Venezuelan Yukpa Appeal for Use of Indigenous Legal Customs in Murder Case

Defence lawyer Ricardo Colmenares filed a constitutional appeal before the Venezuelan Supreme Court on behalf of three indigenous leaders who were arrested in Zulia state, arguing that the indigenous people have a right to be tried by the legitimate authorities of their own people.

The three indigenous men, still in prison, are from various communities in the Sierra de Perija region near the Colombian border. They are Sabino Romero, a Yukpa chief of the Chaktapa community, Alexander Fernandez of the Wayuu people, and Olegario Romero, chief of the Yukpa Guamo Pamocha community.

On 13 October 2009 there was a confrontation between a group of indigenous people from the Chaktapa community and another group of indigenous people from Guamo Pamocha in which two died and four were injured. The Attorney General’s office and the Zulia state court charged the men of murder, assault, and conspiring between members of the community.

Government officials have claimed the fight was an internal conflict over stolen cattle, while Sabino Romero, who received three bullet wounds, called it an attack by the other community and said it was a result of divisions among the Yukpa over the government’s land grant offer.

Romero opposed accepting the government’s offer, which involved granting the Yukpa a third of the land they were asking for, in dispersed allotments. The 40,000 hectares were officially granted to the Yukpa the day before the violent incident last October.

Colmenares’s appeal asserts that the accused indigenous have the right to be tried by their own legitimate authorities, which in the case of the Yukpa people is the Oshipa, or the general council of elders.

According to point 3 of article 133 of the Law of Indigenous Communities and Peoples, such a council of elders is capable of resolving conflict and applying sanctions according to the Yukpa’s own customs and proceedings.

The arrest, according to Colmenares, also violates the Venezuelan constitution, where article 260 recognises indigenous jurisdiction and the use of their own law and authorities as part of their collective right to their own culture. The Venezuelan constitution and laws are both in line with international agreements on indigenous rights.

Colmenares asked that the legal proceedings be suspended until there is a decision on his appeal and the Supreme Court rules that the case should be handed over to Indigenous Jurisdiction.

Also, in a public letter dated 3 March 2010, social organisations and individuals wrote to the head of the constitutional court in the Supreme Court, Luisa Morales, in support of the constitutional appeal in the cases of Sabino Romero and Fernandez.

The letter also made some general demands, including for an end to marginalisation and racial discrimination, an end to “false demarcations of land,” insufficient health and lack of education services, and an end to “racial, economic, cultural, and inter-ethnic borders imposed by savage capitalism that is still dominant in Venezuela,” and also declared its full support for the new constitution of 1999 and its commitment to promoting “social activity and the activity of the state.”

A range of indigenous organisations, anti-corruption organisations, environmentalist movements, collectives, revolutionary organisations, and university professors and professionals from Venezuela and from Latin America, signed the letter.

Further, on 12 March some members of the Yukpa community protested outside the Supreme Court, demanding a response to the appeal.

“We have our culture, our justice system. We can judge and punish those guilty of damage to the community without our chiefs having to be prisoners under the Creole law,” Sabino Romero Martinez, the second chief of the Chaktapa community, told IPS.