3 indigenous dead in Peru after pandemic-related clash with police

Soldiers check the personal documents of a man during the start of a curfew in Lima in April. (AP pic)

LIMA: Peruvian indigenous people angry over the pandemic and armed with spears assaulted a settlement for oil workers deep in the Amazon, triggering a clash with police that left three natives dead, the government said Sunday.

Frustrated over oil spills and what they say is government neglect of natives during the coronavirus crisis, around 70 indigenous people tried to overrun the oil company settlement around midnight Saturday in a bid to halt work at a well in the remote town of Bretana in the Loreto region.

The indigenous people complain that the well, known as Lot 95 and operated by a Canadian-owned company called PetroTal, has caused pollution in their lands through a series of oil spills.

The company said after the clash it was suspending work at the site, where it employs about 100 people.

Interior Minister Jorge Montoya said the clash left three indigenous people dead. The ministry said six police officers and 11 native people were injured.

A government delegation has been sent to Loreto to try to calm things down, Montoya said.

Orpio, an umbrella organisation representing indigenous people in the Peruvian part of the Amazon, said the attack was against “the oil company and the State because of neglect and abandonment of their loved ones through lack of treatment and medicine” in the pandemic.

Differing accounts

There were differing accounts of how the violence started.

The ministry said that in addition to spears, the natives had shotguns and that the clash started when they opened fire with buckshot and wounded a police officer.

But Orpio said it was police who fired first and that in the ensuing chaos, in the middle of the night, some officers ended up shooting at each other.

“Our indigenous brothers did not have firearms. They only carried spears as an ancestral tool of defence,” Orpio said in a statement.

“They wanted to take over the oil camp,” it said.

The government said a prosecutor was with police who tried to repel the indigenous people’s assault.

The pandemic has exacted an awful toll on the dozens of indigenous peoples that live in poverty in the Peruvian Amazon.

Authorities estimate that in Iquitos, for instance, the main city in the Peruvian Amazon, seven of every 10 people have been infected with the virus.

In May, its morgues were overflowing and hospitals were desperately short of oxygen tanks.

The Loreto region is one of the most vast and least populated in Peru, and one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic.

In the Amazon, there are few roads – transport is mainly by river – so the government has been airlifting in medical supplies.

Peru has suffered more than 20,000 deaths from the virus, putting it behind only Brazil and Mexico as the nations hit worst by the crisis sweeping the globe.