“We are all the guardia, carajo!”. Walking in circles, more than a hundred Indigenous people, Black people and peasants – women and men, children and older folks – sung this phrase in harmony. Inside the circle, hundreds of others echoed the cry.
This is how the Indigenous, Peasant and Maroon [of the Black people] Guardia was presented at the opening of the Popular and People’s Legislative Assembly held by more than 40 Colombian social organizations and movements in October in Bogotá.
With their defense, discipline and identity, the people’s guardia guarantees the proper functioning of political activities. They are responsible for the security and participation in different spaces, in addition to mediating any type of conflict that can emerge between the more than 1,300 militants that participated in the assembly. Police do not enter this space.
They wear colored vests of green, blue, maroon, beige and black, which represent their origins, localities and on the back on the vests, they bear a symbol. They always have a baton with them: the ‘arms’ that they carry are a symbol of resistance, respect and of non-violence.
“We do not define ourselves as an army. We serve and accompany the communities, we obey the decisions and the mandates of our communities and our organizations,” says Luis Acosta, national coordinator of the Indigenous Guardia of Colombia.
Within this structure, the guardias have internal tasks, such as the ones they carried out in the People’s Legislative Assembly, which are also performed in the communities, such as discipline, order, control of the entrances and exits and organization.
“We also have have tasks of responding in situations of emergency and risk related to the armed conflict and we accompany all of the humanitarian missions,” explains Luis.
The short film “While the sun does not go out,” by Romeo Langlois, demonstrates what this means. In the midst of open fire between the guerrilla and the army, the Indigenous guardia guides the community to protect themselves and looks to conduct dialogue with the actors of the conflict so that they do not come or get close to the community, guaranteeing the autonomy in that territory.
To participate in the guardia, it is necessary to be trained. The training and study includes political education, criminology, first aid, human rights, with participation of children – the “seedlings of Indigenous resistance” – as well as older folks. “There, the formation of oneself, of the person is emphasized. It is not through military training. Our fundamental base is the work of education for life, consciousness and to defend Mother Earth.”
“And also the guardia has become this symbol of resistance and of accompaniment of social processes across the country,” describes the leader of the Indigenous Guardia. He uses the term ‘solidarity’ to demonstrate what he means, explaining that they accompany protests in the streets of the cities, and activities of other organizations, for example.
Origins of resistance
For the last 35 years, Luis Acosta has been the principal leader of the guardia. He is from the Nasa people, one of the Indigenous peoples of the department of Cauca. He is the son of a “very revolutionary mother and of a father who was disappeared because of the war.”
He explains that the Indigenous Guardia has its origins in the Spanish invasion in Colombia in the 16th century. “We can say that we are heirs of this history of genocide, but also of this history of resistance.”
Luis also says the guardia itself began to form during the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the extreme right-wing president, from 2002 to 2010. During this period “the violence got much worse in Indigenous territories”. First in Cauca, and then in the rest of the country, the Indigenous people began to organize themselves as guardias in a “process of resistance, of defense of the territory, without weapons”.
A particularity of the Colombian Constitution of 1991 about the Indigenous rights is that it guarantees, in the articles 7, 330 and 246, some rights of self-determination of these peoples. The last one, Luis notes, gives it “an official recognition”.
According to the constitutional text, “the authorities of the Indigenous people can exercise juridical functions within their territorial area, in conformity with their own norms and methods, and as long as they are not contrary to those of the Constitution and the laws of the Republic”.
So the Indigenous guardia affirms: “We have all the courage and force to defend, or to create sovereignty”.
Peasants in struggle for the land
Walter Quiñones, also a native of the Cauca department, is the coordinator of the Colombian Peasant Guardia. “From a very young age, I began to work with the organizational and social processes in the villages. Our work allowed us to think differently. It allowed us to dream that we are capable of building a country where there is justice.”
He is a member of the Organization for Urban and Peasant Development (Ordeurca), which is part of the National Agrarian Coordinator (CNA). He explains that within the movement, they began to build the guardia about five years ago. The objective was to create a structure to “defend the rights of the communities and above all, to demand the right to the land, recover it”.
