During the last week, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, confrontations between nonviolent indigenous protesters and police have left up to 100 people dead. The vast majority of the casualties are civilians, who have been conducting peaceful demonstrations in defense of the Amazon rain forest.
For almost two months, as many as 30,000 indigenous people have been blocking road and river traffic, demanding the repeal of presidential decrees issued last year to facilitate implementation of the US-Peru FTA. According to the indigenous leaders, several of these decrees directly threaten indigenous territories and rights. After having attempted several times to negotiate with the government the repeal of the most egregious of the decrees, and faced with a permanent influx of extraction equipment into the region, the people decided it was imperative to "put their bodies in front of the machines" in order to prevent this equipment from entering their territory.
On Friday, June 5, the government decided the protests needed to end and launched an aggressive assault against the people protesting on the road outside of Bagua. The dislocation was conducted from helicopters and the ground, with police and army using automatic weapons and heavy equipment against people armed with only rocks and spears. As videos, photos and testimonies from the region slowly emerge, it is clear that this was designed to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible, and deter those in other regions from continuing protests. Pictures circulating on the Internet depict snipers in uniform firing at protesters from the streets, tanks and from on top of buildings. On Saturday, in Lima, Peru's capital, a large spontaneous demonstration in support of the Amazonian indigenous was broken up by police.
In the wake of what appears to be a massacre perpetrated by the police, the government of President Alan Garcia is mounting a massive propaganda campaign, claiming that indigenous protesters attacked the police, and accusing them of being terrorists. Human rights lawyers have accused Peru's government of a cover-up, and have been impeded from getting in to investigate more fully. The Bishop's Vicariate for the Environment for Jaen, Nicanor Alvarado, said "The main problem is that injured and deceased civilians are being transferred to the "El Milagro" military base ... so, it's possible that a group of injured and deceased people are disappeared later on."
Credible accusations are emerging that the police are systematically disappearing civilian bodies by burning or throwing then in rivers. Right now, people in the region are preparing lists of those missing to document the large number of civilians disappeared. Amnesty International has issued a warning expressing concern for the scores of demonstrators who were detained last weekend.
The head of Peru's Justice Ministry issued a warrant for the arrest of Alberto Pizango on sedition charges. Pizango is president of AIDESEP, the main indigenous organization involved in the protests. Pizango has taken refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy and it appears that Nicaragua will grant him asylum. Arrest warrants have been issued for several other leaders as well.
The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues issued an urgent call to the government of Peru, demanding that the violence against the indigenous people cease, that medical attention be made available to the wounded and that the Peruvian government abide by its international obligations regarding the protection of all human rights, especially the people's right to life and security.
The tragic violence currently unleashed in the Peruvian Amazon is directly linked to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the US and Peru. On Sunday, interviewed at one of the many roadblocks set up by the demonstrators, indigenous leader and protester Luis Huansi stated, "We will not give up until they reverse the laws that damage us. They want to take away our lands and forests and make our traditions disappear."
Indigenous leaders promise that the protests will not end with this latest violence from the government. There have already been calls for international tribunals to investigate and, if their findings so indicate, to hold the government responsible for this massacre.
On June 8, Minister Carmen Vildoso, the Women's Issues and Social Development minister, announced her resignation in protest of the government's response. There is building pressure for the resignation of Cabinet Chief Yehude Simon and Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas. Although President Garcia has stated that he will not backpedal, international pressure is growing for the actions of the police and military to be brought to light.
A national strike has been called in Peru for June 11 by the newly formed "National Front for Life and Sovereignty," which includes a broad spectrum of Peruvian national organizations. Protests in solidarity have happened in many parts of the world, and people will be watching closely for how the Peruvian government responds to the strike.