Peruvian President Alan Garcia assured reporters in Lima June 10 – in his first comments following a deadly confrontation June 5, described by Natives as their worst single-day killing in decades – that it is a lie many Natives died because police restored order through “martyrdom.”
Just a day earlier, Prime Minister Yehude Simon and Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas endlessly appeared in funerals of dead police, speaking in Congress or talking to media, justifying the use of force to end nearly 60 days of protests by Natives by describing them as manipulated savages and cowardly killers.
Between June 7 and 9, the Peruvian government had run an advertising campaign showing images of dead police with multiple spear wounds. This continued, even as one minister of Garcia’s cabinet, Carmen Vildoso, resigned in protest.
The organization of Native Amazon residents, AIDESEP, which has 350,000 members, warned the government about the campaign; saying the ads describing Natives as savage killers were only building hate among Peru’s 28 million people against the Natives.
Maria Zavala, the permanent representative of Peru to the Organization of American States, said June 9 in Washington that only nine Natives had died out of 34 deaths reported since the June 5 violence in the Amazon. She said the rest of the casualties were of policemen killed trying to restore order.
“In those numbers you have the proof that the police sometimes acts in martyrdom,” Garcia said. He blamed the misinformation about a higher death toll on “a little serious international news agency” he did not name and bad reporters.
He again called Native leader Alberto Pizango, who had been elected by all Amazon tribes as head Apu, or biggest chief, through AIDESEP, “a criminal.” Pizango was leader of the Natives, but since June 8, has been inside the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima; the country is expected to grant asylum.
What is the real human toll?
Independent human rights groups in Peru are investigating corpse disappearances. The last time Peruvian security forces, or at least elements of them, made corpses of victims disappear was in the early 1990s during the government of former President Alberto Fujimori, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for it.
The official claim of 34 deaths including nine Natives is in sharp contrast to as many as 40 deaths among Natives reported by AIDESEP.
The Natives have not turned bodies over to Peruvian authorities or shown them to the press. Specialists like Javier La Rosa, who is working to learn the death toll, said they may be scared and mistrust authorities and other people like him, as they see their leaders being prosecuted and criminalized.
Shapiom Noningo, a new Native leader who immediately replaced Pizango as AIDESEP president, pleaded to the government to stop criminalizing Native spokespeople, insisting they are not leaders, but transmit popular Native sentiment.
La Rosa, from the Lima-based human rights group Instituto de Defensa Legal, said he and seven lawyers traveled from Lima to Bagua – the epicenter of the violence – June 8 to help the Natives legally. He said 51 had been arrested.
He has interviewed and confirmed the well-being and safety of nine people from Native groups who remain in detention in Bagua June 9.
La Rosa said the group he visited includes those who had been occupying a pipeline substation where about a dozen police who had been sent to take care of the facility were apparently executed by Natives. Though, no Natives were captured in the pipeline area and there are no witnesses of any homicide among those under seven-day detention.
He said another 25 Natives detained in the military base of El Milagro in northern Peru were scheduled to be visited by his organization June 10; and another 17 had been transported to the city of Chiclayo from other Amazon locations where they are still detained.
La Rosa and his team have documented testimony – at this time just considered rumors – in which diverse people talk about government forces disappearing corpses to reduce the death toll. Those testimonies are being taped and the information is being followed.
“We have a series of rumors in Bagua among town residents, and also among both the Mestizo and Native that tell us about larger numbers of death which casts doubt over the official nine dead Natives toll.” He said some reports tell of corpses thrown into helicopters and trucks, but the information has yet to be confirmed.
According to reports gathered by La Rosa, the group of policemen who were apparently killed by Natives on or around June 5 in a crude oil pipeline substation had been kidnapped before the end of May. He said the government had not reported a hostage situation as part of efforts by Natives to halt the crude pipeline. The government has not officially reported any kidnapping and said police died as they attempted to talk to Natives.
He said Garcia’s government apparently ordered the launching of tear gas against Natives in Bagua to break their protest even as there was a police hostage situation in the pipeline. He said the hostages were killed in reprisal.
This contradicts another version – supported by comments of a police effective – identified as Fredegundo Vasquez who claimed on national television next to minister Cabanillas that he saw the group of police being killed by Natives with spears.
More Trouble Ahead
On June 5, Pizango and two other leaders, Machiguenga leader Ruben Binari and Awajun leader Marcial Mudarra, said Natives were going to immediately pull out in a sign of respect for the deceased.
But the group of Native leaders said “no matter what” Natives would rather die before accepting the law changes mandated by Garcia as they are designed to strip them out of ancestral lands.
The Peruvian Congress started a debate June 10 on the laws and how repealing them could end the protests.
According to Natives, those laws would enrich government officials by giving them a freer hand to sell concessions for agriculture, forestry, oil, gas and lumber in areas where they have lived for centuries, but are lacking formal title ownership. Opposition leaders like Ollanta Humala claims corruption and bribes for future concessions are behind the government’s adamant position.
Representatives of the Catholic church and from the Ombusdman’s office plan to help restart dialogue in coming days.
A Native leader in the city of Yurimaguas, who identified himself as Segundo Pizango (Spanish for Second Pizango, Segundo is also a name) said June 10 that the protests are far from over.
“All these actions do not scare us. Instead they make us more angry. The government simply just does not want to repeal those laws.” Several nationwide protests were planned for June 11 to get Garcia to back down on the laws.