There is a growing conflict here in northern Peru over mining and oil extraction that pits the interests of the poor, indigenous people of the jungle against the deep pockets of the petroleum and mining companies. Just a few days ago, thousands of people demanding better representation for indigenous tribes’ interests rioted in the streets resulting in the police firing on the crowd, killing one.
This rising tension lead directly to our group literally fleeing for our lives and eventually seeking refuge in a Peruvian Air Force base in the Amazon jungle where we have been granted shelter for the night. I am writing this now in the top bunk of a cot in the barracks. How I got here is one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
This morning our group set out for a 3.5 hour boat trip up a tributary of the Amazon river to a tiny village to meet with tribal leaders (known as Apus) from around the region to discuss landmines and general health concerns of indigenous communities. Everything had been set up weeks in advance by a widely trusted community liaison from the area. We had soccer balls as gifts for the children, t-shirts and banners for photos with the participating Apus. Pretty standard stuff for this group.
I am part of an eleven person, international delegation sponsored by the Polus Center for Social & Economic Development. Polus’ mission is to assist persons with disabilities as well as other vulnerable groups around the world. Our delegation includes two doctors from Peru and nine other subject-matter experts from as far away as Jordan.
After we loaded up the boat, we were on our way up the Santiago river. All along the way boatloads of families would smile and wave to us and we would smile and wave back while taking photos. The Amazon jungle is stunningly beautiful, but incredibly dangerous. It can seem that every other leaf or flower contains a poison of one type or another. What can appear harmless and quite lovely, can potentially give you everything from a brief, painful rash to a long, painful death. While some dangers, like the dreaded ichenga bush with its long, poisonous needles , are obvious threats, even some of the butterflies here are poisonous. You really don’t know what to trust. Just like everywhere else in the world, the same goes for the people.
Our boat arrived at the bottom of the long, steep stairs at the entry to the village. I have made trips like this in other parts of the world many times. Usually when a group like ours arrives, children run to greet us, curious and excited as they have been told we are coming and are probably bearing gifts. But that wasn’t the case this time. A group of teenage boys seemed to scowl down at us from the top of the stairs. Didn’t they know we were coming?
We hauled all of our bags to the top of the stairs where some of us were summoned into a small hut to check our paperwork. Outside, still, no one greeted us. Families came out of their homes only to stare at us, expressionless.
The community liaison who set up the event with the tribe today assured us that they knew we were coming. Soon enough someone walked down the muddy street to greet us and take us to our meeting.
“I don’t like this at all” said my Jordanian friend, Kamel as we passed houses where families had come out to simply stare as we walked by. If you have ever seen a western movie where a stranger comes to town and all the townspeople watch silently as he walks down the street, it was exactly like that.
“I don’t either,” I said “Something’s really wrong.” I could not get so much as a smile from the children. I had never seen anything like it and a pit was fast growing in my stomach.
As we signed in, we joked nervously about which one of us should get eaten first. It was clear now that there was some kind of problem. The people who greeted us seemed very annoyed with the community liaison. We assumed amongst our group that he had lied to us and never told anyone we were coming. It is not wise to have a group of 11 people arrive unannounced to a remote village in the Peruvian highlands.
While more people came out to stare, Six police officers made their way to us across the cement soccer field in the middle of the village. The police uniforms consisted of a black vest with POLICIA on the front and back over whatever t-shirt was available, high mud-boots, shorts and long, broomstick-like clubs. They were angry. Angry at us.
To my relief, a friendly man with a vest that declared he was “Gobernador” introduced himself and said there was no big problem, he just had to make sure with officials in Lima that we were who we said we were. There was a minor problem with the paperwork, apparently. He smiled and asked us to follow him.
At this point I think we all just wanted to leave. Obviously the man who was supposed to have lined up our trip had dropped the ball and this was going nowhere or worse. We had arranged for hotel rooms and when the “Gobernador” walked us from the town office across the cement soccer field to a long non-descript building, my first thought was “I really don’t want to stay here in this weird village in this shitty hotel” until I read on the wall, just inside the main door, that we had been lead into the village courthouse and jail.
“What the fuck is this place?” Kamel asked me, under his breath in his middle-eastern accent.
