Murder in Colombia

American Indians seek to avenge the murder of one of their leaders by leftist rebels.


Ana Arana
December 14, 1999 3:38PM (UTC)

The same day that guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC)
executed three American Indian rights activists on the Venezuelan border,
the FARC also sent an electronic message to American Indian leaders in New
York promising their prompt release. The message was received with
jubilation at the American Indian Community House in New York, where a
crowd had gathered. The festive mood suddenly turned dark when American
Express called to say two credit cards had been found on the body of a dead
woman in Venezuela. The cards led to the identification of Ingrid
Washinowatok of New York, Lahe'ena'e Gay of Hawaii and Terence
Freitas of California, the very activists the Indians thought were on
their way to safety.

Almost nine months later, little progress has been made in apprehending
those responsible for the March murders. The Colombian government is eager
to revive faltering peace talks with the guerrillas and the Clinton
administration has not tied further aid to the resolution of the case,
although it has refused any contact with the rebels until the suspects are
handed over. But the American Indian movement, angered by the loss of
Washinowatok, a key leader, is mounting a campaign to push for justice. A
three-month investigation uncovered the brutal nature of the killings and
the murky mix of motives and tragic misunderstandings behind the crime.

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The three Americans were abducted on Feb. 25 as they left the reservation
of the indigenous U'wa tribe in northeast Colombia, where they had attended
a religious ceremony. Washinowatok headed the Fund for Four Directions, a
wealthy American Indian philanthropic group founded by Anne Rockefeller, daughter
of the late David Rockefeller, to help indigenous projects around the
world. She and Gay, a photographer and organizer of Indian cultural
projects in Hawaii, had been invited by the U'Wa to help set up an U'Wa
Indian language school.

Freitas, an environmental activist, had been in and
out of the territory for the last two years working with the U'wa and
Project Underground, an aggressive environmental group that operates
worldwide, to fight oil exploration by Los Angeles-based Occidental
Petroleum on their ancestral lands. The U'Wa's threat to commit mass
suicide had garnered worldwide attention, but the women had no idea that
the U'Wa were also locked in a longstanding feud with the guerrillas, who
seek to control the oil-rich territory. Freitas was the only one who had
had contact with the FARC, and he believed he had ironed out all his
problems in two meetings he held with FARC representatives, according to
Colombian sources.

U.S. and Colombian investigators believe that the orders to kill the
Americans came from the FARC's central
headquarters, but U.S. officials dispute Indian leaders' assertions that the
three were targeted
because of U.S. policy in the region. "We believe
they were targeted because they were foreigners who went into an area
where the FARC wants to control access, not because they were Americans,"
said Ambassador Michael Sheehan, the State Department's coordinator for
counterterrorism, which monitors FARC activities.

Although the deaths have disappeared from the media, they are still a topic
of hot discussion on Indian reservations across the United States because Washinowatok was a rising star in this dismembered community. She
sought to reconnect native Americans to the global indigenous movement at a
time when many Indian activists were focused on fights over casino
licenses, according to friends and followers. "Ingrid did heroic things. It's not that she was
naive to go into Colombia, it's that she was doing what she thought was
right. She lived by her principles," said John Trudell, a former radical
Indian leader who was one of the leaders of the 1969 Indian takeover of
Alcatraz Island, and is now a musician in Los
Angeles. Trudell said few outside their community can understand the
pain and anger American Indians felt at losing Washinowatok in such a
violent manner, and to such an unlikely enemy.

A Menominee Indian from Minnesota, Washinowatok was the daughter of an
Indian chief who had fought during the '50s for Indian land rights.
A prominent American Indian who grew up during the heyday of the Indian
movement in the United States, Washinowatok was at
the helm of a new push in her community to get involved in indigenous
movements around the Americas. A graduate of the University of Havana,
she was fluent in Spanish and had done extensive work in Guatemala with
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu. So, when the U'was asked
her for help in preserving their language, Washinowatok jumped at the
chance, and decided to go to Colombia despite warnings from several
friends. "Ingrid thought she would make a difference," said Jose
Barreiro, head of the Native American Studies Program at Cornell
University.

