Indigenous Self-Defense Groups Rise in Southern Venezuela

The Aboriginal resistance celebrated on October 12 has had for the last four years a new expression in Musukpa, on the banks of the Paragua river, state of Bolívar. Natives of various ethnic groups, led by the Pemones, organized themselves to disarm the military forces and confront criminal gangs that seek to control the gold deposits in the area, which is now practically liberated territory. But not a utopia.

10 October 2015

It was a hot Thursday afternoon, and nobody really thought about solemnities as a declaration of independence. A group of about 600 indigenous people from thirteen communities on the banks of the Paragua River subdued a group of soldiers, who were armed, but far outnumbered: they were just 22 members. It had been a month since the soldiers had evicted nearly 3,000 miners who were illegally exploiting the vein from the site, the Toronó gold mine. But after their pyrrhic triumph, the troops had left their vigilance and patrolling duties to dedicate themselves, with rolled up trousers and mining boots, to using for their own benefit the hydraulic pumps that the intruders left abandoned.

Turned by greed in miners, it was easy to reduce the Army's troops, members of the 507th Battalion of Special Forces. The natives, superior in number and determination, surprised them sunk in the mud to their knees and with the motor-pumps on. They were disarmed and tied up. Only the group's commanding officer, a Lieutenant Gutierrez, and a soldier, managed to escape the attack.

At dawn the next day, a helicopter brought Colonel Cortez to negotiate at the site. President Hugo Chávez himself sent him to address the situation. At least, that's what he said. In any case, his authority was not only derived from the alleged commission. One meter, 80 centimeters tall, corpulent, gray-haired, with a deep voice, upholstered with badges and decorations, he pronounced words with martial rigor. Cortez sought the release of the military, almost demanded it. The staging was designed to intimidate.

Having crossed the line, however, the natives did not intend to let things get out of hand. They were organized in groups. One took care of guarding the perimeter, placing watchmen in different points. Another oversaw writing documents. With common sense they realized that they did not know how to negotiate hostages or anything else against the coercion of the State. They called some colleagues in the touristic Gran Sabana, who did have experience in those conflicts.

At that time Alexis Romero was many kilometers away. He was in his Pemón community, Maurak, located 17 kilometers from the town of Santa Elena de Uairén in the municipality of Gran Sabana, in southeastern Bolívar state, near the border with Brazil. But he was quick to answer the call. He arrived at the place on the afternoon of the same day as Chávez's envoy. Romero, who had extensive experience in the indigenous community movement and studies abroad, led the negotiation with the military, which would last four days.

Thus, on October 27, 2011 and the following days, it was inadvertently triggered the sequence of events that would originate the community of Musukpa and its virtual independence from the Venezuelan State. Four years later, its inhabitants exploit the Toronó mine on their own and according to rules defined by themselves. They collect taxes to cover health and education expenses. And, under the simultaneous and asymmetric siege of fortune hunters and the structure of the State, they organize security rounds.

The shrimp wakes up

It is winter - in Venezuela, the rainy season from May to December - and the still pristine basin of the Paragua River, boasts its enormous and powerful flow. The thick vegetation covers the boat when it leaves the river to penetrate the almost imperceptible Musukpa creek, the entrance to the indigenous community.

Musukpa means "shrimp" in the Pemón language. The name of the waterway involves a certain nostalgia. It seems that these animals once were abundant in this fluvial corner of the northwest of the state of Bolívar that, together with Amazonas, make up the rich Guayana region, the southern half of the territory of Venezuela, south and east of the Orinoco River. More than civilization, the mining activities were responsible for annihilating the shrimps.

A poster carved in wood and tied to a tree announces the arrival to the community of Musukpa. At first glance, there is an extensive portion of deforested land. Wide sandbanks, impossible to cover at a single glance, cover the area. Long hoses run on top of them, climbing on rudimentary platforms built with logs and pieces of wood. The hoses are connected to machines that, with asthmatic effort, spit out muddy water on carpets in poor condition that retain the material removed by suction.

