Peru made international headlines several weeks ago when indigenous leader Segundo Alberto Pizango Chota returned to the country after almost a year in exile. Upon his arrival at the Lima airport on May 26th, he was immediately detained.
On June 1st, Barack Obama met with Peruvian president Alan García in Washington to discuss the growing partnership between the two countries in addition to a variety of other hemispheric and international issues. Summarizing the meeting to the press, Obama praised Peru for its “excellent track record” with regard to human rights. He further stated that Peru and the United States would “continue to pursue the details” of an already enacted free trade agreement, which he claims creates “jobs and prosperity in both countries.” Pizango’s case was not mentioned in the meeting, nor was the true nature of García’s scorn for the observance of human rights. To paraphrase Milton Eisenhower, rather than a state dinner, García, at best, warranted no better than a cold handshake.
Who is Segundo Alberto Pizango Chota?
Segundo Alberto Pizango Chota is the leader of the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP). Composed of several regional groups, AIDESEP advocates for indigenous rights.
In June 2009, after Pizango was accused of provoking violence during protests near a village in Bagua, he fled to Nicaragua where he was granted political asylum. He returned to Peru on May 26th and was detained overnight before being discharged on bail. In a statement issued shortly after his release, Pizango said, “I have returned to my home country of Peru, not only to face the law and demonstrate that I am innocent of the charges made against me, but also to contribute to the necessary reconciliation between Peruvians, when we are recognized as peoples and treated as equal citizens.”
June 5th, 2009 and its Aftermath
Pizango’s position as leader of AIDESEP was seriously tested on June 5th, 2009. On that date, violence erupted on a road near the village of Bagua. Indigenous protestors had initiated a blockade a few months earlier in response to decrees issued by President García’s administration following the bilateral free trade agreement with the United States. These decrees were designed to expedite oil, gas, and mineral exploration of indigenous lands by multinational companies. The indigenous, specifically the Awajun and Wami groups, live off the land in the Amazon basin and disapproved of its use for consumption purposes. Further, they argued that the land belonged to their ancestors and that it was rightfully theirs.
On June 5th, Peruvian security forces attempted to break the blockade. Although some of the protestors were thought to have been carrying spears and machetes, they claim to have been demonstrating in a peaceful manner when they were ruthlessly fired upon by the police. The authorities, on the other hand, claim that they were first attacked by the protestors and shot only in self-defense.
Amazon Watch, a NGO working to promote the rights of indigenous people in the Amazon Basin, reported that the police violently attacked the peaceful protestors, many of whom were women and children. They further claimed that the police used tear gas in addition to live ammunition.
The following day, nine more police officers were killed at a petroleum facility belonging to Petroperú, a national oil company. Indigenous protestors had kidnapped several of the officers, and, as other officers attempted to rescue the hostages, nine were killed in the process. President García denounced the behavior of the protestors, accusing them of “barbarity.” He also stated that he believed “foreign forces” to be involved. According to García, these foreign forces (understood to be Bolivia and Venezuela) did not want Peru to use its “natural resources for the good, growth and quality of life.”
A military curfew was announced after the events of June 6th,. Indigenous leaders said that this curfew prevented them from looking for missing bodies. They claimed that the death toll, at least on the indigenous side, was much higher than originally reported. Witnesses admitted to seeing bodies dumped in the river, while others claimed to have seen bodies, sealed in bags, thrown from a helicopter into a ravine. President García, however, denied these allegations.
With an order out for his arrest, Pizango fled to Nicargua on June 8th, 2009. Nevertheless, the protestors did not give up hope, vowing to continue the blockade until their demands were met. In the ensuing weeks, Congress voted to suspend two of the more offensive decrees and eventually ruled to revoke them on June 18th. As a result, the protestors ended their blockade.
In addition to the international community, many Peruvian government officials were outraged by the way in which García had handled the crisis. The minister for Women’s Issues and Social Development resigned on June 8th to protest the government’s actions. Prime Minister Yehude Simon helped to negotiate the overturn of the two decrees and announced on June 16th that he too would resign.
Nothing New for García
While a number officers died on June 5th riots, there is no doubt that government officials also fired on and killed several indigenous protestors, thereby raising human rights issues. As mentioned above, it has been suggested that the number of indigenous deaths were inaccurately reported by the government, but this was nothing new for García.
Initially elected president in 1985, García’s first term was notorious for its human rights abuses. In the Accomarca massacre of 1985, for example, more than forty-five peasants were tortured and killed. Former soldiers testified that they entered the village, captured the peasants and tortured them in an attempt to discover the names of members of a terrorist organization (El Sendero Luminoso). When they failed to provide information, they were killed. Peruvian army officer Telmo Ricardo Hurtdo reportedly instructed his subordinates to leave no survivors. As was the case in Bagua, Hurtado and the government tried to cover up their connection with the massacre.
In 1993, however, Hurtado was convicted of abusing his authority and giving false statements about his involvement in the massacre. The Peruvian government initially granted him amnesty but repealed it in 2002. Hurtado subsequently fled to the United States where two survivors of the massacre brought a lawsuit against him, leveling charges of extrajudicial killings, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The court held Hurtado responsible for the massacre in 2008, ordering him to pay $37 million to the survivors.
What’s Next for Pizango?
Amnesty International has urged the Peruvian government to drop the unsubstantiated charges against Pizango, finding them to be politically motivated. At the time of the riots, Pizango was in Lima, hundreds of kilometers away from Bagua. According to Amnesty, the sole evidence for the charges against him appears to be from a press conference. During a press conference given on May 15th, 2009, Pizango called for “indigenous insurgence” against the government. But at the very same press conference, Pizango clarified that the call for insurgency was actually a call to the government to overturn the series of free trade decrees, which were passed without the consent of the indigenous people. A day later, Pizango and other AIDESEP leaders even signed an agreement with the Human Right’s Ombudsperson’s office in which they retracted the use of the word “insurgence.”
García, on the other hand, clearly does not have a similar concern for human rights. His record strongly speaks against him. When he ran for president in 2001, he maintained that he had learned from his mistakes and would not repeat them. Considering the events of June 5th, 2009, it is apparent that García has had trouble keeping his promise.
It is also apparent that President Obama has turned a blind eye to the many human rights violations committed by the García administration in the past as well as his present questionable record. In effect, President Obama is so determined to promote increased trade that he is prepared to rewrite history by praising leaders like García. This is the same pattern that he and Secretary of State Clinton have reverted to when it comes to Colombia, which is a prime human rights violator.
García assures that Pizango will receive a fair trial. Only time will tell. For now, it is the responsibility of the international community to pressure Peruvian authorities to drop all charges against him, and for Obama and Clinton to exert a little sincerity in this corner of the human rights debate.