death and not leave his case in impunity.
I entered the Universidad Nacional and graduated as a political scientist. While I was studying, I was going to the territory on vacation, I was making progress in reporting the murder and I managed to make his case one of the cases of violence against a Kankuamo with more advances in justice and truth. However, as I told you, in 2019, that went to the ground due to corruption.
Today the situation in which we indigenous peoples find ourselves is, without a doubt, a humanitarian crisis, as well as a health crisis due to Covid-19.
This humanitarian crisis of which I speak repeats itself, as I have already said, in cycles. We call it Genocide because of the numbers. If we talk about indigenous social leaders since the signing of the Peace Agreement to date, more than 250 indigenous leaders have been assassinated, mainly who were part of the indigenous guard, authorities, traditional doctors and all those who have some type of recognition or position within the organizational structures of their towns.
The main reasons we have identified for these murders are: first, to continue protecting the territory. That costs us our lives because these are territories where everything happens: territories of armed conflict, territories of drug trafficking, territories of militarization, territories of natural exploitation. Second, territorial control. Third, natural resources. Fourth, because we are steadfast in building peace. We consider that we have always been actors of peace because peace is the path that must continue to be sought. Not everyone likes that and they kill us for it.
An invisible Agreement
Since the Peace Agreement was signed, we have been reiterative that nothing has improved. Everything remains the same. There was perhaps a break, a tense six-month calm, but the violence continued after that and more complicated than we thought.
Territorial peace has not arrived for us.
Of the 115 indigenous tribes that inhabit the country, 70 have an imminent risk of disappearing, 39 have already been recognized as critical cases by the Constitutional Court through order 004 of 2009, and 31 tribes have less than 500 inhabitants in the world.
If you want, I'll talk to you by region. In Nariño, the Awá, for opposing forced crop substitution, have had more than eight leaders assassinated so far this year. In Cauca, the Nasa, the tribe most affected by the assassination of leaders, already have 63 assassinations and counting. There, they kill especially the members of the indigenous guard, a millenary institution for us. I can even tell you that two young indigenous people were murdered two weekends ago. Why? it is not known. They were 20 and 23 years old. The modus operandi was the same as always: at night, by hooded men who arrived in high-cylinder cars. In La Guajira, although they are not leaders, there are already more than 5000 Wayuu children who have died due to the neglect of the state. In Chocó, the Embera saw a girl die a month ago in the middle of the conflict, of clashes between the Gaitanista self-defense groups and the ELN, there in the middle of the community, after the atrocious news of the rape of an Embera girl by seven soldiers from the San Mateo battalion. In Aguaclara, in Pizarro in Baudó, they killed the indigenous governor. A 24-year-old young leader. And so, you go around the country and see deaths.
I am part of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia-Onic, where I have led many processes in political, peace and territorial settings. I was the coordinator of the National Report on the Historical Memory of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia.
Unfortunately, the current situation of indigenous peoples is dire. Displaced, massacred, murdered. That is why we propose an intercultural dialogue.
We ask that racist and xenophobic expressions against us stop. In a conversation with the ICT ministry with indigenous people from Cauca, state officials referred to us as "those bastard Indians always asking." We ask for a real construction of a multicultural state, of a social state of law.
"We are very worried"
The National Government has not given us any kind of guarantees so that we can safeguard life.
They sign all kinds of decrees and there is no implementation. What hurts us the most is that the government seeks to justify the killing of indigenous leaders.
In his speech on July 20, the president said there was a reduction in the murder of social leaders. To say that is to find a way to make the humanitarian crisis in the country invisible.
Now in the midst of the pandemic, racism continues and we see the effects on mother earth. In the Sierra, where the Kogui people live, there are dredgers, "catepilas", excavating and polluting sacred lagoons in the territories. How does this enter the Sierra in the midst of the pandemic if it is not with the permission of the national authorities?
The Government has also made virtual consultations, but they continue to affect the democracy of our peoples. In the scale of rights we are in the lowest position. We do not have health posts, nor protection of the territories. With the indigenous guard and the indigenous authorities we have tried to safeguard our territory with controls at the entry points, but it is not enough. The pandemic only accelerates the extermination of our peoples.
We ask the government this: allow us to live peacefully in our territories; comply with what was agreed with the indigenous peoples in the framework of the Constitution; that the ethnic chapter of the Peace Agreement and that of crop substitution be fulfilled; that effective decrees are generated; that the murder of indigenous peoples and their leaders in Colombia stop.
Óscar Montero works tirelessly for the country's indigenous communities. He seeks that four ancestral principles are respected: maintain unity, strengthen culture, have autonomy and maintain their territories. Today, Óscar continues with his activism in human rights from the Onic and denounces it at the Indigenous Peoples Table, the highest interlocutor between the National Government and indigenous peoples in Colombia. He wants to return to his territory, sacred to the indigenous tribes of the country, and that his daughter does not experience the violence that continues to persecute the different ethnic groups of the country.
This testimony is part of the demoAbierta series "Social leaders in danger" about social leaders, their stories and the reality that they live in Colombia.