While some in Venezuela are mourning the death of Hugo Chávez, the indigenous Yukpa people are mourning the death of their leader, Chief Sabino Romero.
The rights of Venezuela’s Yukpa peoples were not high on the Chávez agenda. The Yukpa people are one of many indigenous groups who live in the mountains of Perija in the northwest of Venezuela, near the border with Colombia. They are at risk of disappearing: in the last decades they have lost more than 90 per cent of their ancestral territory.
Despite a constitution that recognizes indigenous rights, leaders who dare to speak out have found their struggle criminalized. Accused of being ‘a drug-dealer, thief and murderer’, Chief Sabino was imprisoned in 2010 after it was alleged he had killed several people. Nearly two years later, he was freed without apology.
Chief Sabino Romero was killed on 3 March 2013. He had attended a gathering of Yukpa people to protest about the election of a man whom he considered to be corrupt and paid by the government to be a representative of the Yukpa people. On his way back home, he and his wife, Lucia Martinez, were ambushed by men on a motorbike. He was killed and she was wounded.
When the family arrived, the army detained two of Chief Sabino’s sons (Sabino Junior and Isidro Romero), accusing them of killing their father. Professor Lusbi Portillo, co-ordinator of the local NGO Homo et Natura reported to the Latin American Mining Monitoring Programme (LAMMP) that, in detention, Chief Sabino’s sons were beaten by the army and warned that many more deaths were to follow unless they stopped campaigning.
Chief Sabino’s father, Jose Manuel Romero, died in 2008 after being beaten by a cattle-rancher who had threatened to ‘kill him like a dog’ because he spoke of indigenous rights. And now, Zenaida Romero, Sabino’s daughter, assumes her father’s mantle, and the struggle to have the Yukpa people’s voice heard continues.
‘My grandfather told me that, not long ago, we occupied land that is now covered by important cities in Zulia. It is hard to believe, because all that is left of the Yukpa is a few communities. Under pressure from different governments, keen to develop the area [in which] we lived, we were uprooted and forced to abandon our best land and move higher into the mountains,’ Zenaida told LAMMP recently.
‘We now occupy a zone where it is difficult to grow anything, so our children are dying from malnutrition and gastroenteritis. We lost two of my brother’s babies and mine is very ill. But even in these inhospitable mountains, we are being constantly harassed by the army, by Colombian guerrillas who come and go as they please, cattle ranchers, mining companies and people who are hired to kill our leaders.’
Despite being just 20 years old, Zenaida believes that her destiny is to survive and tell the story of what is happening to her people. With LAMMP’s support, Zenaida last year visited the US, Brussels, Geneva and London.
Other members of Zenaida’s extended family have also been severely punished and are paying a high price for supporting the struggle: ‘My brother-in-law and my ex-partner were taken from their house one night. My partner survived, but to this day he is ill. His brother, Alexander Fernandez (who had been in jail with my father), was killed and his eyes were gouged out with a wire.’
What really affects Zenaida is that none of these deaths, or the many occasions on which different members of her family have been threatened, have been investigated. For Zenaida, all this leaves a simple message: ‘There is no justice for indigenous people. It is OK to kill Yukpa leaders.’
Last October, Zenaida herself was wounded during a confrontation with the army and cattle ranchers, as the Yukpa tried to recover ancestral land transformed into haciendas.
For several days they protested in Caracas, demanding to see President Chavez. ‘We want the government to recognize our right to occupy our land and to live according to our traditions,’ Zenaida told us. ‘The Venezuelan government created the conditions for the killing of my father. We requested protection. We requested that all deaths be investigated. Our cries for help fell on deaf ears.’
For further information about the Yukpa struggle for rights, visit the Latin American Mining Monitoring Programme website.