PERU: Former Minister Should Answer for Massacre in the Amazon

  • by Ángel Páez (lima)
  • Friday, August 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Thirteen days later, she promoted 11 police officials who took part in the Jun. 5 crackdown on a roadblock that native demonstrators had manned for a month along a key Amazon highway near Bagua, in the northern province of Amazonas.

When the press reported that the police officials had been commended for their 'distinguished service' that day, the now former minister suspended the promotions until the national police force’s Office of the Inspector General — which was carrying out an internal probe into the incident - had declared whether or not the officers were implicated in the killings.

The Office of the Inspector General then issued a report indicating criminal negligence on the part of regional police chief General Javier Uribe and General Elías Muguruza, head of the special operations unit, DIROES.

The report was a bombshell.

The leader of the Nationalist Party legislators, Daniel Abugattás, announced that his party was studying whether to bring charges against Cabanillas for her participation in the incident.

Testimony contained in the report indicates that Cabanillas played a decisive role in the police operation. It was the then interior minister herself who relieved Uribe and sent Muguruza in from Lima, with orders to lift the traffic blockade.

The indigenous demonstrators were protesting a number of controversial decrees that opened up the rainforest to oil, mining, logging and agribusiness companies.

The operation, involving 600 heavily armed DINOES policemen backed up by an Mi-17 helicopter and an armoured vehicle, opened fire on the peaceful crowd of indigenous people at dawn on Jun. 5 at the spot on the highway known as the Curva del Diablo (Devil’s Curve), where the protesters were manning the roadblock.

According to sources at the national police directorate who spoke with IPS in June, the operation was carried out despite the fact that two local police chiefs had signed a non-aggression pact with the leaders of the protests.

The head of the protest, Awajún chief Salomón Aguanash, told IPS that under the agreement, General Uribe had given the demonstrators until 10:00 AM to clear out, which they were planning to do that morning at 8:00 or 9:00 AM. But the police arrived, and started shooting, at around 5:00 AM.

Meanwhile, when they heard that the police were shooting their fellow protesters, indigenous demonstrators at the nearby Petroperu oil pumping station No. 6 seized the police officers guarding the installations, stripped them of their weapons, and killed several of them in reprisal for the security forces’ failure to respect the peace agreement.

Indigenous leaders say the number of protesters killed was higher than the official death toll of nine civilians. In addition, around 100 people were injured and 80 arrested during the clash.

Protesters said they saw the police collecting the bodies of dead demonstrators, putting them in bags and throwing them in the river from a helicopter, to reduce the estimate of the number of people killed.

In a Jun. 8 appearance before Congress to explain what happened, Cabanillas said the police acted with complete autonomy and that the outcome of the operation was the responsibility of the police commanders.

But in statements to the police force's National Disciplinary Tribunal, Generals Uribe and Muguruza said the then interior minister took part in the decision-making process.

According to the Disciplinary Tribunal minutes to which IPS had access, Uribe said that although he was regional police chief in Tarapoto — where Bagua is located — 'an order came from Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas for General Elías Muguruza to assume responsibility for the operation.'

Muguruza, for his part, told the Tribunal: 'Yes, I was in charge of the operation. The clearing of the road was entirely a police operation. At that time, Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas was aware that the operation was going to be carried out, but she did not know on what date or at what time.'

The two police chiefs are being prosecuted by the National Disciplinary Tribunal because the police Office of the Inspector General, after a two-month investigation of the incident, found that they had committed extremely serious infringements by failing to adopt the measures necessary to avoid the deaths of police officers and civilians in Bagua, according to the report, to which IPS also had access.

In addition, the Office of the Inspector General found that they even disregarded an intelligence report stating that there were a large number of indigenous protesters and that they would react violently if attacked.

Despite the warnings, Muguruza decided to sweep down on the demonstrators at around 5:00 AM on Jun. 5.

After the administration of Alan García and parliament refused to revoke the controversial decrees facilitating investment by oil, mining and logging companies in traditional indigenous lands in the jungle, the national police chiefs received the government's order to lift the roadblock by force.

But Cabanillas has publicly stated that the police commanders acted in accordance with their own 'professional criteria,' and that she did not order them to kill anyone.

In her explanations to Congress, the former minister argued that it was the indigenous people, not the police, who were responsible for the violent clash. She pointed out that more police officers than protesters were killed.

In the wake of the tragedy, the government partly backed down, repealing two of the decrees, which had already been declared unconstitutional in December 2008 by a multi-party parliamentary commission because they undermined the right of native people to prior consultation with respect to mining projects or other economic activities affecting their communities and their collectively-owned territories.

Attorney General Gladys Echaíz said she would ask for the Office of the Inspector General's report in order to study who was responsible for the deaths. She added that if evidence against any government official or agent was found, 'believe me: I won't hesitate' to call a preliminary hearing.

The report by the Office of the Inspector General quoted police officers who survived the violence at Petroperu oil pumping station No. 6 as saying that Muguruza had promised to warn their chief, Miguel Montenegro, ahead of time if the government was going to order the lifting of the roadblock by force.

But Muguruza did not warn them. Montenegro was among those killed by the protesters in retribution, because he had promised that there would be no violent crackdown.

As a result, the Office of the Inspector General recommended that the National Disciplinary Tribunal fire Muguruza and Uribe.

In his testimony to the Tribunal, Muguruza said he scrupulously followed the operation plan and was in constant contact with the different police contingents.

But the head of one of the contingents, commander Juan del Carpio, said the general failed to respond when he called him to ask for reinforcements after realising that the protesters outnumbered the police.

When the police opened fire on the demonstrators, who were only armed with spears, some of them seized the police officers' AK-47 assault rifles and shot them. Although del Carpio survived, he lost 11 of his men.

Uribe and Muguruza have now made it clear that Cabanillas knew about the characteristics of the operation, and that she even sent Muguruza from Lima to Bagua to carry out the plan.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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