Minister of Women’s Affairs resigns following violent clashes in Peru’s Amazon

The Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Development, Carmen Vildoso, resigned from the Cabinet of Peru’s President Alan García late Monday evening, following violent clashes between police and indigenous protesters in Peru’s northern Amazon that left dozens of police and civilians dead.

Though Cabinet Chief Yehude Simon claims Vildoso resigned mainly because she “had another vision, and thought the Women’s Affairs Ministry should function differently,” Radio Radio Programas, or RPP, reports that Vildoso resigned to protest a government-paid television spot recently aired nationwide.

“There was no confrontation, there were only murders,” reports the TV spot as images of dead and bloody policemen are interposed with weapon-brandishing natives. “Their throats were cowardly slashed when they were unarmed, and this is what extremists call dialogue… 22 humble policemen were furiously and savagely murdered by extremists egged on by international forces hoping to hold back Peru.”

The spot allegedly aimed to persuade Peruvians that Alberto Pizango, president of Peru’s Interethnic Association for the Development of Peru’s Jungle, Aidesep, should be held responsible for the bloodbath in Bagua. Pizango, wanted on sedition and rebellion charges, was granted political asylum in the Nicaraguan Embassy on Monday.

But, according to sociologist Jaime Antezana, it only made things worse.

“This video has polarized the conflict even further,” said Antezana in comments to daily El Comercio. “The indigenous peoples are presented as savages and as primitive beings who are being manipulated by external forces… this not only seems excessive, but a way of stigmatizing the entire movement.”

For almost two months now, Aidesep and other Amazon groups have demanded the repeal of several Executive degrees enacted last year to comply with provisions of the Free Trade Agreement signed with the United States, as well as other laws they contend 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.”

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 hurl and fire tear gas grenades into the crowd of 5,000 protesters. The tear gas caused panic and angered the protesters, who responded with violence. Police accused protesters of firing first, but the tribesmen denied having guns and said they only carried their traditional spears.

García sought to restore order over the weekend by sending in troops, setting up checkpoints and declaring a 3 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew in both Bagua and Utcubamba provinces.

Cabinet Chief Simon and Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas insisted that the death toll during the violent clashes Friday and Saturday totaled 24 police and nine Indians — disputing local media accounts that put the number of fatal casualties between 40 and 50 people.

The violent confrontation – and claims that police have dumped bodies of natives in a local river to cover up the total number of deaths – prompted calls on Monday for Simon and Cabanillas to hand in their resignations.

Simon has ruled out resigning, and insisted that Vildoso’s resignation “came at a bad time.” Former cabinet chief and congressman Jorge del Castillo said her resignation was “cowardly.”

“I expect to solve this problem and have calmness return to the Amazon region,” Simon said in comments to state news agency Andina. “If the government is guilty of not disseminating information about the decrees, well, other parties are guilty of duping the natives.”

“I do feel guilty about the policemen who have died,” said Simon, before adding that the conflict is part of a wider plot designed to foment a coup d’état.

Since the protests began approximately two months ago, 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 in several Amazon districts and called on the military to break up protests and river blockades, which were causing food and fuel shortages in Peru’s northern provinces.

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.

“The government should have the humility to listen to the indigenous peoples,” said the Regional President of San Martín, César Villanueva. “If they had, they wouldn’t now be regretting what happened in Bagua.”

Villanueva and two local indigenous leaders submitted a 100,000-signature strong petition to Peru’s National Election Board, to support the indigenous peoples’ claims that the decrees they want repealed are unconstitutional. According to Villanueva and the indigenous leaders, 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.

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