Peru: Blood Flows in the Amazon

In early June, Peruvian President Alan García, an ally of U.S. President Obama, ordered armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, and hundreds of heavily armed troops to assault and disperse a peaceful, legal protest organized by members of Peru’s Amazonian indigenous communities protesting the entry of foreign multinational mining companies on their traditional homelands. Dozens of Indians were killed or are missing, scores have been injured and arrested, and a number of Peruvian police, held hostage by the indigenous protestors, were killed in the assault. García had declared martial law in the region in order to enforce his unilateral and unconstitutional granting of mining rights to foreign companies, mines that infringed on the integrity of traditional Amazonian indigenous communal lands.

García is no stranger to government-sponsored massacres. In June 1986, he ordered the military to bomb and shell prisons in the capital holding many hundreds of political prisoners protesting prison conditions, resulting in over 400 known victims. Later mass graves revealed dozens more. This notorious massacre took place while García was hosting a gathering of the so-called Socialist International in Lima. His political party, APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance), a member of the International, was embarrassed by the public display of its national-socialist proclivities before hundreds of European Social Democrat functionaries. Charged with misappropriation of government funds and leaving office with an inflation rate of almost 8,000 percent in 1990, he agreed to support presidential candidate Alberto Fujimori in exchange for amnesty. When Fujimori imposed a dictatorship in 1992, García went into self-imposed exile in Colombia and later France. He returned in 2001 when the statute of limitations on his corruption charges had expired and Fujimori was forced to resign amid charges of running death squads and spying on his critics. García won the 2006 presidential election in a run-off against the pro-Indian nationalist candidate and former Army officer, Ollanta Humala, thanks to financial and media backing by Lima’s right-wing oligarchs and U.S. overseas "aid" agencies.

Back in power, García announced in October 2007 his strategy of placing foreign multi-national mining companies at the center of his economic development program, while justifying the displacement of small producers from communal lands and indigenous villages in the name of modernization.

García pushed through congressional legislation in line with the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Agreement of the Americas or ALCA. Peru was one of only three Latin American nations to support the U.S. proposal. He then began to award huge tracts of traditional indigenous lands in the Amazon region for exploitation in violation of a 1969 International Labor Organization-brokered agreement obligating the Peruvian government to consult and negotiate with the indigenous inhabitants over exploitation of their lands and rivers. Under García’s open door policy, the mining sector of the economy expanded rapidly and made huge profits from the record-high world commodity prices and the growing Asian (Chinese) demand for raw materials. The enforcement of environmental regulations was suspended in these ecologically fragile regions, leading to widespread contamination of the rivers, ground water, air, and soil in the surrounding indigenous communities. Poisons from mining operations led to massive fish kills and rendered the water unfit for drinking. The operations decimated tropical forests, undermining the livelihood of tens of thousands of villagers engaged in traditional artisan work and subsistence forest gathering and agricultural activities.

The profits of the mining bonanza go primarily to the overseas companies. The García regime distributes the state’s revenues to his supporters among the financial and real estate speculators, luxury goods importers, and political cronies in Lima’s upscale, heavily guarded neighborhoods and exclusive country clubs. As the profit margins of the multinationals reached an incredible 50 percent and government revenues exceeded $1 billion, the indigenous communities lacked paved roads, safe water, basic health services and schools. Worse still, they experienced a rapid deterioration of their everyday lives as the influx of mining capital led to increased prices for basic food and medicine. Even the World Bank in its Annual Report for 2008 and the editors of the Financial Times of London urged the García regime to address the growing discontent and crisis.

Above and below, Awajun indigenous protesters in northern Peru after security forces violently attacked a peaceful bridge blockade on May 10photos by Thomas Quirynen,


Above, Peru’s security forces open fire on Amazon road blockade demonstrators on June 5; below, an injured demonstrator is pulled from an ambulance and beaten by troops during the assaultphotos by independent reporters,

Delegations from the indigenous communities had traveled to Lima to try to establish a dialogue with the president in order to address the degradation of their lands and communities. The delegates were met with closed doors. García maintained that "progress and modernity come from the big investments by the multinationals…[rather than] the poor peasants who haven’t a centavo to invest." He interpreted the appeals for peaceful dialogue as a sign of weakness among the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon and increased his grants to foreign multinationals.