They are all traces of mining. Although the settlers are indigenous, they no longer practice artisanal extraction. A diagnosis made in December 2013, as part of a project to build a community sports complex, found that one in two Musukpa residents owns small mining machines. Two out of ten work the wood. One in ten works as a trader or in river transport. Only five percent are linked to agriculture. In Musukpa there is no conuco for cultivation. The demand for cassava bread - tortilla made of cassava flour, essential in the indigenous diet - is satisfied with purchases from neighboring communities. Musukpa is independent but not autarkic.

It is not the typical indigenous community where the houses are distributed around an embankment that serves as a soccer field on Sundays. Upon entering Musukpa, what you see on the left is a group of houses distributed without any apparent criteria. At the center stands a small churuata, then an ambulatory and the skeleton of a structure still without a roof that in the future is intended to be a school. There are at least five grocery stores, where you can get everything from batteries to phone rentals per minute. The place is painstakingly clean.

Musukpa's layout conveys an image of amalgamation, agglomerated disorder. In fact, the community is a miracle of heterogeneity. It is home to members of different ethnic groups from the south: Pemones, Yekuanas, Chirianas, Kurripakos and Arawacos. There are also criollos in the 30 local families.

The inner concert that should reign in the community, difficult to perceive through the evidence provided by the hamlet, becomes almost palpable at assembly time.

It pours rains when Gloria Lucila Morales' voice is heard through the megaphone to summon all the inhabitants to participate in an extraordinary assembly. It's ten o'clock on Saturday morning and some of them begin to join the assembly, driven by curiosity. Gloria is young, thin, with dark thick hair, and comes from the Itoy Ponkon community in Heres municipality, state of Bolívar, about 15 kilometers from the capital of that entity, Ciudad Bolívar, east of Musukpa. She does not speak Pemón, she confesses, the lingua franca of the meeting. But she makes up for it with a lifetime of experience in the struggle and organizational processes of her "indigenous brothers". Not for nothing is she who speaks the leading voice during the assembly she called.

"We don't allow corruption here, nor armed gangs, we don't allow the sale of alcohol", she adds. Musukpa is governed by a strict compendium of coexistence norms of 10 chapters and 76 articles, which regulates all aspects of community life, from mining work to the admission of visitors. According to the Communal Law, the power plant is turned off every day at ten o'clock at night, the operation of the mine is only allowed from Monday to Saturday, between six in the morning and five in the afternoon. Sundays are reserved for community work. Any violation of the rules entails fines and may even lead to the expulsion of the offender.

Ángel Blanco, who is also present at the assembly, does speak Pemón. He took part in the disarmament of the military in 2011; he is one of the fifty original founders who have remained in the bulwark since then. He runs a company, a name given to a group of no more than five people owning the engines and implements required to operate the mines.

"We are not getting rich, we are just surviving", says Ángel Blanco.  Haughty and contentious, for two years he occupied the second captaincy and now heads the Sports Committee. During the assembly he took the floor and proudly proclaimed that since 2011 "we have been independent of the Government, we maintain the ambulatory with 10% of the commission, we are building a school with the contribution of mining, these planks resting there", points out some wooden planks, "we haven't received them from the Government, no, here everything has been achieved thanks to the efforts of everybody", he reiterates. The attendants nod their heads.

Chapter IX of the Communal Law establishes a Social Fund under a special commission elected by the Indigenous Council, responsible for administering the economic resources provided by the owners of machines, who every week must declare a profit report and allocate a tithe to the community. All traders, shovelers and gold buyers are also obliged to make a contribution destined to self-management.

That de facto law is opposed to the Government's ordinances. In particular, Presidential Decree 8,413, with "rank, value and force of Organic Law" - Chávez signed it invested with enabling powers -, which in September 2011 granted the State a monopoly on the exploration, exploitation and commercialization of gold. Just two months later, eight indigenous captains -including Alexis Romero, the Pemón activist who in October of the same year had dealt with Colonel Cortez over the outcome of the skirmish at the Toronó mine - filed an appeal to nullify the Decree.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas rejected the appeal. In simple terms, they told the inhabitants of the expropriated territories that they have no right to decide on their own environments.

