Criminalization of social struggles of indigenous peoples

2007-03-26 00:00:00

Turning legitimate protest into a crime is one of the preferred strategies of power groups when trying to contain social struggles and diminish responses to their demands. This strategy is most effective when it has the support of mass media, which lend themselves to discrediting protestors and undermining the support of public opinion. In recent years, indigenous struggles in particular have been the target of such tactics, a situation which was harshly denounced during the Continental Meeting of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala, which took place in Bolivia in October 2006:

"We are living in times of militarization and criminalization of social movements. Today as indigenous peoples we are submitted to a new rationale of the so-called democratic or neo-fascist security projects. If we do not struggle firmly united against this, our peoples will be only one step away from complete physical extermination as a result of the elimination of our territory, knowledge, identity and culture in general. From the perspective of these manifestations of colonialism, we are a hindrance preventing them from continuing to illicitly enrich themselves and to determine the future of nation states in accordance with what is most politically convenient to them". (From the outcomes of the Working Group on Strategic Alliances at the Meeting).

Blanca Chancoso, Kichwa-Ecuadorian, recalls that the criminalization of indigenous struggles is not new, but that since the time of colonialization it has reproduced itself in various ways across the continent when people have tried to raise their voice in defence of their land, territories and of the rights of their peoples.

For Chancoso, resistance to criminalization can no longer take place only through acts of denunciation and protest. "These attitudes have to be nipped in the bud,” she stresses, involving a struggle to change the constitutional foundations of countries in order to guarantee the true exercise of rights, and to follow this with ongoing organization in defence of the changes which are achieved.

From the perspective of Father Antonio Bonanomi, indigenous peoples in Colombia - as elsewhere - are living through a very difficult time. One of the main factors in this is "the imperialist system which dominates politics in Colombia. Essentially indigenous peoples are seen as a hindrance. As a result of their culture, their defence of their territory and their love of the land, they are blocking efforts by multinationals to take control of the water and the forests, and of all natural resources. Indigenous culture is inherently anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal and for this reason, capitalism and neoliberalism, which today are trying to dominate the world - and they dominate it, not only through politics but also with arms and laws - are enemies of the indigenous peoples and they consider them their enemies. From there stems the repression, displacement and laws against indigenous peoples."

Referring specifically to the Nasa People of the Valley of Cauca, Bonanomi indicates that "throughout their history, the Nasa People have undergone great repression and persecution, but never as forcefully as it is today. Because it’s not only armed repression, it is often grounded in law. Essentially what is illegal is now being made legal and while what the State does has an appearance of being legal it is continuously violating the rights of indigenous peoples."

Peru: Defence against destructive corporations

Like Colombia, Peru and Chile are amongst the countries where confrontations between indigenous peoples and the state, and their resistance in the face of tremendous economic interests, are being treated ever more like a crime or even terrorism.

In Peru, the demands and demonstrations of indigenous peoples and farmers have been criminalized using legal means and commercial media. Indigenous and rural organizations are victims of criminalization by the State, such as is the case with the Peruvian National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining (CONACAMI), which was victim of delegitimization and criminalization for its leading role in support of communities resisting repressive actions by large mining companies.

Carlos Candiotti from Huancavelica, a national leader of CONACAMI, denounced that "at this time, more than 600 leaders and indigenous community members from all across Peru are being persecuted and judged, for the 'crime' of opposing irresponsible mining and defending their rights." For example, he commented that "there are 38 community members from the districts of Cangalla, Secclla, Jilcamarca and Buenavista in the province of Angaraes (Huancavelica), who have been denounced for crimes ranging from disturbing the peace to kidnapping, because of their tenacious opposition to the contamination of the Sicra and Atuna Rivers caused by the Pampamali mining company."

The case of CONACAMI is not unique. The Interethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Forest (AIDESEP), an Amazonian organization, has denounced that 45 indigenous people are in jail in Pucallpa and 39 in Iquitos for defending their territories against forest concessions and illegal lumber extraction. Similarly, in recent years, coca cultivation has been criminalized, as well as the mobilizations organized by the Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Producing Watersheds of Peru (CONPACCP). In fact there are frequent attempts to link indigenous movements with violence, terrorism and drug trafficking.

"We are facing a worsening situation of criminalization of social organizing and freedom of thought," explains Luis Vittor of CONACAMI. "You're doubly criminalized if you belong to indigenous organizations who are challenging the extraction of natural resources in their territories. Organizations in defence of human rights and the environment are not spared either and it has reached the point of trying to control international cooperation and the right to freedom based upon the argument that their actions must be aligned with national development policies.”

Chile: The Mapuche Resistance

In Chile, social resistance of the Mapuche people to the State has meant a long history of persecution, deaths, tortures and detentions. Public policy of the (post-Pinochet) governments of the Concertación have treated the subject through the lens of aid. They intervene through a poverty rationale, implementing programs aimed at the development of Mapuche women, children and men, which seek to instil within the communities ideals of the market economy. These programs fail to take into consideration Mapuche culture based upon their own demands. And for those who resist, they have simply applied the same strategy as during the time of dictatorship: state terrorism.

Faced with the protests and appeals of the Mapuche, the government has no affirmative response and criminalization of the movement is becoming more frequent and intense, especially lately. Persecution began with laws used to punish delinquents, under the Law of Domestic State Security. However, since then the Antiterrorist Law has started being applied to actions which have never been considered terrorist and, in many cases, should not even qualify as a criminal offence.

A flagrant example of this has been police behaviour toward the community of Temucuicui, in Ercilla, which has undergone continuous raids and whose leaders have faced persecution and jail. Paradoxically, while Chilean Ex-Minister of the Interior, Jose Miguel Insulza, has taken on leadership of the O.A.S., Mapuche organizations have accused the Chilean State before this Organisation for human rights violations, after having exhausted all legal routes in Chile.

Recently, an international mission of human rights organizations, universities and student associations visited Temucuicui, where they confirmed that this community is suffering ongoing repression from police forces, and that the zone has been militarized by the "carabinero" military police, acting under the orders of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, to protect the farm-estates of private landowners. They register a disheartening outcome of homes destroyed, violence against women during the raids, people wounded, and children taken from their families and submitted to interrogation and mistreatment.

The mission sent a letter to President Michelle Bachelet requesting "urgent measures to end the institutional violence, primarily by the carabineros,” adding that this situation reflects a policy of racial discrimination and that there exists "genuine State terrorism against the Mapuche." Nonetheless, the social struggle for land and the legitimate demands of indigenous peoples in Chile continue to be treated under the Law of Domestic State Security and the Antiterrorist Law.

In mid-February of this year, police returned at night to the community, entered without a warrant and failed to give any reason for the operation. They took three people into detention who were tortured in the presence of their families. In the face of this recent human rights violation, the Mapuche community of Temucuicui has declared, "This has gone too far, and if we must die, we will die for defending our rights. The only thing that the government apparently wants is for the entire community to be jailed, but we will not allow that."

* ALAI, with information from CONACAMI (Peru), ANAMURI (Chile) and the ACIN (Colombia).

- Published in Spanish in: America Latina en Movimiento, No. 418, "Pueblos Indígenas: hacia una agenda común", March 2007, ALAI.