Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: Violence Widens Gap Between Remote Indigenous Communities and State

Ramiro Escobar

LIMA, May 16 2005 (IPS) - The murder of a four-person visiting health brigade in Peru’s northern Amazon jungle region, blamed on members of the Awajún indigenous community, highlighted the distance between the Peruvian state and the country’s large aboriginal population.

On Apr. 23, it was reported that doctors Manuel Lagos and Juan Carlos Espinar, nurse Marcelo Huamán, and their assistant Gladys Salazar had been killed in the indigenous village of Tagkejip, in the Amazon jungle near the Ecuadorian border.

After conflicting reports in the Peruvian press, it eventually emerged that they were apparently murdered when several local men got angry because the medical team was violating the ethnic group’s customs by performing gynaecological exams.

The four health professionals comprised one of the medical brigades that Peru’s Health Ministry sends to remote communities that lack even the most rudimentary health services.

The Tagkejip community is one of the most isolated, located deep in the heart of the jungle in the northern Peruvian region of Amazonas.

On May 12, journalist Luis Peña Vergaray, who was covering the story in the nearby indigenous community of Pampa Entsa, told a local radio station that a woman in Tagkejip, the only person who did not flee the village in the wake of the killings, had informed him that the murderers were local native men.

Peña Vergaray said he stayed in Pampa Entsa for several days because he was held there by force, although he added that he was treated kindly. Local indigenous residents said he had merely been invited to stay overnight.

He was released when a commission set up by the Interior Ministry arrived at Pampa Entsa.

Peña Vergaray and the Pampa Entsa village head, Antonio Mayán, agreed that the murders should not be blamed on the Awajún people as a whole, nor on the entire village of Tagkejip, but on a few individuals who were acting under the effects of mazato, a traditional liquor based on fermented yucca.

Diógenes Ampam, an Awajún Indian who holds a master’s degree in Amazon Studies, said the killings must not go unpunished because "we have to preserve our image."

But, he told IPS, "It’s as if someone killed another person in a district of Lima and all of the local residents were blamed."

For the Awajún people, it is unacceptable for women’s private parts to be touched by men other than their husbands, which means a gynaecological exam could spark angry reactions, although not necessarily so violent, Ampam explained.

He said a big problem with the Health Ministry brigades is that they no longer travel to isolated parts of the country with an anthropologist or local indigenous guide.

Health Ministry sources admitted to IPS that due to a shortage of funds, the health brigades no longer travel, as they used to do, with someone who could help build cultural and communication bridges with indigenous communities.

It is not clear whether the health brigade whose members were murdered had coordinated their visit with local indigenous organisations – coordination that is essential, said Ampam.

Ampam complained about the spate of recent press reports accusing the Awajún of growing coca (the raw material of cocaine) and opium poppies, and of having ties to drug trafficking.

Drug trafficking "is not our custom, and never will be. We make our living hunting, fishing, and growing yucca and ayahuasca," Ampam said indignantly.

Ayahuasca is a natural hallucinogenic drug used by shamans (native healers) in healing rituals.

Anthropologist Carlos Mora, who has worked in that region, remarked to IPS that it is possible that some members of indigenous communities are involved in the drug trade, but that, just as in the case of the health brigade murders, this does not mean that the entire community or ethnic group should be held responsible for the activities of a few individuals.

Mora cited the case of Manuel Díaz, an indigenous mayor in a smaller village in the area, who was arrested, tried and convicted for trying to sell opium poppy latex.

But Ampam pointed out that Díaz, who served a prison term on drug trafficking charges, was actually introduced to the trade by corrupt members of the police force.

He also said such cases crop up in indigenous communities located near towns with large mestizo (mixed-race) populations.

The Awajún form part of the larger Shuar ethnic group, also known as Jíbaros by outsiders.

The Shuar live in the northern regions of Amazonas, Cajamarca, Loreto and San Martín. The Awajún subgroup numbers between 45,000 and 60,000. Other subgroups are the Wampi, Achuar and Candoshi. The Shuar also live across the border in Ecuador.

The Awajún depend on fishing, hunting and small-scale farming for survival. Mora said they have a strong tradition of warfare. And although he added that they are "not an essentially violent society," he said that he himself has witnessed violent incidents like the murders of the health professionals.

The army sought the assistance of the Awajún during Peru’s brief 1995 border war with Ecuador. In exchange, the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) promised investment in new roads, health clinics and other public works once the conflict was over.

But none of the pledges was fulfilled, in keeping with decades of broken promises made by the Peruvian state to the country’s 64 indigenous groups, whose members make up more than 40 percent of a total population of 28 million.

Article 15 of the Peruvian penal code takes cultural differences into account, establishing that punishment should be attenuated if the perpetrators, "due to their culture or customs," do not understand "the criminal nature of their actions."

In many indigenous areas of Peru, the presence of the state is very weak. Tagkejip, for example, does not even have a school.

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