Soon after the three were kidnapped, they were marched toward the
Venezuelan border through virgin rain forest and harsh
terrain. When her body was found, Washinowatok had no shoes and her
feet showed cuts and abrasions suggesting she had been forced to walk
barefoot. She had been bitten by a poisonous spider, and the FARC refused
to give her proper
medication after a quick visit to a guerrilla-friendly doctor, according
to Colombian intelligence documents. When the Venezuelan police recovered
her body, her face was destroyed with a gunshot, and her American
Express cards with her name and the name of her foundation were lodged
in her panties. "The way they killed them was torturous," said the
Venezuelan captain who found the bodies.

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American Indians now admit that they made major miscalculations in their
analysis of the FARC during those eight days when Washinowatok was held
captive. "We operated from the point of view -- hey, we're Indians. Ingrid
had studied in Havana, she spoke Spanish and she had worked with Indian
people all over. We thought it should be OK," said Alex Ewen of the Solidarity Foundation, a New York Indian philanthropic group. "We didn't
understand that this group was different."

Although the FARC is a
self-declared Marxist-Leninist group that has
been fighting the Colombian government for the last 30 years, its tactics
reflect what one Colombian analyst has called a "Gen-X revolutionary"
style, a mixture of Marxism and outlaw capitalist practices they have
learned from drug traffickers, who pay them up to $500 million a year
for protecting cocaine plantations and drug shipping routes.

"These
people have nothing in common with other revolutionary movements in
Central America. They are the same as drug traffickers," said Cornell's
Barreiro. "But you have to understand, Indians have a hard time
criticizing revolutionary movements."

Many American Indians believed that
being Indians committed to the cause of the underdogs kept them safe from
harm -- even though 11 U.S. citizens have been killed by the FARC in the last
20 years. They were also lulled because last year the FARC had
released three Americans bird-watchers
unharmed. "Everybody told us the FARC only kidnapped for ransom," said
Barreiro.

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The murders have changed that perception. A few community members still
doubt the FARC carried out the murders. But the prevalent image among
the community at large -- from small Indian tribal chiefs around the country to legendary
American Indian Movement figures such as Clyde Bellecourt and John
Trudell -- is that the FARC are simple criminals. "The truth is that the left
is the worst for indigenous people," said Trudell in a telephone
interview from Los Angeles. "No matter how you want to see the FARC, you
don't kill non-combatants."

The American Indian community has been holding strategy sessions along with
Washinowatok's husband,
Ali El Issa, a Palestinian she met in Havana. "We have a lot of people in this
country and other countries who are eager to support a revolution, and
the FARC gets some of their support. Our interest is to get to those
people and show them what the FARC is capable of doing -- of murdering
potential allies," explained Trudell, who shies away from calling
their efforts a war. "We have little resources, but we will be heard."
Options are to hack into the Web sites used by
the FARC for propaganda purposes and broadcast Washinowatok's
picture and biography, and to expose the names of people who work for the
FARC in the United States and in
Europe. Indian leaders are not saying when they will start their
campaign, to keep the element of surprise.

Colombian authorities have charged FARC rebel leader German Suarez
Briceno, known as "Grannobles," and a U'wa Indian who informed on the
activities of Washinowatok and her companions the week they visited the
reservation, for the murders. Both are at large, and there are no
expectations that the Colombian authorities will ever catch them.
Grannobles is brother to Jorge Suarez Briceno, aka
"Mono Jojoy," a brother of German, and the second most powerful military
leader within the FARC's top command. Indian leaders say the order to kill
the Americans came from Mono Jojoy, but U.S. officials say only that the
order came from the central command.

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The FARC has rejected the Colombian
indictment, maintaining that a guerrilla commander known as
Gildardo acted without the approval of his superiors. They have promised a
guerrilla investigation, but no results have been released, and radio
intercepts show a less repentant attitude.

Two months after the murder, for
instance, Grannobles was heard on short-wave radio saying, "The Americans
were killed because they worked for the DEA and the CIA and had come to
this country to turn the Indians against us." While the FARC has issued a
public apology for the murders, it
has never communicated directly with the community, nor answered
requests by Washinowatok's family to meet with rebel representatives.

"In the end they will know Indians are neutral people, and we should be
treated that way. We have a long tradition at this," warned Ewen. But
Rosemary Richmond, director of the Indian Community House in
New York, put it more plainly. "We will not rest until there is
justice," she said.

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Ana Arana

Ana Arana is an investigative journalist who focuses on criminal organizations in Latin America.

MORE FROM Ana Arana

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