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Story Publication logo February 12, 2022

Indigenous Resistance Organized in the Venezuelan Jungle (Spanish)


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Joseph Poliszuk’s fellowship investigates forest destruction in the protected areas and Indigenous...


This report has been translated from Spanish. To read the original report in full, visit El País. A version of this report can be found on the ArmandoInfo website.

They haven't let go of the bow and arrow, only now they are being trained against other colonizers. Some 133 Piaroa Indians from the Gavilán de Cataniapo community — in the northern Venezuelan Amazon, in the municipality of Atures — came together in 2018 to form what they call a "civil resistance corps": a group of sentinels to protect themselves from the new outsiders who break into that corner of the Amazon jungle.

The vigilantes are called Ajoce Huäyäkä, a Piaroa word that alludes to a form of community work. They insist on this issue because that is where their legitimacy derives from. More than troops or militias, it is, according to their words, a group that was formed following decisions adopted in assemblies, when the community began to be surrounded by mafias, guerrillas, miners and garimpeiros that were settling in the neighborhoods.

Not a year had passed since the formation of the resistance when they were surprised with a particular visit: armed men who identified themselves as dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) invaded their territory and, as they have already done in other areas of the Venezuelan Guayana, announced themselves as their new neighbors with a script that has been repeated in other communities.

"They informed that they came from the government, that they were strategic allies of the country," recalls Hortimio Ochoa, general coordinator of the Organization of the United Piaroa People of Cataniapo in Amazonas. Only in this case, after the initial uproar, they ended up heeding the demands of the locals and desisted from setting up. "We marched, we talked and they left".

The matter, however, did not end there. A year later, in February 2020, the same uniformed men returned, this time to stay. Then, more than 700 indigenous people from the banks of the Cataniapo marched again to expel them, without success.

Map by El País.

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Today, the guard has more work than before. Worried that they will be labeled as a kind of self-defense group, Ochoa insists that they are far from being a military platoon. He says they do not carry firearms — they are only seen with wooden spears — and that they are the organized community itself. The guard, he says, "intervenes in the liberation of kidnapped people, participates in the search for people who have disappeared in massacres, prevents the recruitment of children in the armed conflict, offers security in mobilizations and events in their towns, environmental protection and territorial security."

A cocktail of new and old irregular groups — from illegal miners to guerrillas — has been settling in Piaroa territory. The armed expansion in the conflictive Venezuelan south, even in times of pandemic, has generated displacements, confrontations, recruitments and environmental depredation. It has also impacted the traditional ways of life of indigenous peoples who, as in the Cataniapo River, are beginning to form autonomous security groups to make up for the absence of the State.

In barely a year, between 2020 and 2021, news of at least two new indigenous territorial guards emerged in areas where the armed presence has reached: one in the Piaroa community of Pendare, in the municipality of Autana in northern Amazonas; and the second in the Ye'kwana territory of the Middle Caura River, in the municipality of Sucre in western Bolívar State. They joined a list of four Piaroa communities in Amazonas, as well as others in Bolívar, both on the banks of the Paragua and Cuyuní rivers.

By far the most emblematic case is that of the Gran Sabana, in southwestern Bolívar, near the Brazilian border. There, some 86 communities of the Pemón people, out of 120 located in the area, have adopted this type of patrol.

About 80 volunteers participate in the territorial guard formed in the municipality of Autana in Amazonas. Image by Sergio Gonzalez.

In Pendare, located in northern Amazonas, the indigenous people decided in February 2020 to defend themselves "by their own means" from the "silent invasion" of the Tearime Siri koi Aerime Suititi territory by the Uwottuja. According to indigenous mythology, the grandparents protected the Piaroa territory by setting up streams that served as checkpoints and lookouts to prevent the passage of outsiders. But criminal organizations have bypassed the streams and other natural features, if not used them to their advantage, to penetrate the territory and set up camps under tree canopies or dredge riverbeds.

In 2012, the Organización Indígena Pueblo Uwottuja del Sipapo (Oipus) began to denounce the entry of armed groups, but the administration of Nicolás Maduro did not act and the presence of irregulars increased: in 2019, it identified camps on the banks of the Autana River, Bajo Sipapo and Guayapo River and, months later, airstrips and evidence of smuggling.

Since mid-2020, territorial guards have been formed in five communities in the municipality of Autana with 80 volunteers who set up checkpoints in strategic areas. But this has not stopped the invaders. In March 2021, at a checkpoint on the Caño Guama, in the Sipapo river basin, the miners threatened the indigenous people with shotguns. In the event, three indigenous people were injured, one of them with a cut in the face and loss of teeth, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV) of Amazonas. In the face of the firepower of their adversaries, the deterrent capacity of the indigenous patrols is weak.

