The Disappeared Mayor

On August 22, 2004, a commission of leaders left the indigenous community of Toribio, part of the municipality of Toribio in the Department of Cauca, Colombia, to go to a community called Alta Mira in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguan, in the Department of Caqueta. The commission was led by the mayor of the municipality of Toribio, Arquimedes Vitonas. The indigenous of the northern part of Cauca have their own system of government, and so another member of the commission, Plinio Trochez, was known as the ‘governor’ of the community of Toribio–governors are chosen by the community each year and perform various community and executive functions. The indigenous of northern Cauca, called the Nasa, also have built an indigenous university in the mountains of Toribio, called CECEDIC–indeed, Arquimedes Vitonas, the mayor of Toribio, is a graduate of the school. The coordinator of CECEDIC, Gilberto Munoz, was a member of the commission. Former mayor of Toribio, Ruben Dario, was also present. He is currently the governor of a neighbouring indigenous community called San Francisco. They were all in one car. The driver of the car was Erminson Velasco. The car belongs to the mayor’s office.

I know the car. Six months ago Arquimedes himself drove it to take me and some others up from Toribio into the reserve of Tacueyo, which in February 2004 was under siege as the military tried to dislodge the FARC from their positions in the mountains. The community of Tacueyo was struggling, living on food aid and help from other Nasa communities below. As the mayor, Arquimedes was our protection, an official presence to whom the army could not deny entry and retain plausible deniability. The conversation at the military roadblock was tense. The commander acted as if he cared about the welfare of the community. “The important thing is that the people remain calm,” he said, seemingly unaware that the presence of the military besieging the community might be less than soothing. Arquimedes, who is a small physical presence but an immense and impossible-to-intimidate psychological presence, acted as if he believed the commander: “That’s why we are going, to reassure the people.”

Back to August 22. The commission was traveling to San Vicente del Caguan so that leaders from northern Cauca could share their experience and advice with the indigenous of Caqueta. The Nasa of Cauca, after all, had very long and successful experience in participatory municipal development and development planning. They had won national and international awards: just in February, the United Nations Development Program had awarded Toribio’s ‘Proyecto Nasa’ a prestigious Sustainable Development Award (1). Arquimedes Vitonas and Gilberto Munoz had been recognized as ‘Masters of Wisdom’ by UNESCO. Munoz was the first activist from the indigenous movement to become the mayor of a municipality, one of the leaders who began the unfinished project of taking back the machinery of local government from the corrupt elite and returning it to the community. The majority of people in the community of Altamira, where the commission was heading, were originally from Toribio and had had to leave years before.

Three days later, on August 25, the Secretary of Government for the Department of Cauca (while various municipalities in Cauca, like Toribio, are in the hands of the indigenous movement, the governorship of the Department of Cauca passed from the indigenous movement into the hands of a hardline supporter of Colombia’s hardline president in recent elections) called the municipality of Toribio to let the mayor’s office know that the mayor and the entire commission had been kidnapped. According to the Secretary, this kidnapping had been done by “an unestablished armed group.” The Secretary’s source? Batallion Codazzi, based in the city of Palmjra in the Department of Valle del Cauca. The Secretary told the municipality that the information had been received on the morning of the 24th. The Secretary did not explain the full day’s delay in telling the mayor’s office that the mayor had been kidnapped.

After the indigenous councils of northern Cauca (Asociacion de Cabildos Indigenas del Norte de Cauca, ACIN) sent their first communique about the kidnapping on August 25, they received a note of clarification from the government of Cauca. It turns out that their information had been incorrect: the information had come from a different battalion. From the note from the Secretary of Government of Cauca:

“On Tuesday August 24 the Secretary of Departmental Government of Cauca was informed in the hours of the night about the possible disappearance of the commission by Colonel Trujillo, commander of Batallion Pichincha. Immediately the security organisms of the Secretary of Government established a channel of communication.”

Battalion Pichincha has a long acquaintance with the Nasa of northern Cauca. On December 31, 2003, a soldier from that battalion assassinated a youth from the community, Olmedo Ul, who was riding his motorcycle past a military checkpoint. When no one from the battalion owned up to the crime, when no one was investigated or punished for the murder, the Nasa decided not to allow the impunity and enacted their own judicial proceeding against the battalion itself. The community has a constitutional right to enact indigenous justice in indigenous territory, and it attempted to exercise that right in February 2004. Colonel Trujillo was summoned to the meeting–and made a promise to Arquimedes Vitonas’s office that he would attend. I was there on February 19, when the Nasa judged the battalion in an assembly of thousands of people (1). The colonel didn’t attend, and on television that night various figures from the army announced that they rejected the jurisdiction of the indigenous over the case.

