LIMA - There are conflicting reports on a violent incident in Peru's Amazon jungle region in which both police officers and indigenous protesters were killed.
The authorities, who describe last Friday's incident as a "clash" between the police and protesters manning a roadblock, say 22 policemen and nine civilians were killed.
But leaders of the two-month roadblock say at least 40 indigenous people, including three children, were killed and that the authorities are covering up the massacre by throwing bodies in the river.
And foreign activists on the scene in the town of Bagua, in the northern province of Amazonas, report that the police opened fire early in the morning on the unarmed protesters, some of whom were still sleeping, and deliberately mowed them down as they held up their arms or attempted to flee.
In response, the activists quote eyewitnesses as saying, another group of indigenous people who were farther up the hill seized and killed a number of police officers, apparently in "self-defense."
National ombudswoman Beatriz Merino reported Sunday night that at least 24 police and 10 civilians had been killed, and that 89 indigenous people had been wounded and 79 arrested. But the figures continue to grow.
"We have killed each other, Peruvians against Peruvians," lamented indigenous leader Shapion Noningo, the new spokesman for the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association (AIDESEP) - which groups 28 federations of indigenous peoples - said Sunday night.
AIDESEP has led the protests that began two months ago, which have included blockades of traffic along roads and rivers and occupations of oil industry installations in various provinces.
A few hours earlier, President Alán García had said there was "a conspiracy afoot to try to keep us from making use of our natural wealth." He was referring to the fierce opposition by the country's native peoples to 10 decrees issued by his government that open up indigenous land to private investment by oil, mining and logging companies and to agribusiness, including biofuel plantations.
The decrees, which were passed by the government under special powers received from Congress to facilitate implementation of Peru's free trade agreement with the United States, are considered unconstitutional by the indigenous protesters. A legislative committee also recommended last December that they be overturned.
On Thursday, Jun. 4, governing party lawmakers suspended a debate on one of the decrees, the "forestry and wildlife law", fueling the demonstrators' anger.
"In whose interest is it for Peru not to use its natural gas; in whose interest is it for Peru not to find more oil; in whose interest is it for Peru not to exploit its minerals more effectively and on a larger-scale? We know whose interests this serves," said García. "The important thing is to identify the ties between these international networks that are emerging to foment unrest."
The president blamed the conflict on "international competitors," but without naming names.
Two neighboring countries that are major producers of natural gas and oil, Venezuela and Bolivia, are governed by left-wing administrations that have been vociferous critics of "neoliberal" free trade economic policies like those followed by the García administration.
"We will not give in to violence or blackmail," said the president, who maintained that Peru "is suffering from subversive aggression" fed by opponents who "have taken the side of extreme savagery."
A large number of the traffic blockades on roads and rivers are in the northern and northeastern provinces of Loreto, San Martín and Amazonas, which have large natural gas reserves.
According to the 1993 census, indigenous people made up one-third of the Peruvian population. But more recent estimates put the proportion at 45 percent, with most of the rest of the population of 28 million being of mixed-race heritage.
In Loreto, indigenous protesters reportedly attempted to occupy installations belonging to the Argentine oil company Pluspetrol. The company said it had closed down activity on its 1AB lot, to avoid violent clashes.
Business associations estimate the losses caused by the protests at more than 186 million dollars.
The government is broadcasting a television spot showing images of dead policemen, along with messages like: "This is how extremism is acting against Peru"; "extremists encouraged from abroad want to block progress in Peru"; and "we must unite against crime, to keep the fatherland from backsliding from the progress made."
Leaders of the indigenous protests say the government is manipulating information and blaming them for incidents that could have been avoided if Congress had repealed the decrees that sparked the first native "uprising" in August 2008, which flared up again in April this year.
"The government is underreporting the number of indigenous people killed and missing. It is insulting us and treating us like criminals, when all we are doing is defending ourselves and our territory, which is humanity's heritage," Walter Kategari, a member of the AIDESEP board of directors, told IPS.
Kategari forms part of AIDESEP's new leadership, which was formed when the group's top leader, Alberto Pizango, went into hiding after a warrant for his arrest was put out on Saturday. Pizango said he fears for his life.
The leaders of the indigenous movement are demanding that the curfew prohibiting people from leaving their homes in Bagua between 3:00 PM and 6:00 AM be lifted. According to Kategari, the curfew is being used to conceal the bodies of the Indians who were killed.
"Our brothers and sisters in Bagua say the police have been collecting the bodies, putting them in black bags and throwing them in the river from a helicopter," Kategari told IPS. "The government cannot make our dead disappear."
There is great insecurity and fear in the jungle, he added. "People are calling us on the telephone, desperate." He said he is preparing a list of victims based on the names he has been given by people in Bagua, to counteract the official reports.
Gregor MacLennan, program coordinator for the international organization Amazon Watch, said "All eyewitness testimonies say that Special Forces opened fire on peaceful and unarmed demonstrators, including from helicopters, killing and wounding dozens in an orchestrated attempt to open the roads. "It seems that the police had come with orders to shoot. This was not a clash, but a coordinated police raid with police firing on protesters from both sides of their blockade," added the activist, speaking from the town of Bagua. "Today I spoke to many eyewitnesses in Bagua reporting that they saw police throw the bodies of the dead into the Marañon river from a helicopter in an apparent attempt by the government to underreport the number of indigenous people killed by police," said MacLennan, in an Amazon Watch statement.
"Hospital workers in Bagua Chica and Bagua Grande corroborated that the police took bodies of the dead from their premises to an undisclosed location," he added.
According to MacLennan, shortly before the killings in Bagua, the police chief and mayors met with the indigenous leaders, and the police chief said he had orders to dismantle the roadblock.
Early Friday morning, the activist told Amy Goodman in an interview on the Democracy Now radio program, an estimated 500 police bore down on the protesters at the roadblock, some of whom were still sleeping, and opened fire.
MacLennan said a local leader told him that demonstrators kneeling down with their hands up were directly shot by the police. After that, he said, the police continued firing as the demonstrators attempted to flee.
With respect to the deaths of the policemen, he said "All the indigenous people I've spoken to are very upset about that equally...they say...they're all Peruvians, and they all have families. It appears that as the police were attacking this huge group of indigenous people...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-defence, an act that's understandable, but, as the leaders I've spoken to say, not excusable."
He said the indigenous leaders want a "transparent" investigation and for all of those responsible for the killings to be brought to justice.
Unconstitutional government decrees
AIDESEP spokesman Noningo said "the political system has fomented this confrontation." He pointed out that a multi-party legislative commission recommended in December that the decrees be repealed.
The congressional constitution committee also said the "forestry and wildlife law", which according to critics endangers the rainforest that is home to the indigenous groups, is unconstitutional.
On Thursday Jun. 4, the ombudsperson's office filed a lawsuit against the law, alleging that it is unconstitutional and that it undermines indigenous peoples' rights to cultural identity, collective ownership of their land, and prior consultation.
Under the Peruvian constitution and International Labor Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, indigenous groups must be previously consulted with respect to any investment projects in their territory.
The "forestry and wildlife law", whose stated aim is to "create the necessary conditions for private sector investment in agriculture," violates the property rights of indigenous communities, according to the ombudsperson's office.
But the president of Congress, Javier Velásquez Quesquén, said the legislators will not give in to "blackmail" by indigenous people.
Sociologist Nelson Manrique at the Pontificia Universidad Católica, a private university in Lima, said "the indigenous protesters are being accused of asking for too much because they are demanding compliance with the constitution, when it is the government that is breaking the law by refusing to revoke the decrees."
The analyst told IPS that the arguments set forth by the authorities are like those of the ruling elites, who "use two stereotypes in their depictions of indigenous people: the manipulated savage who cannot argue anything in legal terms because he is incapable of thinking, or the bloody, irrational savage who is a threat to the country.
"With this discourse, the government feeds into old racist prejudices that have deep roots in Peruvian society: that of the uncivilised, inferior native. And democracy is impossible with a view like this," said Manrique.
He said the controversial decrees form part of García's free trade political agenda based on promoting foreign investment.
Manrique supports the indigenous groups' demand for an independent commission to investigate what happened in Bagua, saying it was hard to believe that police armed with AKM assault rifles simply fell prey to indigenous people armed with bows and arrows and homemade weapons.
Wilfredo Ardito, lawyer for the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos human rights association, told IPS that international bodies should intervene, because "there is a climate of total distrust and fear that evidence of the massacre will be hidden."
Ardito said that since García took office in July 2006, there have been 84 reports of deaths of protesters or extrajudicial killings by the security forces. "This is a regime that undermines human rights and that is doing nothing to redress its errors," said the legal expert.