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Indigenous Guard

Insurgency Overview 

The Wiphala is a pan-Indigenous symbol used by many Andean peoples and frequently employed by Indigenous Guard units alongside other regional or ethnic identifiers, but the Indigenous Guard has no official flag.

The Indigenous Guard (Guardia Indígena) is a network of loosely affiliated nonviolent self-defense organizations based in Indigenous territories throughout Colombia. Indigenous Guard units are generally autonomous entities without formal affiliation to other organizations under the “Indigenous Guard” moniker, although they share a common history, organizational structure, and function. The Indigenous Guard is therefore more accurately understood as a movement, model, or organizational strategy and not as a single cohesive organization. Indigenous Guard units act as security forces for their respective Indigenous communities while coordinating with Indigenous government councils (cabildos) and other regional organizations. Their mission is generally defined as the peaceful, collective defense of human rights, territory, autonomy, and culture within the Indigenous communities and territories of Colombia (Comisión de la Verdad, 2020; CRIC, n.d.).

The formation of Indigenous Guard units responded to the long history of violence and marginalization perpetrated against Indigenous Colombian communities by both state and non-state actors in the context of the long-running Colombian conflict (Díaz, 2023). The first Indigenous Guard unit to adopt and popularize the term was the Indigenous Guard of Cauca (Guardia Indígena del Cauca), which was formed by a regional association of Indigenous councils in southwest Colombia in 2001 (Jiménez González, 2020). Since then, dozens of other Indigenous Guard units have emerged in most of Colombia’s more than 100 Indigenous communities.

According to the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca: CRIC), the purpose of the Indigenous Guard is to “protect, care for, defend, preserve, survive, and dream one’s own dreams, to hear one’s own voice, to laugh one’s own laugh, to sing one’s own song, and to cry one’s own tears” (CRIC, n.d.). The movement’s slogan is

“Guard! Strength! For my race and for my land!”

According to the Colombian Truth Commission, as of 2020, there were more than 20,000 members of Indigenous Guard units throughout Colombia’s 115 Indigenous communities (Comisión de la Verdad, 2020), while an estimate in the Spanish daily newspaper El País put the number at around 70,000 in 2023; reliable statistics are difficult to estimate given the decentralized nature of the movement (Díaz, 2023)

Indigenous Guard units engage in community protection, territorial patrols, marches and political actions, and other acts of collective, territorial, and cultural defense. In so doing, they have come into the crosshairs of armed groups including guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the Colombian state. Assassinations, kidnappings, and massacres targeting Indigenous Guard units and their leaders are commonplace in parts of Colombia, particularly the Indigenous Guard’s homeland of Cauca (Díaz, 2023; Front Line Defenders, 2022; Human Rights Investigations Lab, 2022; Human Rights Watch, 2023).

History & Foundations

The first Indigenous Guard unit was formed in 2001 in the southwest Colombian department of Cauca by a regional association of Indigenous government councils. Known as the Indigenous Guard of Cauca, this first unit was staffed primarily by activists of the Nasa people, one of Colombia’s largest Indigenous communities. The founding organization, the Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca: ACIN) was an affiliate of one of Colombia’s largest Indigenous civil society organizations, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, founded in 1971 in the context of the long-running Colombian conflict. For this reason, the Indigenous Guard movement is commonly associated with the CRIC, although many units today are not formally affiliated with that group (Jiménez González, 2020). In the 23 years since the founding of the first Indigenous Guard unit, the majority of Colombia’s Indigenous communities have formed their own, with varying degrees of connection and collaboration between them. 

Historically, both the Indigenous Guard and its predecessors like the CRIC and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia: ONIC) emerged in the context of the Colombian conflict, a long-term, low-intensity civil war beginning in 1964 and continuing to the present day. Indigenous communities have suffered disproportionately throughout the conflict at the hands of each of its major actors, from left-wing guerrillas (e.g., FARC, ELN) to right-wing paramilitaries (e.g., AUC) to the armed forces of the Colombian state, each of which coveted control over Indigenous territories for economic, political, or military reasons (Loaiza, 2019; Vadillo, 2019; Wallis, 2019; 2020). While some Indigenous communities responded by forming guerrillas of their own—such as Quintín Lame in Cauca and the FARIP on the Pacific coast—others responded with the eventual formation of the Indigenous Guard as a pacifist alternative aimed at curtailing Colombia’s long cycle of violence. 

