Peruvian Special Forces staged a violent raid early Friday on a group of indigenous people who were sleeping at a road blockade outside of Bagua in the remote northern Peruvian Amazon. At least 25 civilians are confirmed dead and over 100 were wounded and nine police officers are confirmed dead in the raid.
For the past two months, indigenous people have blocked waterways and roads across the Amazon, demanding the repeal of legislative decrees issued last year to bring Peru into compliance with the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, which took effect early this year. The protesters claim the decrees will allow deforestation and privatization of their traditional lands and natural resources.
Peruvian Police break up a roadblock by indigenous people near Bagua. June 5, 2009. (Photo © Thomas Quiryen courtesy CATAPA)
More than 600 police attacked several thousand unarmed Awajun and Wambis indigenous peoples on the Fernando Belaúnde Terry road, including many women and children and forcibly dispersed them using tear gas and live ammunition.
Demonstrators refused to move from the roadblock as police in helicopters fired teargas grenades and live ammunition. Eyewitnesses report that police also attacked from both sides firing live rounds into the crowd as people fled into surrounding steep hillsides, where many were trapped.
As the demonstrators were being killed and injured, some wrestled with police, fighting back in self-defense, which resulted in the reported deaths of the nine police officers.
Peruvian Police take a demonstrator into custody. (Photo © Thomas Quiryen courtesy CATAPA)
Protests, which have involved more than 10,000 men, many of them in war paint and armed with bows and arrows, are being coordinated by the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association, AIDESEP, an umbrella group that represents most of the country’s approximately 50 Amazonian indigenous ethnicities.
“This is a struggle to defend our rainforest, to defend our natural resources, to defend the territory we live in,” said Daysi Zapata, vice president of AIDESEP.
In local radio reports, the chief of police claimed that the indigenous demonstrators were armed and fired first. This claim has been rejected by dozens of local eyewitnesses including local journalists who confirm that Amazonian demonstrators have been entirely peaceful and only bear traditional spears and in no way provoked any violence.
Gregor MacLennan of Amazon Watch who is in Bagua gathering testimonies from blockade participants, local journalists and residents said, “All eyewitness testimonies say that Special Forces opened fire on peaceful and unarmed demonstrators, including from helicopters, killing and wounding dozens in an orchestrated attempt to open the roads.”
“It seems that the police had come with orders to shoot,” said MacLennan. “This was not a clash, but a coordinated police raid with police firing on protesters from both sides of their blockade.”
Peruvian Police beat an unarmed protester. (Photo © Thomas Quiryen courtesy CATAPA)
“There have been many accounts of atrocities committed by the Special Forces,” MacLennan said. “Some have reported seeing the police throwing liquid on the cadavers and burning them. Also local residents have given accounts of having seen police throwing bodies of dead civilians into the river in an apparent attempt to underreport the number of dead.”
“We’ve also received accounts that some of those injured were being detained by security forces and denied medical attention leading to additional deaths,” he said. “There are many people still reported missing and access to medical attention in the region is horribly inadequate.”
“I have with my own eyes seen people been kicked and beaten by groups of police until they stopped moving,” said Marijke Deleu, a Belgian volunteer with CATAPA, a Belgian NGO that focuses on mining problems in Latin America.
“Still today the police are looking for indigenous people to take into custody,” said Deleu. “In Bagua and Utcubamba people are not allowed to leave their houses.”
Deleu and fellow volunteer Thomas Quiryen also saw that the police took away corpses. This is “a way to decrease the official death count,” says Deleu.
On May 9, the Peruvian governement declared a state of emergency in seven Amazon provinces, which means that “the constitutionally provisions on freedom and security of persons and the immunity of accommodation are temporarily suspended, and that there is a ban on gathering.”
Officially imposed to safeguard access to roads and airports, and to prevent production losses due to the actions of the indigenous people, on Friday the state of emergency appeared to be used as an excuse for violence, said Deleu, who has been evacuated to safety by CATAPA.
Indigenous Peruvians protest decrees that facilitate taking of their traditional lands. (Photo courtesy AIDESEP)
Negotiations between the Peruvian government and the representatives of the indigenous communities broke off May 15, whereafter the indigenous people announced that they would continue their protest blockades. Ever since, the protest and the reactions of the government have hardened.
Criticizing the actions of the indigenous people, President Alan Garcia referred in a statement by the government to the contitution that “the State retains the ownership of sub-surface resources” and that “all Peruvian people have to profit the natural resources in the country.”
The indigenous people do not claim the ultimate ownership of the Amazon forest, but ask for a voice in the decision making process in the development of the region.
Alberto Pizango, leader of the umbrella indigenous people’s organization AIDESEP, explains, “We do not fight development, but we ask for development from our perspective.”
Pizango said today that AIDESEP “laments the deaths” of the indigenous people, civilians and the National Police and called the killings, “indictable acts before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”
Pizango said the indigenous people will continue protesting to defend their rights to traditional lands and resources, and that in spite of what happened at Bagua will not be defeated.