Legal precariousness is not the only weakness that threatens to destroy this experiment of self-government, not a utopia. The most pressing may be the stalking thugs that have become strong in the area. "They work together", says Ángel Blanco, without hesitation in denouncing the alliance between the military and the "syndicates", the name they call the armed criminal groups that roam the area. "You have to say this way, we're not going to cover the sun with a finger, it's a public situation. Everyone knows that they pay bribes to the military, to the police, to the army. Here we know very well that the security forces lead the syndicates".

Even though everyone recognizes the danger, not everyone seems willing to mention it so openly. Within indigenous communities, connivance between military forces and criminal gangs is something that is discussed with more discretion and fear than anger. In fact, apart from Blanco's speech, during the assembly in Musukpa, the other allusions to the subject come from locals who refer to the armed gangs as "agents of the Government" who pay bribes to the generals, "to their chiefs, of course, the institutional mafia".

Blood reaches the river

Although since 2005 there have been incidents of violence around the emergence of irregular groups that took the mines in kilometer 88 sector of Sifontes municipality, and El Manteco, in Piar municipality, east of the state of Bolívar, all testimonies coincide in dating the point of break between the State and the community at the end of August 2013. Then Teodoro Osman, a native of the Bethel sector but who had a camp in Musukpa, disappeared. His body was found two weeks later, floating in the river near the Uraima waterfall, eaten by the fish.

Teodoro Osman paid with his life a debt he didn't have. Manolo, his brother, who had allied with the outsiders, disappeared without a trace, but he did have a pending account with some criminal group. The inert, swollen body of Teodoro Osman served as a warning to the locals to learn that in La Paragua the "syndicate" law was already being applied.

On January 21, 2014, almost five months after Osman's death and after numerous internal meetings, the residents issued a report in the General Assembly, in which they state the presence of foreign groups carrying military weapons in their territories and carry out "extortion, outrage against women, threats, kidnappings and murders".

A sealed and signed letter dated August 15, from which a copy was obtained, attests to the fact that the director of the regional police in the area, Pinto Novis, reported on the subject to the Secretary of Public Safety and director of the Bolivar State Police, Juvenal Villegas. The state of Bolívar has been governed since 2004 by a former army general, Francisco Rangel Gómez, a member of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and minister until 2000 of the executive cabinet of the late Hugo Chávez.

"The captains are requesting that the authorities focus on finding a solution to the alleged irregularities these so-called "syndicates" are committing, atrocities like lascivious acts with minors, as well as the women of the captains of the communities themselves, who have been also beaten and mistreated", the report indicates.

The assassination of Osman and the deterioration in security over the area of ??La Paragua strikingly coincided with the withdrawal of the military forces that were until then stationed there and the abandonment of a checkpoint located a few meters from Puerto Uraima, where the body was found. 

"Approximately 11 months ago the military officers corresponding to the Ministry of People's Power for Defense (MPPD) ceased their functions in Puerto Uraima, located in the Middle Paragua for reasons unknown to us", the 20 community captains denounced in their statement on January 2014. "Since then, there has been an immeasurable exodus of non-indigenous and foreign citizens among us, many with criminal records and organized into criminal gangs, who exercise mining activities and violently impose a new administration of everything that circulates there".

Uraima - port, pass, jump and island - a key point of the river. There it is necessary to disembark to avoid a stream that interrupts the navigation between the high and low Paragua. It is a stretch of almost a kilometer that is covered in four-wheel drive vehicles and borders the rapids. The place is also famous as a world mecca of sport fishing, ideal for catching the payara (Hydrolycusscomberoides) and the pavón (Cichlaocellaris), among other species of the Orinoquia.

Near Uraima is located the most recent and productive "bulla", as it is known the sudden and massive immigrations that occur when the word spreads of a new gold vein. The mine's name is Manaza. It is heading south, towards the high Paragua, near Musukpa and the abandoned military checkpoint. Manaza is still the most active mine in the Paragua basin. Adventurers arrive every day. But in 2012, when the news of its wealth began to spread, it attracted thousands of people. A confrontation between armed groups left six people dead that year. Two gangs, Los 24, on the one hand, and Marco Polo, on the other, disputed control of the area. The scuffle forced a military intervention.

Whoever holds Uraima controls the transit through the Paragua River, which is vital for the riverside communities. In 2013, an incident occurred there made it very clear how far the ambitions of the irregular groups went.

