Thousands of indigenous Colombians are marching along the Pan American Highway — which connects the south-west of the country to the centre — to protest militarisation of their lands by government and paramilitary forces, as well as the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
The protesters are also calling for President Alvaro Uribe's administration to comply with previous agreements relating to land rights and increased funding for health and education programs for the country's 1.3 million indigenous people.
The National Mobilisation of Indigenous and Popular Resistance began in La Maria Piendamo in the Cauca province on October 12, the anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Colombus and beginning of European colonisation 516 years ago.
It is scheduled to arrive in Cali, the capital of Valle province, on October 27.
Only days before the October 12 mobilisations began, Uribe declared a "state of emergency", ostensibly to address a crisis in the judicial system crippled by a six-week strike by judicial workers.
However despite reaching a temporary agreement with the judicial workers' union, the measure remains in place.
The "state of emergency" grants the president unprecedented powers, allowing him to rule by decree, particularly in the area of security and "public order".
Prior to the march, indigenous leaders had warned of a potential for a crackdown against the indigenous movement by state security forces.
On October 13, the Colombian army and police used helicopters and armoured vehicles and fired live ammunition to clear the road as protesters participating in the march blocked part of the Pan American Highway.
At least three people were killed, among them a baby who died of asphyxiation as a result of tear gas fired at the protesters, and more than 75 were injured.
Despite the repression, IPS reported on October 16 that "active protests" had spread to 16 of Colombia's 32 provinces.
Manuel Rozental, a spokesperson for local indigenous communities said, "the number of protesters is growing. More people are coming down from the mountains to participate in the demonstration, and we estimate there are at least 200,000 indigenous people involved throughout the country."
As the demonstrations have widened, the Colombian government has intensified its repression. On October 15, the army opened fire once again on the protesters, killing one and leaving 39 injured.
On October 22, two indigenous activists were shot in the head and back by police in Villarrica as they sought to join the march to Cali and a further five were injured.
The Colombian government has repeatedly denied that police and military forces used live ammunition to break up the protests, despite footage of the October 22 incident broadcast on CNN clearly showing the contrary.
Jorge Enrique Cartagena, national chief of Colombia's riot police, even went so far as to make the ludicrous claim that the demonstrators had fired on themselves. "We think he was shot from within the crowd, and they're doing that to whip up anger", he told CNN.
The Uribe administration has also launched a massive propaganda offensive aimed at de-legitimising the protests. On October 17, Uribe stated there was "clear evidence" that the indigenous protest in Cauca were being controlled by the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Indigenous communities, thousands of whom have been displaced as a result of the civil war between the FARC and the military — alongside far-right paramilitaries acting on behalf of powerful interests that covet their resource rich lands — insistently deny any links with armed groups of any kind.
However, Colombia's mainstream media has largely echoed the government line, effectively imposing a media blackout of indigenous voices.
In 2005 and 2006, the Uribe administration responded in a similar fashion to indigenous mobilisations in Cauca.
Rozental recalled, "At the world summit of indigenous peoples that was held right there in La Maria, in 2005, they promised us talks, but what they did was send in more troops, to burn and destroy."
Since Uribe came to power in 2002, 1253 indigenous people have been murdered and 54,000 have been displaced, according to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC).
According to Colombiareports.com, dozens of indigenous youth in Cauca have been murdered by state security forces since January, "many of them so-called 'false-positive' killings because the bodies were dressed up and presented as if they were guerillas killed in combat".
The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca also received a letter on August 11 threatening its members and those of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca with death as "a consequence of their disrespect".
The letter, signed by the "angry farmers" of Cauca, is widely believed to be the work of wealthy landowners whose interests are threatened by indigenous land recuperation projects.
Just days before the mass mobilisations began in La Maria Piendamo, two Nasa Indians from Cauca were also assassinated by unidentified gunmen on October 10-11.
The legitimacy of the Uribe government has been brought into question by the ongoing "para-politics" scandal, in which 80 governors, mayors and congressional politicians, the majority of them close allies of Uribe, are alleged to have, or have been found guilty of having, direct links to paramilitary death squads.
According to a Radiomundial.com.ve report, Luis Evelis Andrade Casama, spokesperson for ONIC, explained that the march to Cali was not only about recuperating land and social benefits, but to "sow in the consciousness of Colombia and the world that we are suffering a crisis of extreme violation of human rights".