Death toll rises in aftermath of clash between police and indigenous protesters in Peru’s north Amazon jungle

Indigenous communities in Peru’s Amazon, demanding the repeal of a series of decrees they say are promoting unchecked development in their territory, clashed with police on Friday, leaving up to 40 or more people dead, including at least 9 police officers and up to 28 indigenous protesters.

The violence erupted before dawn Friday on a remote jungle highway in the Bagua province of Amazonas department, after army helicopters, soldiers strategically positioned atop hills, and police began to throw tear gas grenades directly into the crowd of 5,000 protesters.

The tear gas immediately caused panic and angered the protesters, who also responded with violence. An attack on a helicopter and violent clashes on the ground have left at least 40 people dead, including 12 protesters, a teacher, a 16-year old student and 8 to 12 police officers.  Numbers vary widely, since at least 30 police were kidnapped and some 22 were later released.

“They’re shooting at us just like if we were delinquents, or animals,” Alberto Pizango, president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of Peru’s Jungle, Aidesep, told a group of foreign journalists gathered for a press conference in Lima.

The death toll is expected to rise as dozens of people are reported injured, and hospitals are unable to attend to all of them.

“The number of people injured is unimaginable,” said Carlos Flores, a journalist for Radio La Voz. “They’re strewn all over the highway. Please, we need help to make the violence stop.”

“The main problem is that injured and deceased civilians are being transferred to the “El Milagro” military base,” said the Bishops’ Vicariate of the Environment for Jaén, Nicanor Alvarado. “So, it’s possible that a group of injured and deceased people are disappeared later on. We know what the armed forces are capable of.”

Journalists currently in Bagua have seen police dump “bodies into the Utcubamba River,” reported IDL Radio, of the Legal Defense Institute.

According to Juan Sausa, a correspondent for the Coordinadora Nacional de Radio, Bagua city residents have gathered in the city’s main plaza to express their support for the indigenous communities and disapproval for the government’s excessive attack. And, nearly 3,000 indigenous from the region of Yurimaguas are currently preparing themselves to trek to Bagua, to support the protest.

For almost two months now, Aidesep and other Amazon groups have been seeking to repeal several laws that were enacted by the Executive last year to fit in with private investment policies within the Free Trade Agreement signed with the United States, as well as other laws that infringe on their own territorial rights. Decree 1090, also known as the Forestry and Wildlife Law, is one of the most contentious, as it allows land to be sold if determined to be “of national interest.”

Ollanta Humala, the head of Peru’s Nationalist Party, called on Congress to set up an extraordinary session to repeal Decree 1090 on Thursday, but deliberations were suspended for a second consecutive day, and the joint military and police operation in Bagua was launched Friday morning.

“We’re calling for common sense and non-violence on everyone’s part,” said Humala in comments to state news agency Andina. “But, we stress the importance of this message for the armed forces and the police, because they’re the ones who launched the operation and they’re the ones with the weapons of war.”

Protests a year ago calmed down and indigenous groups lifted their road blockades and suspended their strike against key energy sites when a multi-partisan committee in Congress voted to repeal two land development laws decreed by President Alan García. One of the key reasons is that the Executive ignored its obligation to consult with the native communities before enacting the laws, under the International Labour Organization Convention 169, to which Peru is a signatory, concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

García called the move a “grave historical mistake” and predicted that rolling back his decrees would condemn Peru’s rural and indigenous communities to “another century of misery.”

Congress sat for over five months on any decision or even to debate the committee’s findings, and indigenous communities began 50 days ago to stage protests in several parts of the Amazon region, blocking highways and rivers, and cutting off water and electricity at a pump station on the North Peru oil pipeline. The increasing violence and the intervention by a Navy gunboat and helicopters to break one of the river blockades prompted Congress to hold a rushed debate. But no decision was made, and the majority voted to send the findings to the Constitution Committee.

Since the protests began approximately two months ago, Premier Yehude Simon has used a hard line by refusing to pursue talks while the demonstrations were going on. Then last month, Peru´s government declared a 60-day state of emergency and called on the military to break up protests and river blockades.

This decision was criticized by political analysts and a number of leading economists and anthropologists, including Alberto Adrianzen, Pedro Francke, historian Sinesio López, Salomon Lerner, Humberto Campodonico and Ricardo Giesecke. They predicted it would lead to uncontrolled violence, as it did Friday in Bagua.

Their statement demanded a halt to the “devastating and irreversible environmental impact on the water and land ecosystems of Amazonia provoked by implementing free trade agreements.” They added that Amazonia will be Peru’s strategic resource in the 21st century because of its water, energy and biodiversity, but warned that “all this is being destroyed by subdivisions into oil and gas lots, gold mining, the massive and illegal lumber extraction, drug traffic, and other extractive industries.”

A joint statement calling for an immediate cease to violence was also issued by the president of the Catholic Church’s Bishops Conference in Peru, Monsignor Miguel Cabrejos, and Peru’s Public Ombudsman, Beatriz Merino.

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