With the expansion on a national level, linked to the organizations that are part of the CNA, the Peasant Guardias defend the rights of the peasants and their territories, to “kick out the multinational companies from the communities and also for the protection of social leaders, that do not have protection [from the State]. We believe that the best protection is in the communities”.
According to a report by the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz), Marcha Patriótica and the Agrarian Summit (Cumbre Agraria in Spanish, a national platform of rural, peasant, Indigenous, Afro and Black organizations in Colombia), just in 2018, more than 200 social leaders and human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia.
The solution for this reality, Walter points out, is this construction within the communities and for peace. “We began to say: ‘Comrades, we have the necessity to have people that can dream of the defense of the territory, the defense of the leaders’ and we began to build the guardias within our own communities”.
“A member of the guardia is not just anyone. A member of the guardia should respect the community and look to the community and ensure that the community respects them, not by force, but through dialogue, in an exercise of solidarity, of goodness and of sharing. The members of the guardias are human beings, they are human rights defenders and they are people who build the road to peace”.
The coordinator says that the peasants have been on this path for a while, due to the history of violence in Colombia. “The peasants have participated in historic struggles, where we have had to fight against the assassination of social leaders, against forced displacement, the massacre of communities; there are many people resisting [this]”.
Black communities defending life
The ancestral defense of the people is the characteristic that cuts across the ethnic and cultural identities of the people’s guardias in Colombia. This is also true for the Maroon Guardia.
“The name refers to the maroons, when there was slavery, in the era of our ancestors, wherein we can say they we descended from Africa. They created the maroon communities, of guardia, in order to defend themselves from the slavery which brought them [to America]. They created these guardias to protect themselves and they liberated themselves from the chains that had been put on them”.
This is the explanation of the origins of the guardia which Helimelec Balanta is a part of. He is the coordinator of the Maroon Guardia and representative of the Association of Community Councils of the North of Cauca (Acon), a province that is part of the same department of Cauca.
According to Helimelec, each of the 43 councils of the communities of the region defines the creation of the Maroon Guardia in their territories, in response to the violations of rights that they are faced with.
“The guardia defends life, territory, our leaders. And what brought us to create it are the same insecurities to which we are subjected to. We see that in the north of Cauca, we are massacred, but not just there.”
One of the central points for the Black people is also around the protection of natural resources. “Defending water and the environment. And [against] mining, because mining here in Colombia is what has caused so much pressure, and it destroys nature. As guardia, and as the [community] councils, we defend life and nature.”
A territory of peace and of non-violence is what the Maroon Guardia also proclaims, like the others, it brings together men and women, as well as children and older folks in the process of coordination and training.
“As coordinator, I am working on creating guardias in the schools, so that our children grow with this drive to care for the territory and for life,” explains the leader. “In the guardia, what we want is for them to be humble people, who have a relationship to and understand human rights”.
Growing alongside the Black communities of the country, the Maroon Guardia now has another challenge which is the unity among the distinct collectives of self-defense, Helimelec points out.
Unity, territory, culture and autonomy
With their distinct ethnic and cultural identities, Indigenous people, peasants and Black people of Colombia, who are organized in guardias, met in the Popular and People’s Legislative Assembly to take a step further in the creation of the Interethnic Intercultural Guardia.
“In the territories and in defense of life, we are all united,” states the coordinator of the Maroon Guardia, Helimelec Balanta, about the next step that the three organizations are taking in this period.
The representative of the Peasant Guardia, Walter Quiñones, also defined this as the major challenge. “Today, we want to make a guardia where we are present as Black people – the Maroons -, the Indigenous people and the peasants, and with the people from the cities”.
With his tender voice that inspires respect, the oldest to command one of the guardias, Luis Acosta, brings the mística that surrounds this collective exercise of defense and autonomy. “We are a guardia of a thousand colors, as I say, of a thousand flavors, of millions of thoughts. Where the word [dialogue] is fundamental. The word, the exchange, the education”.
With the challenge there, the three guardias return to their territories to make the idea of unity that was proposed during the Assembly grow, respecting the principle of their processes: who decides are the communities.
Brasil de Fato || Report: Vivian Fernandes || Editing: Luiza Mançano || Photos and videos: Gustavo and Jorge || Graphic Arts: Fernando Bertolo
(English translations by Peoples Dispatch)
English Translation: Zoe PC || Editing: Prasanth R