An armed group operating in Sifontes municipality, in southern Bolívar, attacked indigenous people in January 2022. Three indigenous people, among them a captain and a member of the territorial security, were wounded. Image by Sergio González.

In early 2022, another three indigenous Pemón were wounded in the indigenous community of Santa Lucía de Inaway, in the southeast of Bolívar State, by members of the self-styled "unions" that forcibly maintain control over gold deposits and their surroundings in the municipality of Sifontes. Carrying long guns and shooting in the air, members of the union of alias Juancho attacked the community, which had decided to occupy an old abandoned shed to dedicate it to community activities.

The seizure of the shed was a setback for the criminal gang, as the building allows them to control the access road to a mine under their control. In the confrontation, the captain of the Joboshirima community, Junior Francis, was wounded while trying to record a video. Two other indigenous people, one of them a member of the indigenous territorial guard, were beaten when they tried to photograph the conflict.

The expansion of foreign armed groups in this deep part of Bolívar State has forced local indigenous communities to organize more of these guards, despite their apparent inability to repel the invaders.

In San Martín de Turumbán, on the banks of the Cuyuní River that marks the border with Guyana's Essequibo Territory, Pemón indigenous people formed their territorial guard in February 2021, after illegal miners invaded the lands of the nearby community of San Luis de Morichal.

With the Pemón word Maikok, which means "wild and mountain spirit", the community baptized the territorial guard, made up of 30 men and women over the age of 17. "The community organized itself and created sectoral security due to invasions by armed groups and Creoles who wanted to impose their rules," explained community captain Bennett Kennedy.

The guard has a checkpoint on the community's borders and supervises, list in hand, who enters and who leaves the mining areas. Certain infractions, such as disrespecting indigenous authorities, alcoholic beverages or prostitution, are punishable by expulsion. When dozens of illegal miners advanced again on San Luis de Morichal, in February 2021, the indigenous guard of San Martín de Turumbán was on site for three months to support the safeguarding of community lands.

Even with success stories such as the above, the invasion of indigenous lands by syndicates, however, has not ceased, nor has it in areas threatened by the incursion of other groups, such as Colombian guerrillas and Brazilian garimpeiros.

The Situation of Weapons To Be Taken

Until 1999, the rights of indigenous peoples were not constitutionally recognized in Venezuela. The Magna Carta then promoted by Hugo Chávez established as one of its banners the recognition of indigenous peoples and the demarcation of their lands as an inalienable right.

Article 119 not only entrusts this task to the Executive Power, but Article 120 adds that "the use of natural resources in the indigenous habitats by the State shall be made without harming the cultural, social and economic integrity of the same and, likewise, is subject to prior information and consultation with the respective indigenous communities".

But from words to deeds, the provisions for the demarcation and territorial autonomy of the native peoples remained a dead letter. Meanwhile, the denunciations of abuses committed by regular military forces of the same State multiplied, which in turn forced the indigenous people to adopt a more belligerent attitude.

One of the first precedents of these abuses dates back to 2011, when indigenous Pemón from 13 communities on the banks of the Paragua River disarmed and held for four days 22 soldiers from the Army's Special Forces Battalion 507, who were miners, and were found knee-deep in mud and with firebombs on. The event and the coordinated indigenous response laid the foundations for the creation of Musukpa, a community near the Tonoro mine that designed a strict compendium of rules of coexistence of ten chapters and 76 articles, which regulates all aspects of community life, from mining work to the entry of visitors.

Lost in the jungle, a witness recorded the kidnapping and confiscation of weapons that some 600 people from 13 communities settled on the banks of the Paragua River practiced against a group of 22 soldiers. Video: Aramndo.Info.

The Musukpa example was replicated in the following years. Members of 12 communities of sector 3 of Urimán, in the municipality of Gran Sabana, detained and disarmed 43 Venezuelan Army troops who were illegally mining in their lands. Two years later, in the north of the same state, indigenous people from the Ye'kwana and Sanemá communities, in the Caura river basin, did something similar: they detained an Army commander and nine soldiers in protest against the burning of two houses and the complicity in mining practices that they attributed to the soldiers.

Pemón Pioneers

The first indigenous security referent in southern Venezuela dates back to 2001, in the Pemón community of Maurak, in the municipality of Gran Sabana, 15 kilometers from the Brazilian border. It was called "indigenous civil police" because its members were trained in security, first aid and rescue. In this community was born Alexis Romero, a key Pemón leader in the negotiations between indigenous and government in Musukpa in 2011.

Until then, Maurak's problems were mostly domestic: alcohol riots, petty theft and cases of gender violence, according to Maurak's current captain, Lisa Henrito, who says she was inspired by Colombia's indigenous guards to shape these internal security structures.

