In Venezuela, Still No Justice in Indigenous Leader's Murder

All links in Spanish unless otherwise noted.

Two months after the assassination [en] of Yukpa indigenous leader Sabino Romero in Venezuela, activists and community members question why no one has been charged for the murder.

On Sunday 3 March, 2013, indigenous leader Sabino Romero was shot [en] and killed in the western Venezuela state of Zulia. Two men on a motorcycle approached Romero’s vehicle and fired, killing the leader and injuring his wife.

He died only days before the death of former Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez. Many feared the president’s death would overshadow the investigation process. Foro por la Vida, a group of Venezuela’s most prominent human rights organizations, called for an “exhaustive, transparent and quick investigation” to determine who was responsible.

Sources immediately suspected that the incident was a hired killing. Romero was an emblematic leader in a long-standing conflict between landowners, ranchers and indigenous peoples in Zulia. He championed the demarcation of Yukpa ancestral lands and protested against coal mining projects planned in the Perija mountain range bordering Colombia.

Yukpa leader Sabino Romero at a 2012 protest. Image by Flickr user lubrio (CC BY 2.0)

Yukpa leader Sabino Romero at a 2012 protest. Image by Flickr user lubrio (CC BY 2.0)

Almost two months after his death, no suspects have been charged in the killing. Activists and community groups organized an event on 24 April, 2013 in the Centro Cultural of the Central Park in Caracas to revive the search for justice.

The event, titled “El legado indocampesino: Homenaje al Cacique Sabino en Caracas” (The legacy of the indian-peasant: homage to the leader Sabindo in Caracas) brought together artists, musicians, academics and activists to commemorate Sabino Romero’s life. The alternative Venezuelan news site Apporea has photos from the event on their blog. As they point out, It is still unknown who ordered Sabino to be murdered.

The Latin American Bureau reported one possible reason for the delay in justice on their blog [en]. Quoting long-time Yukpa ally and coordinator of the NGO Society Homo et Natura Lusbi Portillo, they state:

CICPC [Body of Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations] is investigating Sabino’s death but the police and cattle ranchers are disrupting the process. Every time they bring someone in for questioning, the police and cattle ranchers start to protest, closing the roads and burning tyres. So every time someone is questioned there is a rumpus.

However the blog, an independent Venezuelan politics blog, is reporting [en] that a committee of seventeen Yukpa met with the minister for foreign affairs, Elias Jaua, on 25 March, 2013. Jaua promised to make payments to the Yukpa people within sixty days so their lands could be inhabited by them.

A graphic arts collective named Trinchera Creativa (@TrincheCreativa) first tweeted an image of Sabino Romero with the caption: How many dead leaders does Venezuela justice need to wake up and condemn murderers?

The Associated Press is reporting [en] at least eight murders involving the Yukpa tribe in recent years, usually arising from conflicts over land rights. In 2008 Sabino’s father José Manuel, a Yukpa elder over one hundred years old, was beaten to death. Some sources now report that the daughter of Romero is also facing danger [en] due to her public efforts supporting the Yukpa people, noting that in 2012, her “brother was murdered after having his eyes gouged out with wire. To this day, no one has taken the blame for this crime.“

The Yukpa have fought for years to reclaim ancestral land now occupied by ranchers and farmers. Lusbi Portillo has a long-running blog at chronicling the Yukpa struggles as far back as 2004.

Despite official government propaganda in support of the indigenous peoples, little progress has been made in the demarcation of indigenous territory. On their blog, Foro por la vida notes that only 3% of the Yukpa territory has been demarcated to date.

In 2008 during an episode of his unscripted talk show “Aló President,” ex-president Hugo Chavez made the following statement in support of the Yukpa:

“…Que nadie tenga duda: entre los hacendados y los indios, este gobierno está con los indios, no hay duda de ningún tipo, no hay duda de ningún tipoLos indígenas Yukpa deben ser protegidos por el gobierno, por la Fuerza Armada y por el Estado. … esas tierras estuvieron ocupadas por los indios Yukpa durante mucho tiempo, produciendo ganado, carne y leche, y fueron echados de ahí. Yo no estoy hablando de la conquista de los españoles, estoy hablando de hace treinta años… ahora aquí hay una Revolución: La Fuerza Armada, los cuerpos de inteligencia, el gobierno, todo, apoyando a los indios. Hay una Comisión de Demarcación, Yubirí, que tiene una deuda pendiente, tiene una deuda, debe estar allá, hay que demarcar porque eso está en la Constitución y en la Ley.

“Let there be no doubt: between the landowners and the Indians, this government is with the Indians… there is no doubt. The Yukpa people should be protected by the government, by the armed forces and by the state…these lands have been occupied by the Yukpa for a long time, gainfully producing meat and milk. They were thrown out of their land. And I’m not talking about the Spanish conquest. I’m talking about the last thirty years… Now we have a revolution. The armed forces, intelligence agencies and the government are now all supporting the indigenous peoples… There is a demarcation commission with a pending obligation. They should go demarcate [the territory] because it’s in the constitution and the law.”

You can watch the whole statement below:

However, Marino Alvarado, executive director of the Venezuelan human rights organization PROVEA, points out that the Yukpa struggle went beyond official rhetoric against large landholders and confronted mining in the region:

La lucha de Sabino Romero era contra el modelo de desarrollo extractivista energético. La demarcación estaba paralizada no solo por la “presión de la oligarquía ganadera” –como afirma cierta propaganda oficial-, sino porque en tierras indígenas de todo el país hay recursos ya negociados a futuro.

Sabino Romero's fight was against the extractive energy development model. The demarcation [of the Yukpa territory] was paralized not only because of the “pressure of the landowning oligarchy” – as certain official propaganda affirms – but also because in indigenous territory in the whole country there are resources already sold.

According to the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Venezuela [en] has around 27 million indigenous peoples comprising over 40 different groups. The 1999 constitution explicitly recognized the multi-ethnic nature of the country and included clauses to encourage the participation of indigenous peoples in all levels of politics. Venezuela has also ratified several international measures supporting indigenous rights including ILO Convention 169 [en] and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [en].

National legislation includes the Organic Law on Demarcation and Guarantees for the Habitat and Lands of the Indigenous Peoples and the Organic Law on Indigenous Peoples and Communities (LOPCI).

However, the relationship between the government and indigenous peoples remains paternalistic, ignoring local needs and decision-making structures. The lack of progress in indigenous rights – particularly the demarcation of indigenous territory – has caused groups to mobilize against the government. The Yukpa await to see if they will receive justice for the killing of their people and taking of their ancestral lands. 

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