Defending the defenceless: Peru's most wanted refuses to be silenced

From her jungle hideaway, Teresita Lopez tells Guy Adams why she won't give up fighting for her persecuted people

Teresita Lopez is in hiding. "Somewhere in the Amazon" is as much as she is willing to reveal about her current location now she has been placed on the Peruvian government's most-wanted list.

The authorities in Lima have charged her with inciting murder, sedition and insurrection. Nonsense, she says. All she has been doing is protecting the rights of Peru's 350,000-strong Amazonian Indian community and helping them safeguard their traditional way of life, under threat from a President keen to open the Amazon to international mining, logging and oil companies.

"The indigenous people of the Amazon don't ask anything of the government because it has never supported us," Lopez said in an interview. "All we demand is respect for our ways of life, and respect for our rights as citizens to live on our land – where we were born and where we will die."

The tensions in this corner of South America burst onto the international radar in June, with a massacre that became known as "the Amazon's Tiananmen". Dozens of people were killed and hundreds wounded when Peruvian police fired on crowds demonstrating on a highway near the northern town of Bagua Grande against plans to sell swathes of their homeland to foreign-owned corporations.

That spiralled into a political crisis for President Alan Garcia. His popular Prime Minister, Yehude Simon, resigned, apparently in protest at how the whole affair was handled. Now, more than two months after these grisly events, the President's still wobbly government has turned its attention to the business of exacting serious revenge.

Ms Lopez, a community leader from the Yanesha tribe, is just one of the Amazonian Indian's most prominent leaders to have been forced into hiding as a result. She could face life imprisonment if arrested and convicted.

"We have been charged with sedition, rebellion, and insurrection," she explained. "The accusations were announced at a press conference. This violates all legal procedures. The government is effectively persecuting us, the leaders, for working with indigenous people and voicing their demands."

Peruvian authorities have accused her of being responsible for sparking the Bagua massacre on 5 June. But Ms Lopez says she was 900 miles away in Lima on that day.

The basis of the charges against her is that she attended a televised press conference in the capital in May, which prosecutors say helped inspire the unrest. "I have been denounced, and a warrant for my arrest has been issued, for sitting at a table during a press conference," Ms Lopez said. "I didn't even say anything. Imagine if I had!"

The 48-year-old, from the Oxapampa region in central Peru, says she is being sheltered by "brothers, family and colleagues in the indigenous movement". She has been advised to remain in hiding or seek asylum, rather than emerge to clear her name. "I have no possibility or guarantee of defending myself legally because the executive is interfering in what the judiciary is doing," she said.

At the heart of the dispute are 13 laws unveiled by President Garcia last year. They threatened to open 67 million hectares of Peru's undeveloped rainforest to exploitation by foreign-owned logging, mining and energy companies. The Indians were outraged and staged protests to demand they be repealed. Four of the 13 controversial laws have now been dropped. However, that still leaves nine in place.

Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, a human rights organisation that supports tribal peoples, says that Teresita's case clearly illustrates what is going on in Peru right now. "Garcia's government is determined to sabotage the indigenous movement by driving the real leaders into exile or trying to imprison them," he said.

Alberto Pizango, the leader of AIDESEP, a group representing Peru's 56 tribes, was granted asylum in Nicaragua, along with two colleagues, in the aftermath of the violence on the grounds of political persecution. The Central American nation believes that the men are unlikely to get fair trial in their homeland. The number of Amazonian Indians facing charges – in relation to a massacre they blame on the police – has soared to 120.

Among those being prosecuted, rights groups say, are 48 native Indians who are still receiving hospital treatment for injuries sustained when security forces opened fire in June. Armed guards are stationed outside the medical facilities, so the Aguaruna and Wampi Indians can be arrested and whisked to jail the moment doctors agree to sign their discharge papers.

One indigenous leader, Santiago Manuin, was shot in the stomach at Bagua by at least four bullets. From his bedside, a plastic pouch still draining his intestines, and five AK-47-toting guards at the door, he told the Associated Press last week: "Justice doesn't exist for the indigenous. The government values the police more than us and doesn't want to acknowledge its mistake."

Although Peru insists that just 33 people died at Bagua – of which 10 were protesters and 23 were armed police officers – several observers claim scores of other tribes-people remain unaccounted for. News reporters at the scene estimated the death toll at 60.

Peru's government has faced widespread international criticism in the wake of the killings. Its justice minister was hauled before a UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva this month and the UN special envoy on indigenous rights has called for an independent investigation.

Somewhat belatedly, given its speed in filing charges against the indigenous leaders, Peru this week finally announced action against some of the armed officials who were present at Bagua, charging two police generals and 15 other officers with homicide.

Whether that will be enough to appease Mr Garcia's opponents and repair his reputation remains to be seen. Since the events at Bagua, the President's approval ratings have dropped to 25 per cent, and his former ally Yehude Simon is said to be considering a hostile bid for his job.

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam