BAGUA, Peru, (IPS) – The Peruvian government described the recent deaths of police officers in clashes with indigenous protesters in the country’s Amazon rainforest as "genocide" at the hands of "extremist savages."
But Awajún leader Salomón Aguanash said the violence broke out after the protesters were tricked and were surrounded by the police, who came with express orders to shoot to kill.
Aguanash, president of the regional protest committee that led the two-month demonstration and roadblock in Bagua, says the local police chief, General Víctor Uribe, had promised the night before the tragic events of Friday, Jun. 5 to give the protesters until 10:00 AM the next day to pull out.
He said the indigenous people manning the traffic blockade were getting ready to return to their towns and villages on Friday morning when the police showed up at the roadblock before 6:00 AM and opened fire.
"They wanted to catch us off guard," said Aguanash, who is the chief of the village of Nazareth, a 3.5-hour drive from the town of Bagua in the northern province of Amazonas, where the violent incident took place.
The first shots against the protesters who were preparing to lift the roadblock at a spot on the highway near Bagua known as Curva del Diablo (Devil’s Curve) came from the surrounding hills as well as three police helicopters, said the native leader.
According to the official reports, 24 policemen and five native protesters were killed in the Jun. 5 clash at Curva del Diablo and at a Petroperú oil pipeline station.
But the demonstrators themselves say dozens of indigenous people may have been killed, and several eyewitnesses reported that bodies were thrown into a nearby river from a police helicopter. The native groups that organised the protests are drawing up lists of missing protesters and looking for bodies.
The roadblock was part of protests being held by indigenous people in different parts of the country to demand the repeal of the so-called "jungle laws" – decrees passed by the government of Alan García that open up indigenous land in the rainforest to oil, mining and logging companies, in the framework of the free trade agreement signed with the United States.
IPS: You say the police agreed to a truce that gave you time to leave, which they failed to respect. What kind of negotiations took place before the clashes?
SALOMÓN AGUANASH: The week before the clashes we held a meeting with General Víctor Uribe, the representative of the ombudsman’s office, and the mayors of Condorcanqui, Jaén and Bagua Chica, because in the previous five days there had been a lot of tension with the drivers of vehicles that were held up by the traffic blockade.
The general told us to let traffic through in order to show the government that it was a peaceful demonstration. We agreed, and that day we let vehicles through from 2:00 to 6:00 PM.
That’s how far the understanding went. But despite the fact that the talks with the police were supposed to be continuous, we were not able to speak with the general again until five days later.
We agreed to meet at 3:00 PM on Thursday, Jun. 4. But when nearly 7,000 people showed up for the meeting, it was postponed till 6:00 PM and moved to the camp at the Petroperú oil installations. Just a small group of us took part in that meeting.
IPS: What did General Uribe promise in the meeting?
SA: First he told us that he had run out of time, because the orders were coming from higher up and he was risking his job because he had already received orders to break up the roadblock He said the only thing he was interested in talking about in the meeting was letting the traffic through.
If we didn’t clear the road, he said, he was going to follow the orders he had received, the next morning. That’s why we asked him for a truce, to give us until 10:00 AM to clear out. He said yes, and told us we should trust in his word, that if he did not give the order himself, the agents there could not take a single step.
The mayor and bishop of Jaén told him not to provoke the indigenous people because there could be bloodshed. So the general agreed to a truce.
IPS: Why didn’t you get ready to leave as soon as possible?
SA: There were more than 3,600 protesters at the Curva del Diablo and we had to arrange for trucks and vehicles to take us back to our villages and towns. That was our plan, to avoid any possible violence. Because everything was calm at around 5:00 AM, we were not worried. But at around 5:50 AM a bunch of people started showing up along the hills.
Protesters started to climb up the hillside, shouting "It’s the police! It’s the police!" So I called the general’s cell-phone number, to ask him to avoid violence, but he didn’t answer.
Meanwhile, the police kept coming down the hills and started to shoot. They surrounded us, they wanted to catch us off guard. At that moment, two of our brothers were shot. Then our brother Santiago Manuim (a prominent indigenous leader from Alto Marañón) stood up to ask the police to stop shooting, but he was shot in the stomach.