It all started on a Sunday, the sources agree. A bunch of vandals camped in Uraima. Notified of this, Andrés Solis, captain general of La Paragua, presented himself at the site and together with other community authorities, asked the irregulars to leave the area. After many some discussions, they obeyed, though reluctantly.

The next morning, a nervous group of natives arrived at the Meruntöpöy community, which the captains had retired to spend the night. They came with the news that the irregulars had taken the port by assault, subjecting José Fernando Mejías, the owner and driver of the 4x4 vehicle that every day makes the transshipment route on the banks of the river.

The thugs, instead of listening to the injunction of the indigenous captains, had left in search of reinforcements. Now there were 15 of them and they were in under the command of a Colombian who they called Edwin. As a warning they carried an arsenal that included hand grenades.

Nearly a hundred natives, armed with arrows and shotguns, went to reconquer the post. According to witnesses, the tension in the environment could be cut with a knife. But this time blood would not reach the river. The spirits calmed down and it was agreed that both indigenous people and "syndicates" could transit freely through the Uraima pass and move their work tools and supplies, as long as they showed respect for the indigenous authority and nobody carried weapons or, at least, nobody exhibited them.

Certainly, the locals did not allow the syndicates to intimidate them. But to preserve peace they paid a price: to negotiate the passage and crossing through their ancestral lands to the irregulars.

The native communities continue to respect that status quo. However, at the time they still informed the state authorities about the incident and its consequences. According to documents, a report of the events was sent to the major general Marcelino Federico Pérez Díaz, then commander of the Strategic Region of Integral Defense of Guayana (Redi); to the head of the sub-delegation of the Scientific and Criminal Investigation Corps (CICPC, judicial police) of Bolívar state; and to the commander of Regional No. 8 of the Bolivarian National Guard (militarized police, component of the Armed Forces), Brigadier General Ricardo Pérez Lugo. They never got an answer.

It is true that the governments of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution - one of whose flags is the official sensitivity towards indigenous peoples - have recognized the problem. As it is also true that it does not manage to propose and implement solutions.

Three days after the manifesto made public by the indigenous people in January 2014, the then Minister of Interior, Justice and Peace, General Miguel Rodríguez Torres, acknowledged the existence of mafias who took the mines, during a visit to the state of Bolívar. "Here we have a problem, there are some groups that call themselves 'syndicates' and they are actually armed gangs that commit extortion". During that visit, in a day that Governor Rangel Gómez described as "exemplary", the creation of special groups was promised to "neutralize those gangs that are doing practically whatever they want". But a year and a half later, the situation changed almost nothing. Still in June 2015, Rangel Gómez declared that he was about to go "with the firm decision and all the forces to normalize a situation that has been generated by the different mining 'syndicates' that try to take control of the area with illegal mining".

It's not the Good Wildling; it's the gold

The rain does not stop in Musukpa. The wind blows furiously and threatens to tear out the flimsy sheet of zinc that acts as a roof in the churuata where the assembly meets. Even the dogs huddle in the middle. But the conclave is not interrupted either.

Gloria continues to recite in strict chronological order the events that led to the creation of Musukpa. She assures that the government's omission and neglect of many years, and the participation of the authority in a network interwoven between irregulars, military, politicians, led to an awakening of the peoples. She takes a pause of a couple of seconds and adds: "Also for the discrimination against the indigenous people that the military had in conjunction with the armed groups they call 'syndicates', because, let's say it once and for all, who wants to work under gun threats?".

In the chronology - presented as an oral exercise of collective memory - the statement of January 21, 2014 occupies a prominent position. Although it was then the equivalent of a "No more!" proclamation from the community, it ended up being a sort of foundational title for Musukpa and its claims to become an autonomous enclave. A sort of independent republic.

As the law of the strongest began to be imposed in the region, over the norms of the Venezuelan State, the text included a fragment that, as would later be confirmed, was neither a bravado nor a simple threat. The natives were preparing to defend themselves. "If the security institutions don't assume their functions, we will be obliged to organize ourselves to defend our rights and fight insecurity within our territories", states the document. Also: "The Port of Uraima will be taken, where a security brigade will be established to strengthen internal security mechanisms in the communities".

