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Peruvian Police Accused of Massacring Indigenous Protesters in Amazon Jungle

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Dozens of people are estimated to have been killed in clashes between police and indigenous activists protesting oil and mining projects in the northern Peruvian Amazonian province of Bagua. Peruvian authorities have declared a military curfew, and troops are patrolling towns in the Amazon jungle. Authorities say up to twenty-two policemen have been killed, and two remain missing. The indigenous community says at least forty people, including three children, were killed by the police this weekend. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Dozens of people are estimated to have been killed in clashes between police and indigenous activists protesting oil and mining projects in the northern Peruvian Amazonian province of Bagua. Peruvian authorities have declared a military curfew. Troops are patrolling towns in the Amazon jungle. Authorities say up to twenty-two policemen have been killed, and two remain missing. The indigenous community says at least forty people, including three children, were killed by the police this weekend.

On Friday morning, some 600 Peruvian riot police and helicopters attacked a peaceful indigenous blockade outside of Bagua, killing twenty-five and injuring more than 150. Eyewitness accounts indicate the police fired live ammunition and tear gas into the crowd. The images our TV viewers are watching are from an on-the-ground eyewitness to the attack. Our radio listeners can see these images on our website, democracynow.org.

Alberto Pizango, the leader of the national indigenous organization, the Peruvian Jungle Interethnic Development Association, or AIDESEP, accused the government of President Alan Garcia of ordering the, quote, “genocide” of the indigenous communities.

    ALBERTO PIZANGO: [translated] Our brothers are cornered. I want to put the responsibility on the government. We are going to put the responsibility on Alan Garcia’s government for ordering this genocide. This is genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Pizango is now in hiding after a judge ordered his arrest Saturday on charges of sedition and for allegedly inciting violence.

Authorities say, following Friday’s attack on the indigenous protesters, dozens of policemen were held hostage and several murdered. An injured policeman, Fredegundo Vasquez, said he saw indigenous activists torturing and killing policemen with their spears.

    FREDEGUNDO VASQUEZ: [translated] I saw them kill people right in front of me. And they began to hit the rest of us with spears. It’s disgraceful. They are just terrible. They said that their brothers died, so we had to die, too.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Peruvian President Alan Garcia defended the police actions and lashed out against the deaths of the policemen. He blamed, quote, “foreign forces” for the violence and spoke of a, quote, “conspiracy” to stop his government from exploiting natural resources.

    PRESIDENT ALAN GARCIA: [translated] These death mongers would like the world to denounce hundreds of natives being killed. But what has been found are dozens of police with their throats slit. That’s the truth when one talks of the facts of these deaths. And you might ask why they are our police deaths, if they are the one who are armed. The explanation for all of this, you come to understand, is a will for dialogue on the part of these humble policemen, who had no desire to fire their weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Peruvian President Alan Garcia defending the police actions against indigenous protesters last week. Over the weekend, Garcia, a free trade advocate, said 40,000 natives did not have the right to tell 28 million Peruvians not to come to their lands. Anyone who did so, he warned, would lead Peru into, quote, “irrationality and a backwards primitive state.”

Since April, indigenous groups have opposed new laws that would allow an unprecedented wave of logging, oil drilling, mining and agriculture in the Amazon rainforest by blocking roads, waterways and oil pipelines. President Garcia’s government passed these laws under “fast track” authority he had received from the Peruvian congress to facilitate implementation of the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement.

Friday’s clashes followed a governmental decision to reject congressional attempts to overturn some of the laws.

Independent journalist Henry Pillares interviewed indigenous leader Alberto Pizango last month for the group Amazon Watch.

    ALBERTO PIZANGO: [translated] They’ve said that we indigenous peoples are against the system, but, no, we want development, but from our perspective, development that adheres to legal conventions, such as the United Nations International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, that says we, the indigenous peoples, have to be consulted. The government has not consulted us.

    Not only am I being persecuted, but I feel that my life is in danger, because I am defending the rights of the peoples, the legitimate rights that the indigenous people have. I feel I am being persecuted, and the situation can get much worse with my criminal prosecution.

AMY GOODMAN: For the latest news from the Peruvian jungle, I’m joined now via Democracy Now! video stream from Bagua, Peru, by Gregor MacLennan. He is with the group Amazon Watch. He arrived in Bagua, the scene of this weekend’s clashes, Saturday.

Gregor MacLennan, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you understand has happened up until this point.

GREGOR MacLENNAN: Well, there have been fifty — for fifty-six days, about two-and-a-half thousand indigenous people have been blockading the road between the town of Jaen and Bagua on a curve called the “Devil’s Curve.” It appeared that in the few days running up to the clashes, the government was beginning to get fed up with waiting and get fed up with the fact that the indigenous people were not moving on just the basis of dialogue and refusing — the government was refusing to repeal any of the laws.

The day before the protests, the clashes, the local police chief and the local mayors and the indigenous leaders all had a meeting, where the police chief said he had orders to bring order and open up the road, if the indigenous people didn’t move. What happened that night was the police — about 500 police approached the protesters, and at 5:30 in the morning, they started firing tear gas and then live bullets into the crowd of indigenous people on the road, who were waking up and some still sleeping at that time in the morning.