“It’s the court”
Just then we were led into a small room with the police following just behind us. There, waiting for us, was The Apu, the village leader. He looked no more than 20 years old and wore a brown t-shirt bearing the silhouette of a man with a microphone and the word “karaoke” running vertically along the side. He greeted all of us with a genuinely friendly smile as the police brought in benches that were so low to the ground for some of us that it was more like squatting than sitting. We sat in a U shape in front of the boy-Apu with the police standing along the back wall, gripping their clubs and staring straight ahead. It was at this moment that I thought we might all be under arrest.
The Apu started speaking, and as he spoke he grew increasingly angry at the community liaison . I was straining with what little spanish I know to understand what he was saying. The best I could gather was that our paperwork was not in order and this was something very serious. The liaison would try to defend himself in long-winded responses, but the Apu would just wave papers at him and get more annoyed.
Part of our delegation includes representatives of Contraminas. Contraminas is the landmine removal and victim assistance arm of the Peruvian government. Heading it up is Wilyam Lukar. He spoke to my friend Michael Lundquist, CEO of the Polus Center, on the bench next to me while I tried to listen over the sound of The liaison pleading his case. “They are maybe not angry with us,” Wilyam was telling Michael “but the liaison is in a lot of trouble.”
At this point the apparent leader of the tribal police started literally screaming at the liasion from just behind the backs of my fellow travelers. Children started to gather at the windows of the courtroom. None of us was sure if we were witnessing a make-shift trial or, worse, being tried ourselves.
The liaison continued pleading with the Apu even as the policeman was screaming at him. While this was going on Wilyam was translating to Michael that the liaison was being put in the village prison and was begging to be allowed to get his bag so he could eat lunch first. The chaos ended when the Apu ordered the police to take the liasion to a jail cell behind the building that I initially thought was our hotel. I heard his jail cell close and wondered if we would be next. I started to imagine what a jail cell in the Amazon jungle would be like and soon forced myself to think of other things.
The young Apu asked for a translator and spoke to us all as a group.
“I am sorry that you had to see all of that. I wanted to make sure that I had witnesses when I executed” a poor word choice for the translator and my blood went cold “my orders to imprison this man. Many people here are angry with him and on this piece of paper I have a list of Apus that have all asked me to arrest him on sight.” he waved the same papers he waved earlier. “Now, we still have a problem…”
In the hallway I could hear yelling. A few of the police had left the room and something was going on at the doorway to the courthouse.
“I know you all do good work, we have heard good things about you, but my people do not know that. We have to explain it to them. You have to do that. I will try to help. When we leave here I ask that you do not take any pictures.”
We all got up to leave and exchanged nervous, but relieved glances. We were not going to jail and were now free to go.
Our relief was short-lived.
Outside the courthouse, and being blocked from entering by the same police that earlier had essentially put us all under arrest, were five or six men, and like a mob might wield pitchforks, each was holding aloft large branches of the dreaded, thorny ichenga. They were yelling with the police. They were yelling about us.
“They think we are with the mining companies” said Wilyam.
The Apu led us through the group of poisonous-switch-yielding, angry men. The crowd of a hundred or so that had gathered before we went into the courthouse had swelled to, no exaggeration, nearly a thousand. They filled the town square. They filled the streets around the courthouse. They were standing on their balconies.
We were directed to the center of the cement soccer field where the townspeople cleared a small circle for us to stand. Once there, the Apu told us that each one of us would have to speak to the yelling and screaming crowd about who we were and how we were not with the mining companies. We were being tried by a huge, angry mob of indigenous tribespeople of the Amazon who thought we were there to steal their land.
So many people were yelling that it was impossible for all of them to hear their leader (in a karaoke t-shirt) explain why we were there and that we were not guilty of whatever the liasion was seemingly convicted of doing. The Apu pleaded for his people to be calm, but they would have none of it. Even the women and children were yelling. A child spit at me.
“Wilyam, let’s just start walking to the boat,” I whispered.
“We can’t leave like that,” he whispered back “They will attack us on the river.”