The Indigenous Guard’s refusal of violent methods and the use of arms stemmed from the experience of some of its founders as guerrilla fighters in Quintín Lame, a group initially founded as a self-defense organization, but which went on the offensive in the 1980s, resulting in further bloodshed. When Quintín Lame demobilized in 1991 in favor of legal participation in Colombia’s Constitutional Assembly, Nasa activists decided to pursue their autonomy through legal and nonviolent means (Wyss, 2012).

Some Indigenous Guard units and affiliate organizations also situate their activities within a historical tradition of Indigenous resistance to colonialism. The Indigenous Guard of Cauca, for instance, looks back to the legendary Nasa cacique Juan Tama de la Estrella, who led the struggle against the Spanish invasion in the late 1600s and who later obtained legal recognition of his people’s territory from the Spanish crown (Díaz, 2020). In the Sibundoy Valley of Putumayo, the Indigenous Guard of the Kamëntšá and Inga peoples likewise connect their territorial defense movement to a legendary cacique of their own, Carlos Tamabioy, who in 1700 secured legal recognition of his people’s territory—a claim that was ratified by the Colombian state in 2016, partly through the work of the valley’s Indigenous Guard unit (Bonilla, 2019; “Termina una disputa,” 2016). While the Indigenous Guard as such was only founded in 2001, some of its constituents claim that the movement in its current form is a continuation of a long tradition of Indigenous resistance and autonomous self-defense (Amórtegui, 2023).

The Indigenous Guard increasingly entered the mainstream national consciousness throughout the 2000s by carrying out daring but effective and usually bloodless operations, such as the successful 2004 rescue of four kidnapped leaders from the FARC during a 400-man, 20-day chase through the jungle (Wyss, 2012). The movement’s impressive record has continued to the present; one of the most recent and widely publicized actions of Indigenous Guard units was the collaborative rescue of four Indigenous children lost in the Amazon following a plane crash in a remote region of rainforest on May 1, 2023. Together with 150 soldiers of the Colombian army, 80 members of five Indigenous Guard units—the Coreguaje of Caquetá, Siona of Putumayo, Isimali of Meta, Nasa of Cauca, and Murui-Muinane of Amazonas and Caquetá—succeeded in locating the children after a 40-day rescue operation (García Cano, 2023; Glatsky and Turkowitz, 2023).

Objectives & Ideology

The primary objective of each Indigenous Guard unit is to defend the territory and integrity of its respective Indigenous community through nonviolent means. Their tactics include patrolling the territory, documenting and opposing instances of trespassing and illegal activity, and confronting opponents such as armed groups, as well as carrying out humanitarian and political actions. Their ideology can be broadly described as Indigenist, seeking to promote the territorial, cultural, and political interests and autonomy of Indigenous peoples (CRIC, n.d.).

The Indigenous Guard conceives of its legal and constitutional basis as deriving from the Colombian Constitution of 1991. More specifically, the Indigenous Guard has referenced Articles 7, 246, and 330 of the Constitution as the legal basis for its formation; these articles refer to, respectively, state recognition and protection of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Colombia; the rights of Indigenous communities to semi-autonomous jurisdictional functions; and the rights of Indigenous communities to semi-autonomous government and its related functions (Benítez Loaiza, 2021; Constitutional Court of Colombia, 2022).

Indigenous Guard units also refer to the “life plans” (planes de vida) or “safeguard plans” (planes de salvaguardia), which are diagnostic and strategic documents formulated by various Indigenous communities in collaboration with state entities that lay out models and objectives of sustainable development and cultural, territorial, and political autonomy for the Indigenous communities of Colombia. The ratification of Law 152 of 1994 saw the genesis of these life plans within a greater national schema of “development plans” (planes de desarrollo). Since then, Indigenous communities have periodically revised and reissued their life plans (Mesa Salazar, 2020). Provisions for the formation of autonomous and ethnically or territorially constituted Indigenous Guard units are often included within these plans, and within these frameworks, Indigenous Guard units are construed as necessary for the advancement of Indigenous interests.

