Tuesday, December 18, 2018
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Border violence
Ana Teresa Benjamín
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Colombian paramilitaries kill four indigenous Panamanians.

There was a community celebration on Jan. 18 in Paya, in the border province of Darién. That day, Víctor Alcázar emerged from the jungle and greeted the Kuna community leader, Ernesto Ayala, assistant chief Pascual Ayala and another local authority, Luis Enrique Martínez. Minutes later, the three indigenous leaders were dead.

Alcázar did not arrive alone. He was accompanied by another 100 members of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). According to initial official reports, when Alcázar arrived, his greeting to the three indigenous men identified them as targets. Gilberto Vásquez, chief of the nearby village of Púcuro, who was attending the celebration, was also killed.

In a statement released on Jan. 22, the Indigenous Movement of Panama said the four murdered men were "sahilas or spiritual leaders who know the people’s oral history," and called them "poets, medicine men, keepers of our cultural heritage, the soul of the community, the highest authorities of the [Kuna] communities of Paya and Púcuro."

According to some versions, the paramilitaries were retaliating against the indigenous leaders because they had allowed members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to camp in the area. Over the past few years, there have been reports that the FARC have crossed into Panama’s Darién jungle from the neighboring department of Chocó, Colombia, to rest and obtain provisions (LP, May 29, 2000).

Paya, which has a population of 550, is in the northeastern part of the Darién province, just 10 kilometers from the border. The nearest villages — El Baisal, Púcuro and Boca de Cupé — are in the Panamanian Chocó region.

News of the murders spread the next day, when several hundred villagers from Paya arrived in Boca de Cupé, where there is a police station. Hours before the attack on Paya, US journalist Robert Young Pelton, who was on assignment for National Geographic Adventure, and two companions, US citizen Megan A. Smaker and Canadian Mark Wedeven, had been abducted by the same AUC contingent. Alcázar had been serving as a guide for the three, who were released Jan. 23 in the town of Unguía in the Chocó department.

Migdonio Batista, Paya correspondent for the Darién radio station Voz Sin Frontera ("Voice without Borders"), said the paramilitaries sacked the community’s only store, carried off chickens, ducks and pigs, and killed the villagers’ dogs. Before leaving, they placed explosives in the village’s vehicles so they would not be followed.

Casildo Ayala, 19, who was wounded in the neck and abdomen during the attack, reported that Alcázar appeared to be working with the paramilitaries. Alcázar, who is under arrest, told the police that the reporters had hired him as a jungle guide and that the paramilitaries had intercepted them. He said he was forced to lead the AUC contingent to Paya while other paramilitaries remained with the journalists.

Ayala later retracted his original statement. In a face-to-face hearing with Alcázar before the district attorney investigating the murders, Ayala said he could neither confirm nor deny that Alcázar was collaborating with the AUC. Pelton said paramilitaries forced Alcázar at gunpoint to guide them to Paya.

Besides being a skirmishing ground for Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries, the Panamanian-Colombian border is a strategic point on the smuggling route for illegal drugs and weapons. Members of Colombia’s armed groups have been crossing into the Darién for two decades, but the violence has worsened in the last three years (LP, Nov. 13, 2000). In early 2000, a police officer was killed when gunmen opened fire in Boca de Cupé. In June 2000, Colombian paramilitaries killed two adults and a child in Nazaret.

After the most recent paramilitary attack, the Panamanian government sent reinforcements to Paya. The police had pulled out two years ago because of problems with local indigenous people, according to National Police director Carlos Barés. When the attack occurred, there were only 1,500 police in Darién to patrol the 225-kilometer border.

"If the government had taken adequate measures, the situation would have been brought under control long ago," said Catholic Bishop Rómulo Emiliani, who headed the Darién vicariate from 1989 until last year. Emiliani, who was the target of constant threats from armed groups, is now auxiliary bishop of San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

The Colombian government has promised to staff 15 police posts along the border. Some had been closed because of pressure from armed groups, according to Panamanian Foreign Minister Harmodio Arias, who met with his Colombian counterpart, Carolina Barco, on Jan. 28 in Bogotá. Both countries agreed to exchange information and increase border patrols.

The Coordinating Group of Indigenous Peoples of Panama filed a criminal complaint against the AUC with the Attorney General’s Office, accusing them of terrorism, kidnapping, robbery and illicit association.

The Norwegian Council for Refugees called the murder of the indigenous leaders "a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law by an armed group," referring to Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which guarantees protection for civilians in a war.

The council called on the Panamanian and Colombian governments to provide protection and legal and humanitarian aid to indigenous communities on both sides of the border "because they are especially vulnerable in this armed conflict."


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