Indigenous Leaders Call for Justice After Landlord Violence Shakes Communities

The violence, which led to the kidnapping of Yukpa school teacher Mary Fernandez, comes amid land conflicts between cattle ranchers and indigenous communities.

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Local police officials and soldiers address indigenous citizens of the Sierra de Perija region of Venezuela
Local police officials and soldiers address indigenous citizens of the Sierra de Perija region of Venezuela. (Courtesy)
By Paul Dobson
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Merida, November 29, 2018 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Indigenous Yukpa leaders are calling for the Venezuelan government to take measures to ensure that justice is served following weeks of violence, including five deaths and the kidnapping of community teacher Mary Fernandez in the Sierra de Perija region on the Colombo-Venezuelan border.

Yukpa chiefs, known as caciques, and organised community groups hold local affiliates of the National Cattle Ranching Federation (FEDENAGA) responsible for the bloodshed, claiming that land ownership disputes and lucrative cattle smuggling lie at the heart of the confrontations.

The latest incident has split the indigenous population of the Sierra de Perija, pitting some Yukpa communities fighting to regain their ancestral land against others aligned with the cattle ranchers.

Violence in the multiple Yukpa communities of the mountainous region kicked off following the reported theft of 69 cattle from the Campo Alegre Ranch in the Tukuko community on November 17. Three people died in the altercation.

Two days later, Tukuko community Cacique Nestor Maikishi, alongside local cattle-ranching landlords Maria Antonia Lopez and Emer Lopez of the nearby Panama and Delicias Ranches, allegedly ordered an attack against the indigenous community of Kuse, holding their members responsible for the cattle theft. Kuse leaders, for their part, accuse the Tukuko community of having sold out their tribal companions to the non-indigenous ranching elites and deny any involvement in the incident.

During the attack, many houses were torched, including that of Kuse Cacique Carmen Anita Fernandez, whilst her daughter, Mary, alongside another man, was kidnapped.

“We are demanding that the family of [Carmen] Anita [Fernandez] hand themselves over, this is why we have detained these people,” stated Maikishi at the time.

Mary Fernandez, a mother of four, was apparently held on the Delicias Ranch for seven days by paramilitary forces, where she allegedly suffered torture, beatings, and other human rights violations.

On November 25, one week after being kidnapped, local police forces intervened, liberating Fernandez, only to arrest her and hold her in police custody. She was finally released on Monday and has filed legal action against her captors.

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Mary Fernandez reportedly suffered violence abuses and torture at the hands of the her kidnappers
Mary Fernandez reportedly suffered violence abuses and torture at the hands of the her kidnappers. (Archives)

The Organisation of Indigenous Yukpa Women from the Sierra of Perija released a statement Saturday, in which they urged President Nicolas Maduro to guarantee that “real” justice is delivered in the case “once and for all,” demanding a “serious forensic investigation.”

They also call for the safeguarding of the families of Cacique Carmen Anita Fernandez, as well as that of Cacique Sabino Romero of the neighbouring Shaktapa community, who ranchers also accuse of being involved in the cattle theft.

Romero is the son of his father of the same name who was murdered in 2013 by landowning elites, alongside a number of other Yukpa leaders, including one of Mary Fernandez’s three brothers. Romero’s family accuses Maria Antonia Lopez of being the intellectual author behind the chief’s assassination, claiming that the murder was motivated by his prominent leadership in indigenous land reform struggles. While the material perpetrator of the assassination was convicted in a historic trial in 2015, no landowners have to date faced prosecution.

“They are trying to involve me and my family in the recent problems in the zone,” stated Romero last week. “I want to clarify that my family and I haven’t had anything to do with these deeds, we are totally innocent… I have never promoted conflicts between my brother Yukpa people.”

“The residents of the Shatakpa community are not against those of the Tukuko community, with all the threats that we have received we have taken security measures in the Yaza river basin (…) we are alert to this wave of threats against our community,” he went on to say.

Cattle smuggling and land rights

The problems of cattle smuggling and theft are intrinsically linked to historic land disputes between the indigenous communities and the ranchers.

Speaking to Venezuelan TV channel Alba TV, Romero pointed out that ranchers take advantage of higher prices across the border to smuggle their produce out of Venezuela, where their products are subject to fixed sale prices.

“The crime [of cattle theft] has been growing in the region as the Colombians buy the animals in [the more valuable currency of] Pesos,” he explained.

“The cattle ranchers hate us because we have reclaimed a lot of land which belonged to our ancestors. They take advantage of the Yukpa communities to pit indigenous against indigenous, whilst in our opinion those responsible of cattle theft are the same ranchers,” Romero added.

The Organisation of Indigenous Yukpa Women also claim that Mary Fernandez, alongside her family and that of Sabino Romero, have, “always struggled for the restoration of the indigenous territorial rights,” which has made them a target of landlord violence in the region.

“It is too threatening [to the local landlords] for people to oppose the illegal ranching practices, the hit men [they hire] and the guerrilla fighters, or to simply not participate in these practices which smuggle cattle out to Colombia,” the group goes on the state.

Yukpa communities have carried out significant land reclamation in recent years, taking back swathes of land which they have proven to belong to their communities, most of which was violently taken from them at the start of the twentieth century by ranchers.

This has led to a violent reaction from the landowners, leading to a number of deaths in past years. Social movements are still seeking justice in the case of a number of other assassinated Yukpa leaders dating back to the 1995 Kasmera massacre and extending to the killing of Mary Fernandez’s brother, 19-old Cristobal Fernandez, by national guard soldiers on June 24, 2014.

The latest violence follows a significant increase in rural confrontations between campesino communities and landowners, which have led to a number of deaths in past months, most recently those of United Left leader Tomas Ribas in Barinas State and Communist Party leader Luis Fajardo and his brother-in-law Javier Aldana in Merida State.

Edited by Lucas Koerner from Caracas.

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