Peru: Army targets civilians in hostage crisis

April 30, 2012
Peruvian Army in the Apurimac-Ene River Valley.

After a hostage crisis in which one of armed group Shining Path's (Sendero Luminoso – SL) factions abducted gas workers employed by a major multinational, a counter-insurgency operation was launched in the Apurimac-Ene River Valley (VRAE).

The stand-off was reported by the international media. But what has been largely ignored are the human rights abuses against VRAE civilian communities are being committed by the Peruvian military.

The 36 contractors working for the Camisea Gas Project, involved in expanding a gas pipeline, were captured on April 9 in Kephasiato, a small hamlet in the Amazonian district of Echarate in south-central Peru.

After being held for five days in remote jungle, the workers were freed unharmed on April 14. During the crisis, at least four members of the Peruvian police and military were killed in clashes with SL guerrillas. Many others were injured.

The circumstances of the hostages’ liberation remain unclear. However, claims have been made that Camisea, an international consortium that operates one of the largest gas fields in Latin America, paid the guerrillas half the US$10 million they demanded as ransom.

The company denies this.

On April 23, the administration of President Ollanta Humala authorised a big offensive in the VRAE. An unnamed Peruvian military source cited by Reuters said it was “all or nothing”.

The source said: “The balance for us is not favourable, there were deaths, injuries, a downed helicopter … That’s why we’re preparing a strong military operation because there is very strong political pressure for results.”

The offensive, which involves a sweep by hundreds of police officers, regular troops and special forces, is officially aimed at eliminating active SL combatants.

Yet witness testimony indicates punitive actions against civilians have also been instigated in accordance with Washington’s standard script for population control in resource-rich areas of the developing world.

Erasmo Gonzales Saldivar, an inhabitant of the Alto Lagunas sector, told Peruvian media on April 17 that the military opened fire in their area “without a second thought”.

“We are scared and shaken because five helicopters have been bombarding us since Thursday,” he said, “and we have had to flee for our lives. Instead of respecting our human rights, the soldiers abuse us, accusing us of hiding the terrorists, of giving them food and so forth.

“They interrogate us with shouts and threats, and now our children are traumatised.”

In response to the question, “are they bombarding your village?”, Jeronimo Alvarez Quipo replied: “Yes, they fired many bullets and they don’t respect our children or our old people, our houses and our fields have been bombed.”

Alvarez said in Alto Lagunas, various indigenous people who speak very little Spanish have fled in terror to the jungle as a result of the aerial bombardment.

“We don’t know where they have hidden,” he said. “They don’t know to raise a white flag to let the military know that they are not terrorists, so now we don’t know what has become of them.”

In effect, the VRAE has been declared a “free fire” zone, leading to unknown numbers of civilian casualties and creating a refugee crisis.

Freddy Diaz Martinez, another displaced person from the village of Incare, said: “The soldiers have shot up the entire valley, they couldn’t care less about our children, women or old people.”

Martinez described how soldiers forced their way into homes, breaking down doors and destroying property. “I went to look for people, but couldn’t find anybody in the village, it was like a ghost town, we are afraid that the soldiers have killed them.”

After walking for a day and a half through thick jungle, the refugees arrived in the relatively safe village of Kiteni, where they plan to stay. “We don’t know what has happened to our houses, our fields, our animals: this is an abuse.”

At least 70 residents of the affected villages were still missing as of April 17, a disturbing echo of the civil conflict of previous decades.

The “all or nothing” approach to counter-insurgency is nothing new in Peru. Between 1980 and 2000, as many as 60,000 civilians were massacred by US-advised state security forces in the name of combating SL.

Both the army and SL have a shocking disregard for human life. But in the state-sponsored narrative of this brutal war, only SL's crimes receive much attention.

The army’s extensive list of crimes against humanity has mostly not been investigated or punished. This includes large-scale events such as the notorious Putis massacre in Ayacucho, where at least 123 villagers were gunned down in December 1984.

In response to growing calls for justice over the atrocity, the army claims all records relating to the personnel involved were lost in a fire. No one has been held accountable.

Impunity for crimes of the past facilitates the crimes of today, which are increasingly associated with the clearance of indigenous peasant populations to make way for foreign-owned resource mega-projects.

Camisea’s expansion has led to huge social dislocation and environmental damage in the Amazon, placing local indigenous groups under threat of annihilation.

Environmental group WWF said: “Early explorations by Shell in the 1980s resulted in almost one-half of the Nahua people dying from influenza and whooping cough, to which they were not immune.

“Camisea contractors are still in relatively close contact with indigenous people, sustaining an inordinately high mortality rate within vulnerable local populations.”

In return, most of the gas from Camisea’s Lot 88 is exported overseas for a pittance while ordinary Peruvians still pay a premium for their domestic energy needs.

The injustice of this situation a textbook case of neoliberal development has sparked considerable discontent. One of Humala痴 key campaign promises in last year's election, yet to eventuate, was to bring down the price of gas.

The army’s offensive in the VRAE provides the Peruvian state and its multinational corporate backers with the chance to clamp down not only on armed SL fighters but also on local groups who have protested peacefully against Camisea’s controversies.

Thousands of residents are being forcibly relocated, officially to protect them from being caught in the crossfire. But other motives are undoubtedly at play.

The culture of turning a blind eye to acts of indiscriminate state violence must change if Peru is to put an end to all forms of “terrorism” within its borders.

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