Yes to Life, No to Free Trade Agreements

Yes to Life, No to Free Trade Agreements, was the motto during the citizen’s public referendum called for by social and indigenous organizations in 6 municipalities of the state of Cauca, in southwestern Columbia, on March 6th, 2005.


Written by José Vicente Otero Chate, contributions by Mary Rocío Mensa Franco

The Nasa del Cauca indigenous peoples, of which I am a member, led the proposal for a popular democratic decision-making process on this issue with the conviction (and we still hold it) that it had become necessary to create alternatives. We offered proposals, originating from our history, our life plans, our autonomies, and our integration into other social sectors, concerning social reflection on the risks and impacts of this type of international treaty. We were unified in our attempt to ensure “Pachamama” or “Mother Earth” is recognized, respected and defended against a neoliberal phenomenon that threatens all forms of life.

Based on the premise that the right to prior, free and informed consultation with indigenous peoples had been violated (convention 169 of the ILO) during negotiations for said treaty, we took it upon ourselves to summon social sectors and create the “Public and Citizen Referendum Against the Free Trade Agreement “FTA”, between Columbia and States”. 51,610 people participated and of these, 98% of participants voted “No” against the FTA.

Meanwhile, the country was being governed under the questionable premise of “Democratic Security” with tactics that were not very democratic such as false positives, illegal infiltration of communications, and changes to constitutional order that favoured the personal interests of each government that happened to be in power at any given moment.

“Justice with the Resistance”

I also personally experienced persecution tactics because, as an indigenous reporter, I had headed the communication strategy for said referendum. On May 19th, 2005 members of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad “DAS” (no longer in existence), the Public Prosecutor, and the police broke into my home in the municipality of Caldono, where, according to the DAS, they found a hand grenade and a military radio. The “Semana” magazine very aptly titled their story “Justice with the Resistance".

These events led to my exile in Ecuador with the support of some non-governmental organizations that focus on human rights. There I was received by the Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationals of Ecuador – the CONAIE – where I was able to continue working as a human rights defender since I had experience as a journalist while my legal defence process took place.

Illegally Detained and Imprisoned

Nevertheless, my hub continues to be Caldono. One weekend I visited my territory and as I returned to Ecuador, I was detained at the border and illegally imprisoned from 10/6/2005 to 12/20/2005 in the border city of Pasto, Columbia and from 12/21/2005 to 02/09/2006 I was under house arrest in Caldono, Cauca, Columbia. Years later the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a resolution of absolution in my favour, declaring that there was insufficient evidence in my case to sentence me. My unjust and unlawful detention was just one of hundreds of detentions, deaths and cases of mass migration, better known as “false positives”, that have yet to be absolved in these alleged times of peace. According to the government and its Victims Law, we are living in a post-conflict era and the country is enjoying stable, long-lasting peace. However, this is not true, and one year after the peace agreements signed between the government and the FARC, victims continue to face uncertainty and have no guarantees.

The moral and material damage of said persecution is indescribable and incalculable. Even after these experiences the threats continue to date; however, my commitment and fight to defend the rights of indigenous peoples continues as I work with the Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca (CRIC – Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca) and the Universidad Autónoma Indígena Intercultural (UAIIN – Indigenous Intercultural Autonomous University) as I continue to work, think and dream that “another Columbia is possible".


* This article was written by José Vicente Otero Chate with contributions of Mary Rocío Mensa Franco​ and is part of a project "It happens overnight" funded by Fritt Ord

 José Vicente Otero Chate is a Media Communications Specialist and Journalist. Master’s Degree specializing in Culture of Peace and International Human Rights. Candidate for a PhD © in Communications, Rocío Mensa Franco​ is a Nurse with Master’s Degree in Public Health.