Reopening the Wounds of Bagua

Peruvian government actions to criminalize social protest started with indigenous peoples

Reopening the Wounds of Bagua

Almost four years ago gunshots in the Peruvian Amazon were heard around the world. On the morning of June 5th, 2009, the Peruvian anti-riot police moved in to evict indigenous protesters blocking a road near the town of Bagua. The following violence in the place known as The Devil's Curve – including the related Pumping Station 6 confrontation the following day – resulted in an official death toll of 34 people, between civilians and police.

Last month, the Superior Court of Bagua heard arguments about the proposed charges against 54 indigenous leaders in the "Curva del Diablo" case. The state prosecutor has asked for the most severe charges, including life sentences (usually reserved for murder and other heinous crimes). Peru's national indigenous federation, AIDESEP, sent lawyers to contest the charges, as did some of the country's most respected human rights groups.

These charges are not about bringing to justice those responsible for the deaths of either policemen or protestors in June of 2009. The criminal process has instead served as an underhanded political tactic to criminalize social protest and intimidate grassroots leaders. 

Looking Back

The tragedy of the Bagua confrontation is that it was avoidable. In 2008, Peru's indigenous peoples took to the streets en masse, protesting new laws that privileged the rights of international investors over those of local indigenous communities. Then-President Alan García claimed they were essential for Peru's free trade agreement with the United States. A number of the most egregious measures were scrutinized by the Peruvian Congress in late 2008, and judged un-constitutional for not having been properly consulted.

But the offending laws remained on the books, provoking a renewal of widespread indigenous protests across the Amazonian region starting in April of 2009. Instead of addressing the underlying issues, the government decided to militarize their response. As tensions grew, Amazon Watch staff identified several potential flashpoints. Bagua was at the top of the list.

A central fact in this history is as follows: The police provoked the bloodshed even though the protesters told them the night before that they intended to disband the following morning after breakfast. The police raid started at the crack of dawn. An unanswered question is: Why?

Perhaps characteristically, the state prosecutors under the current presidency of Ollanta Humala appear entirely uninterested in García's decision to violently repress. Instead, they are set on bringing charges against the indigenous occupiers and high-profile leaders of national indigenous organizations.

Case Status Today

Within days of the 7 March hearing, the Bagua Court requested that the case be remanded to a special terrorism court in Lima, established during the country's dirty war to try members of the Sendero Luminoso armed insurgency and drug lords. AIDESEP reacted immediately, calling the move illegal and requesting a nullification of the order. In the event their initial attempts for a legal injunction fail, they are prepared to take the case Peru's constitutional court and international human rights fora.

In a press communiqué, dated March 21st, AIDESEP detailed their opposition to moving the case's jurisdiction from Bagua to Lima while outlining a broader critique of the legal process.

"We are convinced of the innocence on the part of Alberto Pizango Chota and the other leader who have been accused of instigation," AIDESEP writes. "We will never accept that the State try them using arbitrary accusation that intend to present our leaders as the responsible parties for the deaths at the 'Curva del Diablo.' We will never accept that the people truly responsible such as Alan García and Mercedes Cabanillas enjoy impunity for the death of our indigenous brothers and sisters."

Alarming Trends

Unfortunately, this case is emblematic of the Humala government's increasingly repressive response to growing social conflicts around extractive industries and community rights.

The week following the Bagua hearing, Peruvian human rights advocates brought serious concerns about the growing criminalization of social protest before the Organization of American States. In an associated meeting with international allies, they detailed how the current trend is chillingly similar to the early days of Peru's dirty war in the 1980's.

Alarming patterns in Peru include:

  • Mining companies hiring Peruvian police as their own private security force;
  • A similar privatization of intelligence activities;
  • Private companies bringing on security consultants who served as police or military during the 'dirty war';
  • Mobilizing the military to deal with social conflicts that require good faith negotiation with communities impacted by natural resource extraction;
  • Charging one person for the same alleged crime in multiple jurisdictions, overwhelming them with criminal proceedings;
  • Leveling ridiculous charges against nonviolent protesters, like "causing psychological harm to the mining company"
  • Transferring of cases from regional courts to national anti-terrorism courts, as illustrated above in the Bagua case.

The Role of Amazon Watch

As an organization dedicated to the defense of Amazonian indigenous peoples' rights, we have been providing strategic support to AIDESEP and other Peruvian indigenous federations for over a decade. Responding to the current legal assault against indigenous leaders, we have offered minor financial support for lawyers and travel costs, leveraged our networks to encourage international legal assistance, and contributed to global awareness around the case.

At the same time, we cannot let the urgent legal defense monopolize all our efforts. There is still a tremendous need for AIDESEP and other Peruvian indigenous federations to promote indigenous rights, whether through land titling campaigns, resistance against harmful mega-projects on ancestral territory or fighting new laws that threaten their rights.

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