The kidnapping, and the department of Cauca’s handling of it, leaves some unanswered questions. The 24-hour delay in transmitting the news of the kidnapping from the government of Cauca to the mayor’s office in Toribio is one question. The change of source of information from one day to the next, from a battalion with no specific history in northern Cauca to a battalion accused of abuse, murder, and impunity, is another.

Just weeks before, the indigenous of Cauca had publicly announced their decision to launch a mobilization in mid-September against the continuing assault on their communities by government, paramilitaries, and guerrillas as well. Their mobilization will be a rejection of the constitutional ‘reforms’ planned by President Uribe to facilitate the further restructuring of the Colombian economy. Their argument is that these constitutional reforms will destroy indigenous autonomy, security, and the rights and freedoms the indigenous have won in long, terrible struggle.

Arquimedes Vitonas has a good grasp of that long struggle. About two years ago, he visited Canada to talk about the Nasa and their process. I asked him about the land reform they had enacted in the 1970s and 1980s, using strategies similar to those of the Landless Peasants in Brazil (2). He gave an image of that historic struggle:

“First of all remember that the land was ours. It was lost only in the 1950s and 1960s during La Violencia. At that time, we were displaced by force by large landowners, and these seizures of land were then legalized by the government. When the indigenous returned from flight, they found themselves workers of these large landowners. So they began in the 1970s to recover the land.

“It is a long process. First, there are community meetings. These happen between 1 and 4 a.m. as they are prohibited during the day. They are as secret as possible. There is no writing, since to the authorities and landowners in those days having a typewriter was far worse than having a gun. During the meetings, 200 to 500 workers would get involved through coming to agreements about decisions.

“The next step is the occupation itself, which we do at dawn, taking over the territory with the people by simply starting to work the land. There are already set escape routes and people watching, however. So when the police and army come, as they always do, we would run and hide. The police would stay for three or four days, and leave–at which point the people would return.

“After months of this, maybe years of this, during which there are assassinations, attempts to single out leaders, etc., the owner sees that he has to negotiate.

“There were also people on the inside, fighting with legal instruments and legalizing the conquests that the people had won on the ground. It is a long fight, and many were killed, but we recovered the land.”

Arquimedes would have been quite young during this process. He is one of the current generation of leaders, those who grew up living the violence of the civil war but also living the power of the Nasa indigenous movement. Padre Antonio Bonanomi (3) is an Italian priest who has been part of the movement for decades, and watched the new generation of leaders take over. He noted the difference between today’s leaders, leaders like Arquimedes, and decades before, when the process was being reborn: ‘The most beautiful part of a living process is that it goes on.’, he said. ‘I know personally. I used to be so important in this process: people used to ask me: ‘Padre, what do we do?’ Today they don’t ask. They say: ‘Padre, here’s what we’re doing.’

Padre Antonio also captured something of the spirit of the movement in Northern Cauca, one of constructing dreams and democracy in the middle of terror war zone:

‘The Nasa are living two processes. One is internal, built on dreams. The Nasa are always dreaming. They have workshops, projects. They believe all this will pass. Their historical experience tells them the rest will pass. We won’t pass. They say, it’s tough, but La Violencia was worse, the war of 1000 days was worse, the spanish conquest was worse. Their resistance, their patience, is in this context. I hear a bomb going off and I get stressed–they are not. Instead, they are planning: they are occupied, but they are having their development planning assemblies. For them, the conflict will pass. For me, I say–how can we have autonomy when we are occupied? They say–we act as if we are free. We are occupied. But the occupiers will eventually leave, and we will continue to plan and dream.”

In a public talk in Cali in February 2004, Arquimedes described their spirit in a similar way: “With this war, they can kill many of us, but they cannot kill all of us. Those of us who live will continue with our work. Those of us who die, will have died defending our process.”

