Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Massacre at Bagua

I was reminded of this incident in Peru in early June where police clashed with indigenous groups blocking a highway in the Amazonian province of Bagua and protesting laws that turned their ancestral lands over to oil and timber companies. Numerous indigenous protestors were killed and injured, as were some of the police. I was reminded, because a British Green Party member wrote a commentary on my posting about Chris Bryant, Britain's new person responsible for Latin American affairs, criticizing Bryant for not speaking out against the massacre. In fact, Bryant did speak out in his own way, though perhaps not as publicly and forcefully as the Green Party member might have liked.

Anyway, the whole exchange made me go back and look again and I found an article witten shortly after the massacre by a friend, Jesuit priest and sociologist Fr. Miguel Cruzado, SJ, about the incident titled La Masacre de Bagua o los Frutos del TLC entre Perú y Estados Unidos. Fr. Miguel is a former coordinator of the Jesuit Social Apostolate in Peru and has lived and worked extensively in his province's Amazonian missions. He is one of the authors of A más universal, más divino / misión e inclusión en la Iglesia de hoy ("More Universal, More Divine: Mission and Inclusion in the Church Today", Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, 2008).

UPDATE: The Apu Awajun leader Santiago Manuín Valera, who is mentioned in the article, was discharged this week from the clinic in Chiclayo where he had been recovering from his wounds in the June 5th massacre. The Peruvian Congressional Commission that has been established to investigate the Bagua incident will hold its first meeting today, September 29th. The members are Eduardo Espinoza of Unión por el Perú, Wilder Calderón y Elías Rodríguez of the Célula Parlamentaria Aprista, David Perry of Alianza Nacional, Víctor Isla of Partido Nacionalista, Güido Lombardi of Unidad Nacional, and Martha Moyano of the Grupo Parlamentario Fujimorista.

Those wanting additional information on the Church's response to Bagua should also see Pronunciamientos de La Iglesia Sobre Bagua.

The Massacre at Bagua or the Fruits of the Free Trade Agreement between Peru and the United States

by Fr. Miguel Cruzado, SJ (translation by Rebel Girl)

The Prelude in Peru:

1. This conflict began at least a year ago. Last year there was a strike in Amazonia that lasted several weeks demanding the repeal of laws which "changed" the systems of land ownership in the jungle. It was 36 decrees adopted by the government as part of the package of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Finally, some of the laws were repealed. The natives returned to their communities. There were many days and there were moments of great social tension. The government offered to open dialogue tables and work teams on these issues.

2. But this year, a few months ago, they readopted several decrees revising the timber rules in the jungle and 72% of the Peruvian Amazon territory was granted for oil exploration. They never consulted with the indigenous communities. Again it was "basic laws" to implement the Free Trade Agreement with the USA, the foreign trade minister said.

3. The indigenous communities protested. They were not listened to and the laws were enacted. The indigenous communities began a strike 55 days ago, leaving their communities and taking over the highways to their own territories. They were not listened to. Dialogue tables were created in Lima that solved nothing. Thousands of Indians continued to wait, living on the edge of the highways. They were lied to and lied to.

4. On Thursday the 4th, the Congress rejected the unconstitutionality claims filed by the Ombudsman's office, some political parties and other institutions. They had no interest in them. That same day, hundreds of police moved into the area of highway in Bagua where thousands of Awajun and Wampi indigenous people were living and shutting down a road. On Thursday evening, you could see what happened on Friday coming.

Acts of Violence:

5. On Friday the 5th, in the morning, a contingent of several hundred police attempted to evict thousands of Indians. The police showed up through the hills surrounding the highway with orders to disperse without talking. Santiago Manuin, an indigenous leader, who was in the front line, tried to talk to the police but the police continued firing tear gas canisters which angered the assembled group. More helicopters appeared, throwing tear gas canisters. While the indigenous people had not yet withdrawn, the police began firing their regulation weapons, first in the air and then at the ground. Some of the bullets ricocheted off the ground, killing one and wounding other natives. The group got upset and tried to advance towards the police officers who began firing directly at the people. The area around the highway became a battlefield.

6. 169 natives were wounded, half of them by gunfire. The wounded were carried by their comrades and taken to posts or houses nearby. The dead were left on the road that was then taken over by the police and they did not allow anyone access for the rest of the day. Only the helicopters landed, carrying bodies, wounded police and corpses of dead natives. We're aware of 31 dead. The indigenous leaders say that according to their calculations, there were 103 natives killed. The government says only 3 natives were killed in that battle (and another 6 in clashes elsewhere). It is obviously impossible to have 169 wounded, half of them by bullets, some very seriously ... and only 3 deaths. Santiago Manuin alone, an Apu Awajun whom we Jesuits are directly charged with protecting by the bishop, had six gunshot wounds. That he is alive is a miracle. [Translator's Note: The casualty figures from this incident continue to vary depending on the source.]

