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Report on Natives tests Peru ombudsman credibility

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The Peruvian ombudsman, a public office created in the mid-90s to help the weakest in this poor Latin American country, took heat in mid-July over a report that ruled out body disappearances resulting from June 5 clashes between Natives and Peruvian AKM-armed police.

“From the information received in the 39 traveling missions made with authorities from 16 communities we can infer that in all cases authorities reported the return of the indigenous people with the exception of the people that remain hospitalized or (in detention),” the Peruvian ombudsman’s office said July 2.

The office added that church officials as well as UNICEF contributed to its efforts to check the accuracy of reports that described a massive Native killing.

In the report, the ombudsman acknowledged that the communities it visited only represented 22 percent of the total. Yet, it said the choice was not random, but those communities visited were the ones most likely to have missing people based on witness testimony or rumors of corpse disappearances to media.

The ombudsman office even listed names of tribal leaders it contacted across the region, which was the center of violence June 5 when several hundred Natives who had blocked a road in protest clashed with police. The office said it checked, along with other authorities, the soil around the area of the fight to investigate charges of speedy burials.

The ombudsman’s report echoed the Peruvian government official information of 33 total dead including 23 police, five residents of the Amazon town of Bagua and five members of Native communities. The fight came as Natives protested, with success, to get Peru to turn down laws they said threatened their lands.

The report added that 200 people were injured, of which nearly half had bullet wounds. Some 83 people were detained. The report expressed particular worry for the disappearance of a police officer who had been leading an AKM-armed patrol that was overpowered by Natives June 5: Felipe Bazan, the only missing person it named.

“Nothing causes more confusion and shock than the uncertainty over the whereabouts of a close relative,” the report explained.

AIDESEP criticism

The Native organization, AIDESEP, which groups 350,000 Native members, and whose president, Alberto Pizango, has been accused by local authorities of causing the June 5 violence and is in exile, said the report was incomplete.

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Marco Barreto, who has been identified by AIDESEP as a lawyer for some accused Native leaders, said the report is incomplete because, like the ombudsman admits, it only covered 22 percent of the total Native communities in the area.

AIDESEP assures on its Web page that there are more people missing, adding that a “persecution of national and regional leaders” must stop as well as incursions by security forces meant to harass local populations. The organization said in early July that as many as 300 Natives are not back in their communities which are often very far apart. Travel between communities can take days, it said.

The organization pointed to one example of a missing person unaccounted for by the ombudsman’s office, Nelvin Wasun, who had been photographed under police custody June 8 by a regional newspaper. However, Wasun has not returned to his community and appears to be missing because he is not in a hospital or a detention list.

State of Fear

Environmental protection group Amazon Watch spokesperson Gregor MacLennan said the ombudsman report meant to describe the violence jumped to a conclusion too quickly.

“The report concludes that there were no disappearances in the 39 communities that it visited, which is welcome news, however it somehow leaps to the conclusion that there are no disappearances in the other 142 communities in the region that it did not visit,” he said.

“The veracity of the interviews with the communities is also questionable, given that, as the report itself concludes, people are in a heightened state of fear.”

Martin Tanaka, a political science expert who teaches at the local Lima Catholic University PUCP and has a blog on the issue, said the rumors of corpse disappearance may have been caused by confusion.

“I do not consider it strange that in a police action which left 33 or 34 dead and over 200 injured, many of them by bullet, with helicopters throwing tear gas and picking up injured, amid that confusion and with so much anxiety and mistrust, pain, people did get to believe things that are not what they may look like at first,” he said.

Tanaka said people may have confused a police helicopter taking some of the 80 people injured with bullets to hospitals with a sinister activity of transporting injured Natives to a place where their bodies could be thrown into one of the area’s big rivers.