At that point Wilyam held his hands high in the air, palms wide open and spoke about why we were there. He tried to explain that we were there to help and were not with petroleum companies or mining companies, but instead there to to teach about the danger of landmines and help the community. It was not helping matters that the word for both landmines and gold mines is “minas” in Spanish. I winced with every use of the word.
At that point he gestured to Kamel’s artificial leg “My friend lost his leg to a landmine when he was just a boy! We don’t want this to happen to you or your children! That is why we are here.”
The crowd kept yelling and calling him a liar. We all were whispering ideas to each other about arguments to make, but there were none to make. They seemingly wanted to beat or kill us or both. I thought we might get torn apart by the crowd. I thought of my children.
One-by-one men came out of the mob and yelled at Wilyam. He stayed calm and in Spanish told each one of them, “I am listening to you”. The crowd had moved in on us so closely that we were starting to get separated from each other.
At this point it was obvious it was not going to get better. Wilyam said to us and the Apu, “Ok, we go.”
Michael asked us all if we were ready for the longest walk of our lives and somehow we all shared a small laugh before making our way through the crowd, and, with hundreds on hundreds of villagers following us, continued walking the long, muddy street to our boat….Or where the boat should have been. Where the boat used to be.
I turned on my iPhone’s video camera in my pocket to try to get some of the sound of the situation. In the clip below we have just reached the storage area where all of our gear was. I am handing gear to our team in a chain. I say “OK, Wilyam” just as we walk back out into the crowd and then down to the dock. At the end you can hear confusion about the boat.
The pilot had seemingly abandoned us to save himself in the midst of all the chaos. It was hard to blame him. We stood at the bottom of the stairs with nothing between us and the muddy river but our bags. At the top of the stairs, some of the children were laughing while their parents yelled insults. The thought crossed my mind that they could very simply march us into the river with the piranha and the snakes.
The Apu called for someone to bring another boat. When it arrived after the longest 5 minutes known to man, we piled in along with the Apu and a member of the Apu’s police. The sound and smell of an outboard motor starting up never made me feel so good. As we motored away at top speed, I looked back. The whole village stood at the shore and stretched back further into their town than I could see. They kept yelling as we made our way around a bend in the river.
The Apu, clearly on our side, told us that word of this incident had spread down the river and we would need to travel some distance to be safe. We came around another wide bend and saw the boat that had taken us to the village. The pilot had not abandoned us, but was ordered by the Apu to leave and wait for us downriver so as not to cause more trouble with his presence.
We said our goodbyes to the wiser-than-his-years Apu, thanked him for his help, got into our original boat and headed back down the river… But we were still far from safe. Because of the misinformation of who we were, like the Apu said, we would have to travel for hours.
Night fell as we made our way through the Amazon in our small boat. More than once the rapids threatened to dump us into the God-knows-what that was under that water. Eventually, we docked near an Air Force base and while we waited near the boat on the shore, Wilyam spoke with the Commander. Eventually the commander appeared, looking every bit the part of a Peruvian Air Force Commander and welcomed us to the base.
“You are welcome to spend the night in the barracks,” he said while shaking our hands and smiling “You will be safe here.”
It was in the mess hall of the Peruvian Air Force base that our boat pilot explained to us over dinner what had happened: The liaison had allegedly been taking bribes from the mining companies to help them take advantage of the local tribes. He had been working with the indigenous people as a friend and had won many awards from the same communities he was spying on. When they all found out he had been betraying them by feeding information to the mining interests, they called for his arrest. As for his fate, according to our boat pilot, he was most likely stripped of all his clothes, except for his underwear, and repeatedly caned with ichenga by women in the community. He will then serve a few weeks to a few months in jail. Jail here is not like home. A few months in a Huampani prison, with ichenga beatings, is certainly a difficult sentence.
The mining issue is setting up a tinder box of conflict in northern Peru where the ways of life for millions of indigenous Peruvians is at stake. We just got caught in the middle. If not for Wilyam’s cool head, the rest of our group keeping their composure and the good reputation of The Polus Center, this story could have had a much different ending, or you could never have heard it at all.
Postscript: The above was written a few days ago. We are now safe in Lima, Peru and heading home, soon. The photos were taken first thing in the morning at the base, just before we headed back out on the river: