Violent clashes between Amazon indigenous groups and security forces this weekend that left at least 35 dead have rocked Peru and signaled a new downturn in historically fraught relations.
Demonstrations against plans by President Alan Garcia to ease restrictions on mining, oil drilling, wood harvesting and farming in the country’s northern Amazon rainforest region erupted into violence Friday and Saturday, marking Peru’s bloodiest domestic conflict in 17 years.
Indigenous communities, protesting for land rights, said the number of civilians killed in the 24-hour orgy of violence was higher than the official count, giving Peruvian media conflicting tallies that ranged from a dozen to as many as 50 natives dead.
The government said 24 police officers were among those killed in the clashes, which the Peruvian parliament was set to debate Monday.
There was also speculation of fresh clashes over roadblocks set up by indigenous groups on a road linking an oil exploration site and a small airport in northern Peru, with a strong police presence close to the port town of Yurimaguas.
The clashes were the bloodiest unrest in Peru since a fierce insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s by the Shining Path, a violent Maoist rebel group.
The weekend clashes also presented Garcia with one of the biggest crises of his second term, which began in 2006.
El Comercio, a newspaper usually close to the government line, decried “monumental errors in the handling of the crisis” and pointed to “serious political responsibility.”
The center-right government’s “indifference,” it said, “has compelled the (indigenous) movement” to radicalize.
The episode recalled an assault on Shining Path rebels at Lima’s Castro Castro Prison in 1992 that left 43 dead. Peru has tried to turn the page, confident that its political stabilization and economic growth — at 9.8 percent in 2008 — marked a new era.
But after the latest incident, which saw about 400 police move in to clear a road blocked by some 2,500 Indians, critics saw otherwise.
“Barbarians!” exclaimed one of Lima’s populist dailies, showing photographs of police killed in Bagua, an Amazon rainforest town about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) north of Lima, by protestors wielding spears and machetes.
The past two months have been fraught with growing tensions. Indigenous groups in the northeastern part of the country have been protesting for nearly a year Garcia’s decrees — signed in 2007 and 2008 — which they see as exploiting their ancestral lands for oil, natural gas and forestry development.
For the National Organization of the Amazon Indigenous People of Peru (AIDESEP), which represents some 600,000 people divided into 65 ethnic groups, the decrees contravene a 1989 International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on indigenous and tribal people’s rights.
The convention namely focused on native groups’ rights to consultation and participation in government action.
In late April, several people were wounded and shots were fired in the air in areas where natives had placed roadblocks, leading the government to enforce a state of emergency in some districts in the Cusco, Ucayali, Loreto and Amazonas regions.
State of insurgency
Less than a month later, AIDESEP leader Alberto Pizango declared a “state of insurgency” among Amazonian groups, a call he retracted 24 hours later and that was met with army reinforcements to the troubled areas.
The Garcia government has cited external meddling in “plots against the country,” a reference to protestors, such as Peruvian National Party leader Ollanta Humala, a leftist with alleged ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“Who would gain from Peru not using gas, not discovering new oil fields or not improving the exploitation of its mines?” Garcia quipped Sunday.
Ironically, Peru hosted the Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas in May, welcoming some 5,000 delegates of native groups at Lake Titicaca.
One of the themes of the discussions was a telling one for Peru’s latest episode: should native groups confront or negotiate with government and multinational organizations?