Bogota, Colombia- They say there are over 3,000 people in the indigenous caravan. I have been travelling with them for three days, riding on the roof of one the overcrowded school buses they call Chivas.
This conglomeration of indigenous communities, the Minga, in the native tongue, formed in southwest Colombia and crossed half of the nation to demand a meeting with president Iván Duque over the killing of their leaders, rising numbers massacres in their homeland and a neglect by the State that goes back centuries.
“You can trace all of this directly to colonization,” says Andres Maiz. “The Spanish enslaved us when they arrived, and now their descendants exploit us.”
Fifty re-tooled school busses, hand-painted with designs and overflowing with people have been on the road for ten days when I join them- a gargantuan mobile campground, crawling northwest, policed by it’s own indigenous guard and hosted along the way by supportive towns and cities.
Each day the Minga lurch chaotically forward, each moment brings them closer to an inevitable confrontation with the federal government in the capital of Colombia, Bogotá, where no one knows what awaits. Perhaps a reunion with a president that has so far ignored them. Perhaps more likely, a policeman’s truncheon.
The people here I speak with talk of many things: neglect, violence, a brutal history with Colombian State forces, a lack of educational opportunities or infrastructure, racism and more. But they all have one demand they repeat over and over, a vida digna, a life of dignity, which so far they have been denied.
“Cauca moves the country,” says Bremmen Hinestroza, 22 from Popayán, in Cauca. “When there are protests in Bogotá, the people notice. But when the Minga marches, the people move.”
He isn’t wrong. In 2017, Indigenous-led protests throughout the region paralyzed Colombia. With support from Afro-Colombian communities along the entire Pacific coast, strikes and roadblocks paralyzed trade on highways and closed Colombia’s biggest maritime port in Buenaventura. Decades of violent conflict, State oppression and extreme poverty boiled over into sometimes violent protests that swept the region. And now the Minga has formed again. This time, it’s eyes set on the seat of Federal power itself.
At each pueblo we pass, the people come out from their houses to wave flags, salute and cheer the Minga as the dozens of busses and trucks pass. In each city, the people line up to greet the caravan at the outskirts of the city. “Fuerza!” they shout. Strength! And “Long live the Minga!”
“They’re fighting for me,” says Sergio Garcia, a shopkeeper in Ibagué. “I offer them all the support I can give. While I stay here and work, they are fighting the cause for my benefit.”
“They call us guerillas!” an indigenous guard says to me on the second night as I ask him what he thinks about arriving to the capital. “They say we carry arms. They say we are terrorists! It’s absurd. Look around. Do you see any weapons here? Our interests are directly opposed to the armed groups in Cauca. They are killing us. Why would we work with them?”
On the roofs of the old school buses an entire community traverses the breathtaking Colombia countryside- constructing and de-constructing itself in a circadian cycle. Up at 5 in the morning to tear down tents, pack up food, clean the campgrounds loaned to them by the cities they pass, board 50 busses and twice as many trucks to travel until the afternoon, when the entire living city is built again. They are a chaotic and beautiful mobile sea of humanity lurching it’s way towards an inevitable clash with those who wield power in this Andean nation.
There is a communal energy that is difficult to describe: a joyful comradery and spirit of unity, but also underlined by determination as well as preoccupation. Many expect to be attacked by Colombian riot police ESMAD, who have a terrible reputation, once they reach the capital.
There is a lot of talk on these buses as we travel. There is talk of government corruption, talk of Imperialism from their North American cousins, talk of false positives, a phrase here which refers to tens of thousands of killings at the hands of Colombian forces. The talk is dark.
But one wouldn’t be able to tell from outside the buses. Groups toss one another oranges and bottles of water from the roofs of the chivas winding their way through treacherous mountain passes. They wave to people gathered on the sides of the road and shout slogans as they travel.
To the observer, the atmosphere feels like a mobile party. But the observers aren’t the one moving a city of people across the country. A city of people who have faced decades of oppression and who are moving as one people in a daily routine that for me is grueling after only three days.
“The government promised us autonomy and our lands back as part of the 2017 Peace Accord,” says Victor, who hails from the Nasa community. “We got neither. And now they want to send the army instead.”
The indigenous guard accompanies everything in the Minga. They escort the buses on the highway, police the encampments at night, organize the packing and unpacking of the camps, they check credentials of those arriving. They are worried about infiltration by a government that calls them terrorists and narco-traffickers.
“They call us guerillas!” says an indigenous guard to me on the second night as I ask him what he thinks about arriving to the capital. “They say we carry arms. They say we are terrorists! It’s absurd. Look around. Do you see any weapons here? Our interests are directly opposed to the armed groups in Cauca. They are killing us. Why would we work with them?”
He goes on to say that he doesn’t believe the Federal government is really interested in ending narco-trafficking in Colombia. “The same families that own this country, that control the government, that back Duque, are the same families that profit from narco-trafficking,” he claims.
The Minga were given a heroes welcome upon entering Bogotá, especially in the poorer neighborhoods in the south of the city. In the morning they will march to Plaza Bolivar, where the Senate meets and the presidential offices reside. Many here doubt the coming confrontation will result in concrete reform. Even more doubt the government response will be one of anything besides teargas.
I disagree with those saying the mobilization won’t achieve anything. It has already won something precious here in Colombia- these communities are being seen. People who have long been invisible to an increasingly autocratic administration have taken to the streets and highways, and they have done so with popular support. While the Duque administration talks of Colombia’s GDP, a host of Colombian armed groups with a plethora of alphabet initials kill an invisible people without access to the levers of power.
The Minga don't have media conglomerates to spread their message, unlike the political parties that rule this country, but they do have determination, the unity and the courage to make the journey. They have made themselves seen. And here in Colombia, that is a rare occurrence that Duque will not be able to so easily ignore.