He knew that the process was something well worth defending. The Nasa have become the ethical guide of Colombia’s social movements. Their resilience has helped them survive, and build, despite years of paramilitarism, neoliberalism, and murder. They can trace their resistance back to La Gaitana’s rebellion against the Spanish hundreds of years ago, to Manuel Quintin Lame’s struggle for the land in the 19th century, through to the current strengthening of their movements in the past few decades. They have lost thousands of people in these struggles. Battalion Pichincha killed Olmedo Ul last year. Cristobal Secue fell to assassination by FARC in 2001. Mario Betancur was killed by the ELN in 1996. Alvaro Ulcue, one of the founder of today’s Nasa organization in Toribio, was killed by landlords and security forces in 1984. Two years ago, the FARC pronounced a death sentence on every mayor in Colombia, if those mayors did not resign. Shockingly, they included the indigenous mayors of Toribio, and launched an attack on the town. The FARC has not made any further statements against the movement’s mayors, but nor have they officially revised the policy: so mayors, including Arquimedes, remain ‘military targets’ according to FARC. Arquimedes’ brother was disappeared from the indigenous territory years ago.

The weapon of detention is used ruthlessly against them as well. In January of this year, 8 people from Toribio were arrested and shipped off abysmal conditions in prison to the department’s capital, Popayan, without a shred of evidence or due process, on the charge of ‘insurgency’. According to Colombia’s anti-terrorist laws, these people, now in jail in Popayan, the capital of Cauca, have no rights to face their accuser; no rights to see the evidence against them; no rights to a jury trial. Instead, their fate will be decided by the state prosecutor’s office, in private. The families of the detained collected 3,000 signatures in the community of people who swore that these eight individuals had nothing to do with the insurgency. Against this, the prosecutor general had the testimony of someone in a ski mask Arquimedes was, of course, among the first and the strongest in their defense.

The march the Nasa are planning for September is a mobilization against war, against neoliberalism, and against the constitutional counterreforms planned by the government. They have been joined not only by the other indigenous of Cauca, but also the indigenous organizations of Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, Caldas, Risaralda, Huila, Tolima, and the organizations of the Embera, Awa, and Quindio.

More than once when I was in Cauca, people would ask me what things were like in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Arquimedes in particular was interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Colombian media are no better than the North American media on that or many other issues, and so he was surprised to hear about the settlements, the assassinations, the checkpoints, the starvation, the prisons, the total control of daily life of the Palestinians by Israel. He had only heard of it as some kind of interminable religious conflict. The night of February 24, there was a celebration in Toribio–the UNDP had awarded the community a prize for having the best sustainable development project. Two representatives of the community had come back from the awards ceremony in Malaysia, and told the community about Malaysia and the different projects that had won. Arquimedes, as he had done more than once, put me on the spot in front of the whole gathered community, saying: “we have a special guest, from Canada, let’s give him a moment to hear what he thinks.” I said that I had been to many different places, seen the Palestinians struggle against the most brutal and powerful military machine; seen an MST community in Brazil and community assemblies and recovered factories in Argentina, Zapatista communities in Chiapas, and even very brave and principled people in Canada, but I had never seen the kind of strength, unity, and solidarity at the grassroots level that I had seen there, and that I had to thank them for that, because if I hadn’t seen it I would not have believed it possible.

When Arquimedes spoke that night, he said simply that now is the time to take what we can from this award, from the visibility we have at the international level, and take advantage of this time to try to move forward. Because, he said, times change, and sometimes they don’t return.

If he were to read this, he would probably reject what he would view as an excessive focus on him, his personality, and his work. He would probably remind me that the process is a collective one, that the power is not in the leaders, but in the people, and that no one can claim ownership from the movement’s collective effort of resistance and autonomy. Maybe he would remind me, too, of the saying the Nasa live by: “Words without action are empty, actions without words are blind, and words and actions outside of the spirit of community are death.”

Kidnapping him won’t stop the Nasa from resisting, building, or dreaming. But him and the others should be returned immediately.

Justin Podur is a frequent writer and translator on Colombia and Latin America. He can be reached at


– Programa Presidencial de Derechos Humanos y de DIH.
Dr. Carlos Franco
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– Ministerio de Defensa Nacional
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-Defensoría del Pueblo
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1) I have written about this in detail. I was in Toribio when the UNDP prize
was awarded and when Battalion Pichincha was judged. See this photo essay.

2) I interviewed Arquimedes in September 2002.

3) I interviewed Padre Antonio on February 24, 2004, in Toribio