IPS: Is it true that the shot that killed Manuim flared up tempers among the indigenous protesters, which prompted them to attack the police?
SA: Our brothers started to attack the police when they saw the first two people killed. Ten to 15 minutes after the shots from the hills, three helicopters showed up – one armed forces helicopter and two police helicopters – and they started shooting at us, directly aiming at our bodies. They not only threw tear gas but also used some devices that set fire to the hills. If you look at the photos, you can see the bodies are burnt.
At that moment there were two kinds of reactions: some resigned themselves to the fear of dying and others responded furiously with their spears. The people scattered, running for their lives. Who knows if the bullets from the helicopters killed the police themselves?
Shortly afterwards, two small police tanks started to shoot from the road. If the police wanted us to leave, to break up the roadblock, why didn’t they come from the road from the very beginning, instead of taking us by surprise from the hills?
The order was to kill us.
IPS: Who is to blame for what happened?
SA: The central government (of President García), (Interior Minister) Mercedes Cabanillas, Prime Minister Yehude Simon, and General Uribe as well because he asked me to handle the situation with intelligence, and I agreed to clear the area of protesters, but he did not live up to his part of the bargain.
On that same Thursday night (Jun. 4), I returned to discuss things with our brothers and we talked to the truck drivers, telling them to get things ready because the next day we were going to lift the roadblock. We planned to leave at around 8:00 or 9:00 AM.
IPS: Is it possible that only five or six indigenous people were killed, and more than 24 policemen?
SA: I don’t believe that. How could we, who were unarmed, kill 24 of them? I also don’t believe that all of our brothers and sisters escaped, which is why we are worried and trying hard to recover the bodies of our dead.
Although everyone has returned home to my village, Nazareth, and to others like Wawas and La Curva, we are concerned about our brothers and sisters from Santiago, Nieva and Cenepa, where 85 people have not yet returned.
There are also two missing from Tutungos. I know who’s missing because 15 days before Friday (Jun. 5), I drew up a list of everyone’s names.
There were 2,600 of us who came from the area that I govern, 140 from the province of San Ignacio in Cajamarca province, and 1,006 from the village of Paután in the district of Nieva in Amazonas province. Altogether there were more than 3,600 of us.
IPS: President García has described the deaths of the police officers at the hands of indigenous people as "genocide" and "extreme savagery." What would you say to that?
SA: That we feel marginalised and also indignant, especially after losing so many of our indigenous brothers and sisters and so many brothers among the police, who we had nothing against. It wasn’t their fault; the orders came from the central government.
The president says that what happened was because of the influence of other countries, but that is not true. If that were true, we would have been armed. We are poor people, and with these words the government is mistreating us. We hope it reflects on the situation and repeals the decrees that only remain in place today because of the stubbornness of the government, which has provoked this conflict between the Wampi-Awajún and the police.
IPS: The government says the indigenous protesters are opposed to progress. What is your view of development?
SA: We are not opposed to development, and we want progress. But for a long time now they have ignored and marginalised us as if we belonged to other countries; they have not taken us into account. They have brought us neither agricultural nor economic development with their projects and initiatives.
The country has committed a huge mistake by electing Alan García for the second time. With his policies, he treats us as if we were terrorists.
I repeat, we are not opposed to development, but it cannot only be designed by the men in suits and ties in the cabinet of ministers, but must take into consideration the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) Convention 169 (concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples), and the constitution.
We do not accept the kind of ‘development’ that the president offers us, because it is not sustainable and it threatens the Amazon rainforest, which is humanity’s heritage. For that reason, if the government insists on sidelining us and continues to refuse to overturn the decrees, we will no longer block roads but will instead draw our own limits to establish how far into our territories we will allow the authorities to come.
IPS: What do the indigenous territories represent to you?
SA: Our territory is our market, our mother. We don’t have supermarkets like people in the big cities. We have to track and hunt down animals for two or three days, and find our food in the jungle. Everything we need for our survival is in the rainforest. That’s why we are defending it with our lives.