What resulted seems to be — appears to be a total massacre. I was speaking to a local leader who talked about how they had got down on their knees and held their hands up, and the police had fired straight into their bodies as they asked for them not to shoot. What followed then was — seems to be a series of running battles along the road as the indigenous people tried to flee into the hills and flee back to the town of Bagua Chica, as the police continued to fire tear gas from helicopters and from the ground and fire live bullets from the helicopters and from the ground. And people talk about how they were aiming at their bodies and shooting to kill. I’ve just been listening to some audio reports, of hearing the police shouting, “Shoot them in the head! Shoot the dogs in the head!” as they ran for cover.

It does seem there have also been, unfortunately, reports of police deaths. All the indigenous people I’ve spoken to are very upset about that equally, as they say, you know, they’re all Peruvians, and they all have families. It appears that as the police were attacking this huge group of indigenous people on the corner of the road, some people came down from the mountains, who were sleeping up there, and jumped on the police and killed some of the police in self-defense, an act that’s understandable, but, as the leaders I’ve spoken to say, it’s not excusable. And what they’re asking for is justice and transparency about exactly what happened and for those who are responsible for killing to be brought to justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregor MacLennan is speaking to us, again, in Bagua, where the massacre took place. Can you explain why people were protesting there this weekend?

GREGOR MacLENNAN: People have been protesting against a government and government policy that ignores indigenous peoples, that sees the Amazon as being unproductive and sees indigenous people as essentially a waste of space. What the government wants to do is open up the Amazon’s private investment. They see the future of development there to be biofuel plantations, oil drilling, mining, forestry and large corporate investments, and indigenous people are just getting in the way.

So, what the government did when it was given powers in the context of the free trade agreement was issue a series of laws that never went through congress, that were never consulted with indigenous people, that basically restructure land rights, taking away land from indigenous people, and allow land, rainforest, to be reclassified as agricultural land, basically opening legal loopholes for biofuel companies to move in with plantations, for oil companies and mining companies to be able to work in the area without the troublesome part of having to negotiate or speak to the local communities before using their lands.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregor MacLennan, can you explain how the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement fits into all of this? I remember during one of the debates, well, then-Senator Obama, running for president, said he was not for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement because of the killing of unionists, but he did see the Peruvian-US free trade agreement as a model.

GREGOR MacLENNAN: Unfortunately, the process of the implementation of this free trade agreement, the government — the president was given executive powers to pass laws to implement the free trade agreement. Using that excuse, the government passed these laws that take away indigenous rights and create a threat to the Amazon rainforest. And the government here has been standing up and saying that it can’t appeal the laws because they’re necessary for the free trade agreement and the development of Peru, and they’re positioning the indigenous people as being against free trade and development and using these — the free trade agreement as an excuse for passing these laws that undermined the indigenous rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Many of the newspapers in Peru, they’re not mentioning the indigenous killed, the indigenous people who are killed; they’re just talking about the police who are killed. How is information getting out to the rest of Peru?

GREGOR MacLENNAN: Unfortunately, everyone here is furious with the media. There are a lot of upset people in the region coming there, visiting Bagua Chica as foreign press yesterday. People were gathering around the car, our car, very angry, shouting, because they’re seeing — were wondering why the media is not covering the indigenous deaths. What we’re seeing appears to be a government manipulation, trying to present this as all about dead policemen and presenting the indigenous people as savage, as barbaric.

What is very noticeable here, nobody here in the local towns — there are many local townspeople here — is afraid of the indigenous, and nobody has seen any indigenous people with guns. Everyone here is very afraid of the police. They’re very afraid of the government. People are afraid to speak, because they’re seeing the huge manipulation of information, and they’re worried what will happen to them when they recount what happened and the message starts to get out.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Alberto Pizango, who we just heard and watched on this broadcast, leader of the national indigenous organization, the Peruvian Jungle Interethnic Development Association, in hiding right now after a judge ordered his arrest Saturday on charges of sedition and for allegedly inciting violence.

GREGOR MacLENNAN: Well, the government hasn’t appeared to understand this movement. It hasn’t been a political movement. It has been a very much autonomous movement of thousands of indigenous people across the Amazon from dozens of different ethnic groups, all coming together under common, like, complaints they have. And the indigenous leaders, rather than inciting these people, have been trying to keep them organized and trying to keep them focused and trying to maintain the peace.

Unfortunately, Alberto has been held up as a kind of scapegoat, as supposedly the inciter of the violence, when with him and other leaders I’ve spoken to, I’ve always seen them as being pleading with local people to maintain calm, to produce these actions peacefully. And I think it’s essential for any peaceful solution to be found, that these leaders are reinstated, that they’re allowed to come back and negotiate on behalf of their people, because they’re the only people, I think, that can really bring a peaceful solution to this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregor MacLennan, thank you very much for joining us, speaking to us via Democracy Now! video stream in the Amazon, in Bagua, where the massacre took place this weekend. We’ll keep you updated on what is happening in Peru through the week.

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