In addition to defending the rights and interests of Indigenous communities, Indigenous Guard units are also known as environmental defenders with an ecological outlook—a dangerous combination in Colombia, which for several years running has been the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders (Griffin, 2023). One of the core ecosystems defended by Indigenous Guard units is the páramo, an ecologically unique alpine wetland biome with a vital role in Andean ecology but which is increasingly threatened by climate change. For groups like the Environmental Indigenous Guard, a group based in Gran Cumbal region of southern Colombia, protecting these ecosystems is integral to the greater defense of Indigenous territory, rights, and livelihoods (ActionAid, 2023; Pozzebo, 2021; Selibas, 2023; United Nations, 2021).

Political & Military Capabilities

As a nonviolent organization, the Indigenous Guard does not possess formal military capabilities. The equipment carried by individual guards is limited to wooden staffs, with a symbolic more than a functional connotation (Wyss, 2012). Their staffs bear tassels in four colors: green for nature, red for the blood of their ancestors, blue for water, and black for the earth (Díaz, 2023). Participation in the Indigenous Guard is voluntary, and members do not receive pay. Only occasionally have Indigenous Guard units participated in violent confrontations, generally in response to other actors’ instigations. More often, Indigenous Guard units are the victims of targeted violence at the hands of the armed groups they peacefully confront (Front Line Defenders, 2022; Grattan and Mazars, 2022a; 2022b; Pozzebon, 2021; Servindi, 2015; 2024a; 2024b).

As a political and civil defense force, Indigenous Guard units typically wield influence within their communities. At the national level, they have also shown themselves capable of organizing across regional and ethnic lines to advance demands through a popular front. Broadly speaking, there are three scales at which Indigenous Guard units operate:

  1. Within specific Indigenous communities or reservations (resguardos)

  2. Through delegates to the regional level, who articulate local guard units with political organizations

  3. At the national level, where around 53 Indigenous organizations are housed within the ONIC, which elects a national Indigenous Guard coordinator (Díaz, 2023).

At the national level, the Indigenous Guard has played a prominent role in major protests, social movements, and marches, including a recent occupation of Bogotá’s historic Plaza de Bolívar (Emblin, 2023).

Approach to Resistance

The Indigenous Guard employs nonviolent resistance to protect Indigenous territories and oppose trespassers, including criminal groups such as guerrillas, paramilitaries, and narcotraffickers, as well as the Colombian army and police. Despite its commitment to nonviolent methods and its rejection of the use of arms, the Indigenous Guard has carried out dangerous yet effective operations against armed actors, such as dismantling guerrilla roadblocks, seizing arsenals, capturing combatants, and destroying drug laboratory camps. Indigenous Guard units have also carried out rescue missions, entering guerrilla camps to free victims of forced recruitment and kidnapping. They have also targeted state forces, such as by destroying police barricades and evicting soldiers from fortified positions. In some regions, the Indigenous Guard has set up roadblocks to control the entry of outsiders (Wyss, 2012; Participedia, 2021).

The movement is also known for its humanitarian operations, such as combatting forced recruitment by armed groups, searching for “disappeared” people (desaparecidos), advocating for the release of kidnapping victims, and carrying out search and rescue actions (Comisión de la Verdad, 2020; Díaz, 2023; Sur Journal, 2020).

Opponents of the Indigenous Guard have accused them of “terrorism” or of being a kind of paramilitary organization with military training and bearing arms. Some, such as former Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, even went so far as to suggest that some Indigenous Guard units were in league with the FARC—even though the latter group has long targeted Indigenous communities in acts of violence, while the Indigenous Guard has carried out operations against the FARC (Andrés Barahona, 2011; Wyss, 2012). No evidence of such collusion is extant and Indigenous Guard units have denied such allegations (Díaz, 2023).

Relations & Alliances

The Indigenous Guard first emerged from Indigenous civil society organizations such as the CRIC and ONIC. Consequently, their closest alliances are still with these and similar organizations, which employ civil, participatory, and political strategies to advance the interests of Colombia’s Indigenous communities. The Indigenous Guard itself could be viewed as one approach within the broader movement for the rights and autonomy of Indigenous Colombians through civil means (CRIC, n.d.).