As early as October 25, 2011, in the resolution 001-2001, issued by the captains of the indigenous communities of the high and mid Paragua, two days before the takeover of Toronó, which led to the constitution of Musukpa, it was already spoken about the creation and organization of "security brigades" or self-defense groups. Three surveillance and control points were then established at the access points of Musukpa.

In January 2014, the formation of self-defense groups was considered imminent. The natives proposed the maintenance of these groups by self-management with economic contributions from merchants, river transport, visitors, owners of machines, shovelers and workers. In the landmark document of that date, they argue that indigenous peoples have a right of autonomy that allows them to assume their own security and community justice. They make it clear that such actions stem from the institutional vacuum, the abandonment and the omission of the authorities to exercise their obligations in terms of justice procurement and security. And they emphasize: "We reaffirm our desire that our lands and communities not be shelters for criminals, let alone that they bring a bloodshed, we want to be free and independent men and women".

It is not, in any way, an exclusive phenomenon of Venezuela. In Mexico, the indigenous people and peasants of the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, cornered between the drug cartels, took up arms to defend themselves against the organized crime that harasses their communities, where the increase in violence and human rights violations has totally blurred the legitimacy of the State.

And the example of Musukpa was contagious in Venezuela. Two years after the takeover of Toronó, further southeast, in the Gran Sabana, again the Pemones disarmed Venezuelan military personnel who subjected them to the payment of tithes in the Ikabarú area.

Now in areas of the Gran Sabana, such as sectors five and six, there are local security brigades. In Santa Elena de Uairén, the large town in southern state of Bolívar, neighboring the Brazilian Boa Vista (state of Roraima), there is talking about forming community rounds. The last week of last July there was a meeting in the Gran Sabana, from which came the idea of ??a future Aboriginal University of Security.

Alexis Romero, the Pemón leader who in October 2011 traveled from the Gran Sabana to help in the takeover of Toronó, the future Musukpa, successfully negotiating with the government and the army, has some responsibility for the consolidation of this idea in the region too.

Romero paid a high price for his advice: he was the only one of the five imputed captains who ended up in prison for the uprising against the military authorities. He was imprisoned in the Centro Penitenciario de Oriente (East Penitentiary Center), better known as 'La Pica', on the outskirts of Maturín, capital of the state of Monagas. After several days of imprisonment, the political prisoner received an unexpected presidential pardon from Hugo Chávez Frías. In any case, he still seems imprisoned today. He doesn't even leave the Gran Sabana. Although he must appear every 15 days before a court in Ciudad Guayana, 720 kilometers away, he warns that he cannot pay for those trips.

Romero, who speaks on the phone from the community of Maurak, in the Gran Sabana, advises caution to assess what happens among the Pemones in terms of community safety. Firstly, so that local initiatives are not confused with other local popular forms in recent years, such as the so-called collectives or the paramilitary groups. He fears that confusion would at some point serve to criminalize the emerging indigenous movement: "Trying to imitate models that are born from the State is a failure, a mistake, we have to develop our organizational processes from our own structures". Then, so that the situation is not idealized. It is no longer a question about the virginal state of the Good Wildling, but about supervising an extractive activity that preys on nature and collective morals. It is the demon of gold. "Everything is harmful no matter how artisanal you try to do it", warns the 49-year-old leader. "It is very difficult to sustain it when the indigenous people, especially the Pemón people, know the non-traditional mining carried out with hydraulic machines, and the ease it provides. Going back to the past is nearly impossible".

The anthropologist Esteban Mosonyi judges the situation from Caracas with the same fatality - or realism -: "The Indigenous people have become miners because nobody has supported them in any other kind of activity. Now certain interests and even necessities predominate that force them to live with mining. They have asked for help for tourism, aid for agriculture, normal economic activities and have never received support, and when an initiative comes up they have no success".

In Musukpa, where many young people are reservists and high school graduates, few, however, are willing to do community work, which represents the basis of the very existence of the indigenous community. "As it is not a paid job, to cover their needs they dedicate to mining", is the regret with which Gloria Lucila Morales concludes her story. "It's the sad expression we diagnose".

(*) This report was conducted during the Diploma of Investigative Journalism, which is offered by the Institute of Press and Society (IPYS) in alliance with the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB).

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