Suspects Arrested in Murder of Venezuelan Indigenous, but Chief’s Detention Fuels Conflict

  On October 13 Venezuelan officials arrested seven suspects in a deadly attack on an indigenous Yukpa community. However, the investigation was tainted with the arbitrary detention one of the victims, Yukpa Chief Sabino Romero, prompting indigenous rights activists to accuse the government of not fulfilling indigenous rights laws.

Those arrested for the attack, which left two dead and four injured and took place in the Sierra de Perija region on the border with Colombia, were Yukpa men who were named in testimonies by the victims and witnesses.

In a press conference, Minister for Justice and Internal Affairs Tarek El-Aissami said the attack was an internal conflict among the Yukpa over stolen cattle. He denied it was related to the controversy over the granting of land titles to the Yukpa, which culminated on October 12th when the government granted more than 40,000 hectares of land to several Yukpa communities.

The controversy ended with the land grants, and “the Yukpa people are more united than ever,” El-Aissami said during a nationally televised press conference. He was accompanied by several Yukpa chiefs and community members as well as Indigenous Affairs Minister Nicia Maldonado.

“For 500 years, they were excluded and denied all rights, and today thanks to the Bolivarian Revolution of President [Hugo] Chavez, we have included them,” said the minister.

However, according to the testimony of Chief Romero, who was hospitalized with three bullet wounds, the attack was a direct result of ongoing divisions among the Yukpa over whether to accept the government’s land offer.

Instead of granting a united block of ancestral lands as the Yukpa originally proposed, the government reduced the overall amount of land by 90,000 hectares and granted the land in scattered parcels that are interspersed with large cattle ranching estates and concessions to multi-national coal mining companies, according to Romero and his supporters.

Romero denied the accusation that he had stolen cattle and thus provoked the attack on his community. He said this accusation was made by supporters of the government’s land demarcation plan, including the local cattle rancher’s association, the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs, and several Yukpa communities, but the real motive was to retaliate against him for his opposition to the government’s plan.

“I know that this problem has come because of the land demarcation. They want to kick us out; now we feel that the cattle ranchers and the government’s commission for land demarcation want to kick us off these lands,” said the Yukpa leader in a testimony recorded at the public hospital in Maracaibo.

While Romero and three other injured Yukpa were in the public hospital, National Guard troops arbitrarily transferred them to a military hospital against their will. There, a state court brought charges against Romero for robbery and homicide, and the national investigative police, the CICPC, isolated and interrogated him about the events surrounding the attack on his community.

Military officials said their detention and transfer of Romero was a measure to protect him and his community from further harm. However, Romero’s defense lawyer, Ricardo Colmenares, said Romero’s right to due process was violated and that the charges are a baseless attempt to intimidate and persecute the Yukpa chief.

The state also brought charges of drug trafficking against one of the principle leaders of the national solidarity movement with the Yukpa, Lusbi Portillo. Portillo is a professor of anthropology in Maracaibo who has worked for a quarter of a century to defend the Sierra de Perija region from coal mining and to help the indigenous communities recuperate their ancestral lands. He is treated with high regard and trusted by many indigenous communities in the region.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nicia Maldonado maintained her alliance with the Yukpa leaders who support the government’s land demarcation plan and did not come to Romero’s aid. She continued to accuse Romero of stealing cattle, and she accused Portillo of being a counter-revolutionary seeking to sabotage Venezuela’s revolutionary process.

Campaign for Land Demarcation Continues

Activists from the Culture Ministry, the ideological formation branch of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the national student loan program Fundayacucho, the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, the Landless Movement (MST) of Brazil, alternative community media collectives, peasant organizations, and NGOs continue to denounce Romero’s treatment at the hands of authorities.

In support of Romero and his Yukpa allies, they also demand that the October 12th land grants be revoked so that a new process of land demarcation can be carried out with more direct participation by indigenous authorities and in accordance with indigenous legal customs, as the law mandates.

They say the government must fully compensate the private landowners whose lands will be demarcated for the Yukpa, and revoke all mining concessions on Yukpa lands. Also, they recommend that the top government officials involved in the land demarcation process so far be removed from their posts for violating indigenous rights.

The election of President Chavez in 1998 brought much hope for progress on indigenous rights. In 1999, a new constitution approved by popular referendum brought unprecedented guarantees for indigenous communities, and the National Assembly passed landmark laws in 2001 and 2005 requiring the government to demarcate ancestral indigenous lands and grant indigenous communities a certain degree of autonomy, among other things.

In May 2007, Chavez announced the suspension of new mining concessions in the Sierra de Perija, but he has yet to revoke the concessions. In August 2008, Chavez pronounced his administration decisively in favor of Yukpa land demarcation, and ordered his ministers to get the job done.