Mérida, 15th March 2013 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – The assassination of indigenous Yukpa chief Sabino Romero on Saturday 3 March has led to public criticisms of the Venezuelan government’s handling of the land rights conflict in the Sierra de Perijá region.
Romero was killed by gunfire on 3 March as he made his way to an indigenous election in the Sierra de Perijá in the west of Venezuela, the region where the indigenous Yukpa people live. His partner Lucia was left seriously injured in the incident.
Romero was an indigenous leader and land rights activist who fought for the handing over of ancestral Yupka lands, some of which have been officially granted to the Yupka by the government but are still occupied by large-scale cattle ranchers.
His murder has drawn renewed attention to the land struggle between the Yupka, and ranching and mining interests in the Sierra de Perijá. The government’s role in the conflict has also come under the spotlight, with social movements blaming judicial impunity and public media silence for allowing Romero’s assassination to take place and the persecution of the Yukpa to continue.
The government’s reaction
The Venezuelan government suspects that Romero was murdered by hired killers for his role in the land struggle against cattle ranchers in the region.
The government was quick to denounce the assassination, with communications minister Ernesto Villegas calling it “a terrible act…which is condemnable and must be repudiated from all points of view”.
Further, interior affairs minister Nestor Reverol said the assassination was “part of, once again, the violence that the corrupt right-wing wants to reign over the indigenous peoples who have traditionally occupied these lands to develop their way of life”.
Following the murder, the Venezuelan government sent a high-profile investigation team to the Sierra de Perijá, Zulia state, comprised of the national intelligence service SEBIN and the criminal investigation body CICPC.
On Wednesday, two local police officers and one National Guard soldier were arrested and are being questioned for their possible connection with the crime.
Meanwhile Attorney General Luisa Ortega has promised that “justice will be done” and “we’re going to search and find those responsible for the act”.
Social movement criticisms
Some social movements and indigenous rights activists have accused the government of not acting to protect Romero’s life when it was known he was in danger. They further claim that local judicial impunity is preventing those responsible for violence against the Yupka from being held to justice.
Social movements have also criticised Venezuelan state media for ignoring the land conflict in the Sierra de Perijá, contributing to the climate of impunity. Since Romero’s assassination, state media have begun reporting more on the Yupka’s struggle, including reporting some of the criticisms being leveled against the government.
On Sunday 4 March, the day after Romero’s murder, various collectives and activists protested outside the Attorney General’s office to demand that “justice be done” in the Romero case and that “impunity cease”.
Lusbi Portillo of the Homo et Natura Society said to press that Romero had received over 20 death threats before his assassination.
Threats against Romero’s life seem to have intensified after Romero travelled to Caracas last November with some 60 Yupka. There, he demanded that the government act against violence on the part of cattle ranchers, and protested against government vacillation over the conflict.
During the 4 March protest, a spokesman for the Attorney General addressed the crowd to defend the institution’s role in the protection of Romero’s life.
“We offered Sabino protection measures from 2008, but when we tried to fulfill the measure, according to information given to us, which we have record of, he didn’t give [the authorities] information of a fixed residence and he was always based in different places, and he always told us that he looked after his own security,” said the spokesman.
Protesters also demanded a resolution to the land conflict in the Sierra de Perijá, and asked why lands which the Chavez government had granted to the Yupka were still being held by ranchers.
“There are 395,000 hectares of demarcated indigenous territory that still haven’t been handed over,” said lawyer Soraya Suarez to Telesur.
“Where is the response about the [public] money that was supposedly granted to pay the cattle ranchers [for their land] so that they leave these lands once and for all in the Sierra de Perijá…which can then come under the control of the Yupka?” she continued.
Some groups have also suggested that social organisations form part of the investigation into Romero’s murder, such as social movements based in Zulia state which are members of the pro-government Great Patriotic Pole coalition.
An on-going struggle
The Yupka’s demand for the demarcation and granting of ancestral lands is legally based on the 1999 National Constitution and the Indigenous Peoples Law, which grant a number of political, legal, and territorial rights to Venezuela’s indigenous, who make up just under 3% of the population.
However in the Sierra de Perijá, an area rich in coal seams and grazing land, ranching and mining interests have resisted efforts to demarcate and hand over ancestral lands to the Yupka. When some Yupka groups began to occupy such lands in 2008, these economic groups responded with violence and assassinations.
While local, political, and judicial interests have been accused of colluding with the campaign against the Yupka, in August 2008 President Hugo Chavez pledged support for the Yupka, saying, “Nobody should have any doubts: Between the large estate owners and the Indians[sic], this government is with the Indians.” Chavez further ordered top government figures to implement the Indigenous Law and demarcate and grant lands in the Sierra de Perijá to the Yupka.
Yet some indigenous chiefs, including Sabino Romero, opposed the land demarcation process that followed, arguing that it was not carried out in proper consultation with Yupka communities and that the land granted was demarcated in a manner conserving the best lands for ranching, mining and military interests.
Romero was imprisoned from 2009 to 2011 for his supposed role in a violent incident in October 2009 related to the dispute over government land grants to indigenous groups. His imprisonment was challenged as illegal with an appeal contesting that his case should fall under the competence of indigenous law.
Following Romero’s increasingly public campaign for the Yupka and his November 2012 trip to Caracas, the Yupka chief became “an obstacle to be eliminated” for cattle ranchers, landowners and other interests in the region, according to a statement by left union current, the Socialist Workers Unit (UST).
With Sabino Romero’s assassination, to date 38 Yupka have been killed in the conflict with ranchers, according to Venezuelan cinema artist and politician Carlos Azparua. This number includes the murder of Romero’s father and one of Romero’s children in 2008, and the murder Romero’s fellow activist Alexander Fernández last year.
The UST, which is opposed to the Chavez government, claims that vested economic interests in the Sierra de Perijá “have the support and complicity of government and military bureaucrats”. Further, the UST says that these economic interests also have “known links” with politicians from the conservative Democratic Unity (MUD) opposition coalition.
In light of Romero’s murder, a Venezuelan coalition of social organisations, Life Forum, has demanded that protection be afforded to family members and others connected with Romero who may be in danger. They also advocate the resumption of the process of Yupka land demarcation, and the full consultation with indigenous communities of any mining projects on their lands.
The public investigation into Romero’s assassination continues.