The Indigenous Guard model has inspired some non-Indigenous communities in Colombia to follow suit and organize their own guard units along similar lines. Peasant communities have organized “peasant guard” (guardia campesina) units, while Afro-Colombian communities have organized “maroon guard” (guardia cimarrona) units (Díaz, 2023)

The opponents of the Indigenous Guard include guerrilla organizations such as the FARC and ELN, both among the largest and most long-lived of Latin America’s left-wing guerrillas (though the FARC formally disbanded in 2016, dissident cells continue to operate). Both organizations have historically targeted Indigenous Guard units and leaders in assassinations and massacres—attacks which continue today in the case of the ELN, which remains operative in Cauca and other Indigenous-majority regions of Colombia (Wyss, 2012; Participedia, 2021). Similarly, the Indigenous Guard has clashed with right-wing paramilitaries and other criminal groups trespassing on their territory and threatening their communities, frequently through participation in the Colombian drug trade (Wallis, 2020).

Neither has the Indigenous Guard had positive relations with the Colombian state.

Consequently, one of their most consistent opponents has been Colombian media outlets, particularly those aligned with right-wing political figures such as Álvaro Uribe and his successor, Iván Duque; the Colombian right has tended to villainize Indigenous communities and their guard units while deploying troops to their territories against the wishes of locals (Alsema, 2019; Wyss, 2012). Indigenous Guard units have therefore not limited their operations to criminal groups but have also acted against Colombian forces such as police and soldiers.

Another common opponent of the Indigenous Guard are the multinational corporations that seek to develop extractive economic projects in their territories (Díaz, 2023). In the Sibundoy Valley of Putumayo department, for example, an Indigenous Guard unit composed of Kamëntšá and Inga land defenders has organized marches against the construction of a planned bypass through both an ecological protected area and a zone of legally recognized Indigenous territory. The road, locally known as the San Francisco–Mocoa Bypass (la Variante San Francisco–Mocoa), is a public project permitted by the Colombian state but built by a consortium of private contractors and backed by multinational mining concessions hoping to capitalize on the land the project will open to commercial exploitation. Local guard members have received threats for their activism in opposition to the project, suggesting the collusion between state actors, Colombian business interests, multinational corporations, and criminal groups in their employ that characterizes such development projects and their interaction with Indigenous communities in Colombia (Fernanda Lizcano, 2020a; 2020b).

The Indigenous Guard has also received international support. In 2020, Irish human rights organization Front Line Defenders recognized the Indigenous Guard of Cauca with the 2020 Americas Regional Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk (Jiménez González, 2020; PAX, 2020). Members of the Indigenous Guard have also received such prestigious international awards as the Goldman Environmental Prize, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Selibas, 2023).

It has also been suggested that the Indigenous Guard and affiliate organizations such as the CRIC have taken inspiration from the example of the EZLN in Mexico, a militant movement for Indigenous autonomy that also witnessed the creation of Indigenous self-defense units with similar goals and tactics; both groups maintain communications and advance similar political visions of Indigenous autonomy (Zibechi, 2023).

*All Images courtesy of Rowan Glass - LinkedIn

Works Cited

(1) - ActionAid. 2023. “The Indigenous Guard: protecting Colombia’s páramo.” ActionAid, December 8.

(2) - Alsema, Adriaan. 2019. “Duque’s war is against narco-guerrillas or indigenous authorities?” Colombia Reports, November 3.

(3) - Amórtegui, Alberto. 2023. “La Guardia Indígena Ancestral y milenaria en Colombia.” El Salto Diario, September 19.

(4) - Andrés Barahona, Carlos. 2011. “FARC harasses indigenous Colombians.” InfoSur. May 12.

(5) - Benítez Loaiza, José David. 2021. “La Guardia Indígena del Cauca: Una forma de alter-geopolítica.” El Outsider 6: 45–55.

(6) - Bonilla, Víctor Daniel. 2019. Siervos de dios y amos de indios: El estado y la misión capuchina en el Putumayo. Popayán: Editorial Universidad del Cauca.

(7) - Comisión de la Verdad. 2020. “La Guardia Indígena, cuidadora del territorio y la vida.” Comisión de la Verdad, October 21.

(8) - Constitutional Court of Colombia. 2022. Political Constitution of Colombia. Bogotá: Colombian National Printing.

(9) - CRIC. n.d. “Componente Guardia Indígena.” Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, accessed March 29, 2024.

(10). -Díaz, Daniela. 2023. “Cómo opera la Guardia Indígena: su historia más allá de la estigmatización.” El País, June 19.

(11). -Díaz, Diego Escobar. 2020. “Security According to the Indigenous Guard in Colombia.” CommonsPolis, November 30.

(12) - Emblin, Richard. 2023. “Indigenous Guard occupy Bogotá’s historic Plaza de Bolívar.” The City Paper, May 7.

