‘Is this your fingerprint? Do you recognize it?’
Santiago Manuin Valera is an internationally respected environmentalist and indigenous leader.
In 1997 he was recognized by Queen Sofia of Spain for his environmental work in defence of the Peruvian rainforest and for his leadership in driving away narco-insurgents.
His meeting with the European monarch, which was scheduled for 15 minutes, lasted three quarters of an hour. The pair, it seems, got on like a house on fire.
Today, Manuin, who also founded the SAIPE Jesuit Social Center to promote agricultural research and development, faces a very different prospect. He and 51 others are on trial. The charges against them include homicide, aggravated assault, vandalism, incitement to violence and possession of weapons. If found guilty, the activist could receive a life sentence.
Manuin recalls the fateful morning – in the early hours of 5 June, 2009 – when life took a sudden turn for the worse. He and other unarmed indigenous protesters were on a stretch of road known as the ‘Devil’s Bend’ – just outside the northeastern city of Bagua – when riot police began firing teargas.
This was the culmination of two months of protesting against then-president Alan García’s plans to open up the Peruvian Amazon to private mining, logging, oil and gas interests.
At the time of the attack, the protesters had begun making preparations to leave the area. According to Manuin, local police and authorities knew of their departure plans – but still they attacked.
To try and calm the situation, he approached the officer in charge. ‘I just wanted to assure him that none of the protesters was armed.’
Engulfed in teargas and with his hands up, Manuin walked towards the police, shouting: ‘What are you doing? We are about to leave! Don’t shoot! Peace! Peace! Peace!’
Nine of the accused – including Manuin – face charges that could result in life imprisonment. One has since died. No police have been charged
‘All of a sudden, there was gunfire,’ he recalls. ‘One indigenous protester was shot dead; two others fell to the ground, wounded.’
Moments later, Manuin was shot several times in the stomach. With eight perforations in his intestines, bladder and colon, he was left for dead.
Rumours of his death spread like wildfire.
The protesters reacted, clashing with police and in some cases seizing their weapons. That is how the Bagua conflict – known locally as the ‘Baguazo’ – began.
By the time it was over, Peruvian National Police had deployed a total of 481 teargas bombs, 1,091 shotgun shells, 604 rubber bullets, and thousands of rounds of AKM bullets. A total of 33 people were dead – including 23 police. One officer was missing. Some 200 people were injured – 82 with bullet wounds.
Once it became known that Santiago Manuin was alive, Judge Francisco Miranda Caramutti issued an order for his immediate arrest on a charge of homicide. The order came while Manuin lay in hospital with a plastic pouch draining his intestines – waiting for a second surgical operation.
A US role in the violence?
The decrees to open up the Amazon to foreign investment were passed without consultation with local indigenous communities and so in violation of UN International Labour Organization Convention 169. Indigenous groups made repeated calls on the government to repeal the controversial measures. As Manuin explains: ‘Under those decrees, we were about to be robbed of our territory… our right to live. That’s why we had to protest. But let us be clear, we always protested peacefully.’
In order to discredit the legitimacy of their demands, President García set about attacking the reputation of the protesters, labelling them ‘barbarians’, ‘savages’ and ‘spiteful dogs’ and even calling them ‘second-class citizens’.
As García put it: ‘What right have 40,000 natives to tell 28 million Peruvians not to come to their lands?’ The protesters’ actions, he added, ‘would lead Peru into irrationality and a backward primitive state.’
The US too may have played a role in the Bagua mêlée. Embassy cables, made public by Wikileaks, revealed that the US ambassador in Lima criticized the Peruvian government’s ‘reluctance to use force’ to break up the demonstrations and said there could be ‘implications for the recently implemented Peru-US FTA [free trade agreement]’ if unrest continued. This cable is dated 1 June, just four days before the attack.
Not surprisingly, the President defended police actions. He condemned the killing of police officers, but not of indigenous protesters – accusing them of ‘slitting the throats’ of ‘humble policemen’ who had a ‘will for dialogue’ and ‘no desire to fire their weapons’.
Of the 53 originally accused as a result of the events at Bagua, 23 are members of the Awajun and Wampis indigenous communities. Nine of the accused – including Manuin – face charges that could result in life imprisonment. One has since died. No police have been charged.
‘What are you doing? We are about to leave! Don’t shoot! Peace! Peace! Peace!’ Moments later, Manuin was shot several times in the stomach
The majority of the accused rely on the forest, or subsistence agriculture, for survival. Many do not even handle money. They live in remote communities far from the town of Bagua, where the legal proceedings are taking place.
All of the accused are obliged to appear at each and every court hearing, although no-one knows when they will be called to testify, as the prosecutor only provides that information at the beginning of each hearing. Attending trial is costly for most of them. Manuin, for example, has to travel between 10 and 12 hours to get to Bagua. Currently, transport, food and accommodation costs are being covered by the Catholic Church.
There are serious deficiencies in these legal proceedings, which are expected to continue for several months. Translation services are poor and are not offered throughout all stages of proceedings. Interpreters (Awajun and Wampis) do not have the professional training to carry out services in court and they lack accreditation. Many of the accused do not have a clear understanding of the charges levelled against them.
According to several testimonies, statements were obtained from the accused in the absence of legal representation. The statements were taken after a period in which food and water were withheld and while they were being beaten.
At one point a prosecutor instructed one of the accused, who was illiterate, to approach the bench and demanded: ‘Is this your fingerprint? Do you recognize it?’
Another of the accused, whom the police arrested in the city of Chiclayo, had never been near Bagua. When it became apparent that he had been arrested by mistake, the prosecutor simply postponed his hearing.
The severity of the Bagua conflict prompted James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, to make a special visit to Peru. During his mission he visited Manuin, who had just undergone surgery. Queen Sofia of Spain also sent an emissary.
‘Santiago used to be extremely healthy,’ says Sister Carmen Gomez Calleja, an eyewitness to the Bagua violence. ‘He was on the chubby side, and he had rosy fat cheeks.’ Not any more. ‘Since he was gunned down, he has lost 32 kilos and 50 centimetres of his intestines. On top of that, he now suffers from severe diabetes.’
In the courthouse in Bagua, it is Manuin’s turn to take the stand. The prosecutor asks him how and when he learned of the deaths of police. He responds: ‘While in hospital, I learned of the deaths of so many police and so many indigenous people. I ended up regretting that indigenous people died for defending their rights and land, and that policemen died, too, simply for following orders… In that sense, they were all victims of all this nonsense. If it weren’t for that, why do we have to fight one another? This whole situation saddened me so much that I burst into tears.’