Five years after a violent confrontation that left 33 people dead and scores injured in northern Peru, 53 people face charges that include murder, personal injury, forcibly taking firearms and ammunition from people, and sedition.
The trial began on May 14, but was suspended almost immediately because there were no translators for the 23 Awajún, Wampis and Shawi people involved.
Proceedings resumed May 26 in the northern town of Bagua with the reading of charges against the defendants, who include seven indigenous leaders who were not present when the violence occurred, but who are accused of having incited it.
The leaders include Alberto Pizango, president of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica para el Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, AIDESEP), Peru’s largest Amazonian indigenous umbrella organization. If convicted, the leaders could face sentences of life in prison.
“We hope for the acquittal of all the defendants, because the prosecutors do not have sufficient evidence to support their case,” AIDSEP lawyer Marco Barreto told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Over the next several weeks, each defendant will be questioned individually. Barreto said he expects the trial to last four or five months.
The charges stem from events that occurred at a place known as the Curva del Diablo, or Devil’s Curve, on the main highway through Peru’s Amazonas region, near Bagua.
More than 20 non-indigenous people were killed after security forces moved in early in the morning of June 5, 2009, to break up demonstrators who had been blocking the road for more than a month to protest a series of legislative decrees that they feared would open up their lands to timber, oil and mining companies.
The decrees were issued in the first half of 2008 as part of a government effort to bring Peruvian legislation into line with the country’s new free trade agreement with the United States.
At the time, environmental lawyer Manuel Pulgar-Vidal—who is now environment minister, but who was then the director of the non-profit Peruvian Environmental Law Society (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental, SPDA)—said the package of measures went far beyond what was needed to meet the trade pact’s requirements.
Protests in August 2008 led to the repeal of several of the decrees, and the government announced that it would open talks with indigenous organizations opposed to the measures.
When the talks made little progress, AIDSEP called for new protests in the Peruvian Amazon in early April 2009, after Congress postponed debate on a proposal to repeal the two most controversial laws, a new Forest and Wildlife Law and one on agricultural investment in agricultural land.
Other disputed laws concerned land titling and property rights, investment in irrigation projects, and water rights and water management.
Indigenous people blocked commercial boat traffic on the Napo, Urubamba and Tambo rivers, and protest marches were held in several Amazonian cities.
Near Bagua, thousands of protesters blocked the highway at the Devil’s Curve and seized a pumping station on the pipeline that carries crude oil from the country’s northern Amazonian oil fields to the coast.
Police moved in to clear the highway early in the morning of June 5, on orders from national government officials. Violence broke out there first, then spread to the pumping station and the town of Bagua.
In all, 33 people were killed—five indigenous people, five non-indigenous civilians, and 23 police officers, 11 of them at the pumping station and 12 at the Devil’s Curve, according to an official investigative report on the events. One police officer is missing and presumed dead.
Shortly afterward, the government repealed the controversial laws and launched negotiations with indigenous organizations on various points addressed in the laws, as well as on a procedure for prior consultation. A law requiring prior consultation of indigenous communities about any administrative measures or development projects affecting their collective rights was finally approved in 2011.
The Peruvian Congress subsequently passed a new Forest and Wildlife Law. Implementing regulations for that law are still under discussion.