The example spread throughout the region to the point that there are now 86 communities in Gran Sabana that have internal security forces. It is common that some of their members trained in Maurak, alma mater of the territorial guards. "It is a guard because we are guardians of our territory, of our family, the waters, the environment and everything in the territory; and it is not only about protecting the territory of the indigenous people, but of the planet", explains Henrito. "If the security organs of this nation do not have the capacity or the will to do their job, we are going to do it because we are the most interested in maintaining peace."

In 2016, the formation of the territorial guard of Santo Domingo de Turasen — in the same municipality — due to the rise in crime and drug and arms trafficking, caused the reach of these instances to exceed the community's borders. That year, a homicide in Santa Elena de Uairén — main Creole population near the Brazilian border —with the participation of state police officers, led inhabitants of that locality, together with the indigenous communities, to expel the police force and take control of security with operations in the municipalities of Gran Sabana and Sifontes. "There came the popularity of the Pemón territorial guard," says Henrito.

That action incorporated the security forces of the municipality, trained indigenous people from distant communities such as Sifontes and La Paragua and made the Pemón Territorial Guard visible, a name they decided to adopt in 2017: "The indigenous security forces were born as internal mechanisms", Henrito details, "but the biggest threat right now is the progressive invasion of indigenous territories, that's why we are alert 24/7″.

However, it is also possible to die of success. It was the case of the murder in September 2018 of José Vásquez, commander of the territorial guard in the community of Turasen. The investigations and the autopsy determined that it was a homicide, whose responsibility was attributed to the escort and retired Venezuelan Navy officer, Edward Frederick Curuma, who was arrested. Pemón Indians suspect that the attack against this leader was part of a plan to weaken the territorial defense.

An Army attack on the indigenous community of Kumarakapay in 2019 caused more than 1,000 indigenous people to migrate to Brazil. Image by María Ramírez Cabello.

In 2019, state violence and repression escalated in the Gran Sabana, in the run-up to the entry of humanitarian aid offered from Brazil. The indigenous guard of Kumarakapay, called Aretauka for the acronym of three groups of the Pemón people — arekuna, taurepan and kamarakoto — tried to prevent the passage of military vehicles towards the border with Brazil to keep the border crossing open and with it the entry of humanitarian aid. But a retaliatory army attack against the indigenous community left three villagers dead from gunshot wounds: Zoraida Rodríguez, Rolando García and Kliver Pérez, as well as dozens wounded. García was a legendary guide for excursions and adventure tourism activities. A fourth indigenous man injured in the incident, Onésimo Fernández, died in March 2020.

The repressive attack, perpetrated with firearms and tear gas bombs, unprecedented in indigenous territories, consolidated militarization in this municipality. More than 1,300 Pemón fled from their native Venezuela to the Brazilian side of the border in search of safety, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The exodus included the indigenous mayor of the municipality, Emilio Gonzalez. The Kumarakapay patrols, which only carried bows and arrows, opted to pause their activities for fear of reprisals and to avoid misunderstandings, as in general these groups have even been accused of being paramilitary.

The Possibility Of Violence

Several experiences in Latin America share the credit as the origin of the territorial guards — as they are also known in Colombia — community police or self-defense groups in Mexico; or peasant patrols in Peru.

The guard of the indigenous territory of Cauca, in Colombia, was formally created in 2001 with the purpose of preserving the integrity and autonomy of the territory and defending the rights of indigenous peoples, threatened by the armed conflict, displacement and the invasion and militarization of their territories. It is a formation controlled by the indigenous authorities and is made up of 3,200 people who "armed only with sticks and walkie-talkies try to safeguard the territories and prevent the entry of armed actors," according to a study by Anders Rudqvist, PhD in Sociology, and Roland Anrup, professor of History, published in the Revista Papel Político of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana of Bogotá.

The Swedish researchers considered that the indigenous guard is one of the elements of civil resistance of communities in conflict contexts. It is a form of unarmed defense "against different forms of direct violence, that is, physical violence," but it can also be constituted against forms of structural violence. "For the indigenous movement, civil resistance is an exercise of autonomy and community practice against the State, the actors of the armed conflict and transnational economic interests. As a consequence of the principle of autonomy, the communities have decided not to abandon the territory in cases of emergency but to resort to civil resistance from the permanent assemblies."

Political scientist and lawyer Vladimir Aguilar, researcher of the Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (GTAI) of the Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida, Venezuela, explains that territorial guards are mechanisms that indigenous peoples have found to control their territories in the face of threats from third parties. Although not all of them are the same, he clarifies. "Those of Bolívar are of a rigid nature (control of access to mining areas) while those of Amazonas are to safeguard their territories and ecosystems (guardians of the jungle)".

To the extent that the expansion of the extractivist frontier through illegal mining continues to increase, this control mechanism will continue to grow, he says.

However, he clarifies that the tradition of indigenous peoples does not include warlike positions. Whether this characteristic changes or not will depend on the pressure and threats to their territories. "The indigenous people have become the true custodians of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation".


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