(13) - Fernanda Lizcano, María. 2020a. “Deforestación y minería podrían llegar con una vía en el piedemonte amazónico.” Mongabay, June 9.

(14) - ———. 2020b. “La carretera que quiere entrar a una reserva forestal y a territorios indígenas.” Mongabay, June 9.

(15) - Front Line Defenders. 2022. “Concern at Continued Armed Attacks against Nasa Las Delicias Communities and the Murder of Three Indigenous Human Rights Defenders.” Front Line Defenders, January 28.

(16) - García Cano, Regina. 2023. “Losing hope of finding kids in plane crash, Indigenous searchers turned to a ritual: Ayahuasca.” AP News, June 16.

(17) - Glatsky, Genevieve and Julie Turkewitz. 2023. “The Unexpected Rescuers Who Found Colombia’s Missing Children.” New York Times, June 27.

(18) - Grattan, Steven and Nadège Mazars. 2022. “Indigenous activists’ deaths highlight surging Colombia conflict.” Al Jazeera, February 4.

(19) - ———. 2022. “‘We must not show fear’: Colombia’s children learn to defend their way of life – a photo essay.” The Guardian, July 25.

(20) - Griffin, Oliver. 2023. “Colombia was deadliest country for environmentalists in 2022, advocacy group says.” Reuters, September 12.

(21) - Human Rights Investigations Lab. 2022. “Indigenous Defenders in Colombia: In Memoriam.” Cultural Survival, June 8.

(22) - Human Rights Watch. 2023. “World Report 2023: Colombia.” Human Rights Watch.

(23) - Jiménez González, Daniela. 2020. “La Guardia Indígena del Cauca recibe premio internacional de derechos humanos.” Hacemos Memoria, October 9.

(24) - Loaiza, Lara. 2019. “Ex-FARC Mafia Kill Colombia Indigenous Amid Illicit Crop Conflicts.” InSight Crime, November 7.

(25) - Mesa Salazar, Yurany Andrea. 2020. “Planes de vida indígena en Colombia y su relación con el derecho al desarrollo.” Bachelor’s thesis, Universidad de Antioquia.

(26). -Participedia. 2021. “The Creation of La Guardia Indígena (Indigenous Guard) in Colombia.” Participedia, April 7.

(27). -PAX. 2020. “Indigenous Guard in Colombia wins award.” PAX, October 15.

(28) - Pozzebon, Stefano. 2021. “Colombia’s indigenous activists protect the environment. Now they too are under threat.” CNN, November 23.

(29) - Selibas, Dimitri. 2023. “Indigenous environmental defenders among favorites for Nobel Peace Prize.” Mongabay, October 11.

(30) - Servindi. 2015. “¿Qué es la Guardia Indígena y porqué es tan importante para la defensa territorial?” Agencia de Noticias SERVINDI, February 2.

(31) - ———. 2024. “Asesinan a mayora nasa por querer rescatar estudiante.” Agencia de Noticias SERVINDI, March 19.

(32) - ———. 2024. “Sicarios asesinan comunero indígena en Cauca” Agencia de Noticias SERVINDI, February 11.

(33) - Sur Journal. 2020. “The Indigenous Guard and the Defence of Human Rights: An experience from Colombia.” Sur Journal, June.

(34) - “Termina una disputa de tierras de 316 años en Putumayo.” 2016. El Espectador, December 17.

(35) - United Nations. 2021. “From where I stand: ‘Our territories are our futures.’” UN Women, November 15.

(36) - ———. 2022. “Colombia: UN expert says killings of Nasa indigenous human rights defenders, including children, must stop immediately.” Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, March 24.

(37) - Vadillo, Uxue. 2019. “La Guardia Indígena del Cauca y su relación con las FARC.” The Political Room, May 9.

(38) - Wallis, Hannah. 2019. “On patrol with the Indigenous Guards of Colombia.” Al Jazeera, December 23.

(39) - ———. 2020. “Indigenous in Colombia take on armed groups – and coronavirus.” Al Jazeera, April 28.

(40) - Wyss, Jim. 2012. “Sticks vs. guns: The rise of Colombia’s Indigenous Guard.” Miami Herald, March 26.

(41) - Zibechi, Raúl. 2023. “EZLN a 30 años: constructor e inspirador de autonomías.” NACLA, December 22.

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