The Amazonian Indian communities responded by forming the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP). They held public protests for over seven weeks, culminating in the blocking of two transnational highways. García, who referred to the protestors as "savages and barbarians," sent police and military units to suppress the mass action. What García failed to consider was the fact that a significant proportion of indigenous people in these villages had served as army conscripts and fought in the 1995 war against Ecuador, while others had been trained in local self-defense community organizations. These combat veterans were not intimidated by state terror and their resistance to the initial police attacks resulted in both police and Indian casualties. García then sent a heavy military force of helicopters and armored troops with orders to shoot to kill. AIDESEP activists report over 100 deaths among the protestors and their families, as Indians were murdered in the streets, in their homes, and workplaces. The remains of many victims are believed to have been dumped in the ravines and rivers.

García, taking his talking points from the U.S. ambassador, accused Venezuela and Bolivia of having instigated the Indian "uprising," quoting a letter of support from Bolivia’s President Evo Morales sent to an intercontinental conference of Indian communities in Lima in May as "proof." Martial law was declared and the entire Amazon region of Peru has been militarized. Meetings are banned and family members are forbidden from searching for missing relatives.

Throughout Latin America, all the major Indian organizations have expressed their solidarity with the Peruvian indigenous movements. Fearing the spread of mass protests, El Commercio, the conservative Lima daily, cautioned García to adopt some conciliatory measures to avoid a generalized urban uprising. A one-day truce was declared on June 10, but the Indian organizations refused to end their blockade of the highways unless the García government rescinded its illegal land grant decrees.

On June 11, 30,000 workers, students, and urban poor took over the streets of Lima in solidarity with the Indian communities. They confronted the police at the Peruvian Congress and demanded the repeal of President García’s land grants to multinational corporations, the resignation of his administration, and the convening of an international tribunal to investigate the complicity of the foreign multinationals in the brutal crimes against the Amazonian communities. Strikes and demonstrations of solidarity organized by trade unions and peasants paralyzed economic activity in most provincial capitals and towns. A vast umbrella organization coordinating all major social movements convoked a nationwide general strike for early July.

As political pressures mounted and extended from the indigenous and peasant mass movements in the Amazon and the Andes to the coastal regions, the García regime temporarily suspended the recent laws infringing on the rights of indigenous communities. A motion by the congressional opposition Nationalist Party, led by Ollanta Humala, to rescind all land grants in the Amazon received over 40 percent support among congresspeople. Fissures have appeared in García’s cabinet with the resignation of one minister and there is increasing pressure on the prime minister to resign.

Confronted by mass extra-parliamentary and institutional pressure, an enraged and isolated García took more repressive measures. He closed down the Amazonian Indians’ principle radio station "The Voice," located in the town of Bagu—the center of the bloody confrontation—for not broadcasting the government’s official version of the massacre. García’s attorney general ordered the arrest of six leaders of AIDESEP, charging them with inciting the Indians "to take illegal violent action in order to be heard and accepted." They face at least six years imprisonment.

At this writing on June 17, Indian resistance continues its blockades, limiting traffic on two major transnational highways, strikes continue to paralyze economic activity, and road pickets in Cusco, Apurimac, and Junin block even more highways.

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales pointed to the root cause of the popular uprising and brutal government repression: "The violence between the Peruvian police and the Indians is an act of genocide caused by the [U.S.-Peruvian] Free Trade Agreement, which privatized and handed Latin America over to the multinationals" (La Jornada, June 14, 2009).

In the meantime, a strange silence hangs over the White House. The usually garrulous Obama, so adept at reciting platitudes about diversity and tolerance and praising peace and justice, cannot find a single phrase in his prepared script to condemn the massacre of scores of indigenous inhabitants of the Peruvian Amazon. When egregious violations of human rights are committed in Latin America by a U.S.-backed client-president, one who follows Washington’s formula of "free trade," deregulation of environmental protections, and hostility toward anti-imperialist countries (Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador), Obama favors complicity over condemnation.

The recent events in Peru demonstrate the importance of organized mass direct action in detonating a national popular movement. This, in turn, strengthens progressive electoral opposition whose pressure divided and isolated a Washington-backed regime armed to the teeth but incapable of ruling.


James Petras is a retired Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, SUNY and adjunct professor at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. He is the author of more than 62 books in 29 languages and over 600 articles in professional journals. Currently, he writes a column for the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada.