Latin American Times

Tattooed tribes keep a vigil for kidnapped chief
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The Independent US

Hammocks are slung between trees, and dozens of cooking fires smoulder.

Nearly 1,000 indigenous people have defied the Colombian government's security warnings and are keeping a public vigil for their kidnapped leader, Kim Pernia Domico.

Members of Colombia's 84 tribes have converged on Tierralta, in Cordoba province, to take a stand against being drawn further into the bloody insurgency that started 37 years ago and has killed 40,000 people in the past decade alone.

Three suspected paramiltary gunmen on motor-scooters allegedly abducted Mr Pernia, a 43-year-old environmental activist from the Embera Katio tribe, on 2 June.

"I know in my heart that he is still alive," said Marta Cecilia Domico, Mr Pernia's daughter. "If they wanted to kill him they would have done so on the spot, like they have so many others." Marxist rebels massacred 15 villagers suspected of being paramilitary sympathisers only days before Mr Pernia disappeared. Search groups of determined tattooed tribesmen risk forays by raft or footpath into the surrounding territory in the hope of finding some trace of their leader.

"We want him given back to us – dead or alive," said one tribal youth. "It doesn't matter how long it takes." There has been no sign of Mr Pernia yet, and no confirmation by the right-wingUnited Self-defence forces of Colombia that they were behind his alleged abduction. But the paramilitaries have been in disarray since Carlos Castaño, their founder and commander-in-chief, abruptly quit this month.

Ms Domico says she believes the paramilitaries dragged away her father to scare the Embera Katio into silencing their protests against paramilitary incursions. The 2,400-member tribe survives by fishing and growing bananas and rice in a lush reservation near Tierralta, but the formerly tranquil riverside has recently become a corridor for arms and drug smuggling. The tribe gets caught in the crossfire from both sides. Sixteen Embera Katio have been killed in the past two years alone. The outspoken Mr Pernia led protest marches to Bogota, angry that his tribe became "military targets" because of their opposition to a hydroelectric dam.

Right-wing militias have been battling against rebel guerrillas and their collaborators in the nearby mountains for control of this strategic region, and many are backed by local cattle ranchers. The rebels and the paramilitaries covet the resource-rich territories granted by the government to indigenous groups. Isolated tracts that might be used to raise coca crops for cocaine tempt the gunmen to close in on the Indians.

Mr Pernia, who led opposition to the multinational-funded Urra Dam and then demanded compensation when his tribal fishing waters were spoilt, was by far the region's most prominent indigenous leader. Contractors and businessmen were thwarted by his international appeals against the dam, and were enraged that the tribe might end up with a corporate pay-off from Canadian and Swedish firms when others lost money because of Mr Pernia's stalling tactics.

Half of Colombia's formerly remote tribes, whether jungle dwellers or river valley farmers, are now at risk of extinction, according to the Latin American Association for Human Rights. Massacres and civil war conflict split up families and drive indigenous communities into towns where their tribal ways and dialects are abandoned.