Three activists working with a group of U’wa Indians in Colombia have been kidnapped by rebels according to a Reuters news story released March 1, 1999.
Ingrid Washinawatok, 41 (Menominee), a humanitarian, Terence Freitas, 24, an environmental scientist from Santa Cruz, California, and Lahe’ena’e Gay, 39 of Hawaii were seized near the village of Royota, in Arauca province in northeastern Colombia on Thursday, February 25th while preparing to leave the territory of the U’wa after a two week on-site visit.
While the U’wa have been involved in a lengthy battle with Occidental Petroleum and have accused the U.S. oil company of violating their ancestral homelands, it appears there was no relationship between that issue and their kidnapping.
The Colombia Supreme Court, during February, ruled against Occidental Petroleum in a 5-4 vote, saying they could not drill in the area.
According to the Reuters report, Freitas, Washinawatok and Gay were involved with a team trying to convince Occidental to abandon plans to drill for oil in the so-called Samore block which the U’wa claim as their homelands.
However, a family spokesman for Washinawatok said Ingrid was in Colombia following a national conference of the Hawaii-based Pacific Cultural Conservancy International at the request of the U’wa, to develop a new indigenous-based school curriculum for the tribe.
Larry Brown, the conservation group’s manager, said the three were there to determine whether they would be able to assist them (the U’wa).
U’wa spokesman Evarista Tegria in a phone interview said they believed that “FARC took them out of our hands and must now put them back safely in our hands. They are our ambassadors on an international level.”
A Colombian spokesman said Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels abducted the Americans at a roadblock that cuts through the U’wa reserve. Past abductions have occurred to help finance the rebel movement through ransom demands, or because rebels believed the people were American spies.
Last year over 2,400 people, including about 40 foreigners were reported kidnapped for various reasons in Colombia.
In addition, 1,200 civilians were killed in massacres in the on-going 30 year rebel war between FARC and the Colombian government, mostly by right-wing private militias, according to the Associated Press.
Several American Indian organizations are involved in attempts to locate and negotiate the safe release of the three.