7. In the general conflict a group of natives surrounded, disarmed and killed eight policemen. After that the battle spread to other sites. Another group of 11 policemen at a gas station in Imaza, who had gone into the jungle, were killed. They were part of 38 who had been held for days by the natives. They were attacked by angry people who had been receiving confusing news about the death of relatives, friends and native leaders in the earlier confrontation. The State was unable to anticipate it: it abandoned the 38 police hostages to their fate. The police, like the natives, are again the weak end of the chain, the poor who die. The government sent them to face thousands of natives. It was impossible to think that they would not be hurt or injured. We do not know if the government was hugely inept or directly criminal, but the fact is that police and natives were put in a situation where it was impossible not to kill each other. The pain of the families of policemen and decimated indigenous communities is immense.


8. This is a Jesuit mission area, therefore we have dedicated our efforts to help the wounded, to accompany the families of the victims, to try to calm things down. The government declared a curfew, a state of emergency and it transferred the Army. The natives are returning to their communities frightened, bewildered by what happened. We spent a few days running here and there in various humanitarian relief efforts.

9. June 5th will be remembered as a day of horror in our history. President Garcia and his government stress that there is an international "connection" behind these protests. Those who know the Awajun community know that this is impossible. The underlying issue is simple: money. The jungle has been conceded to oil and timber companies and they can not go back. They can not discuss anything with the natives, they can not give up.

10. We are frightened by what happened. According to Lima and much of the media, the violent Indians are to blame. The government is satisfied that the law has been restored and the highway has been taken back. No one talks about the illegal unconstitutional laws that were passed. Nor is there any mea culpa for the many Peruvian dead and wounded.

Now the curfew continues, they are looking for leaders and disappearing them, there are dozens of natives in the jails and dozens more in hospitals. There is an official line that emphasizes the responsibility of the jungle savages, manipulated by [Venezuelan president Hugo] Chavez and [Bolivian president Evo] Morales.

This Thursday there is a national strike and we fear that once again government repression will create terrible and lamentable situations. Some government leaders are trying to retrace their steps, to open dialogue tables. Today, the bishops' conference was called to mediate. The laws are not repealed but their implementation will be "suspended".

There is a tense calm. Let's pray that it stays that way. The problem is that the Peruvian economic model can not be carried out without imposing on indigenous peoples. If things calm down now, it will only be for a while. The big companies are already in the jungle and continue to arrive. There is much, much money to be made from the wood, gas and oil. And for them, the natives living in the woods caring for the water and animals, are a problem that needs to be eliminated or minimized.

Photo: Another Jesuit priest Fr. Miguel Cuevas, SJ comforts an indigenous man returning to his community after the massacre.


  1. White man comes.
    White man takes natives home and land.
    Natives complain.
    White man gives natives a few gifts and puts them in a corner of their country.
    Late White man makes natives work for him.
    Natives loose traditions and way of life.
    White man wants more.
    White man takes ancestral grounds and want to drill and mine.
    White man’s big chiefs make laws
    Natives protest and rebel.
    White man say: “You broke law of country”
    White man kills natives.
    White man steps on natives bones.
    White man takes golden and black gold.
    Natives’ pictures sell on post cards.

  2. One of the things I like about Fr. Miguel's reflection is that he is looking at this incident in the overall economic context. He is not making a racial argument.

    After I posted this I found a blog note that suggested that Fr. Miguel was not happy with how far his thoughts had spread on the Internet. As a friend, I thought of taking this post down but I think that Miguel's contextual remarks are too important. I sincerely hope that the Peruvian congressional commission's inquiry goes beyond just trying to get a certifiable statistic on the number of victims or trying to determine who gave what order and when. The "why" of Bagua goes much deeper than that and it must be explored if Peru is to prevent future "Baguas" -- as Fr. Miguel implies.

  3. P. Miguel Cuevas (from the picture) is my friend. I hope he and his jesuit's brothers
    make a substantial difference in the amazonia. Thanks for the post.

  4. What I said above was a spontaneous generalization, not just referring to this case. Goes for all military, economic and religious colonization of all times, either be Anglo, Hispanic, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.

  5. Chris Bryant has called the Peruvian government a friend and is very keen to construct free trade agreements with Peru.

    He sees the left governments that don't run death squads like Bolivia as bad news.

    He is no friend of the indigenous and 'does not get it'.

    The Jesuits have played a very positive role in contrast but that is another story!

    Why don't you look at the indigenous website and may be blog some of their stuff...http://www.aidesep.org.pe/index.php?codnota=985