At the end of January Nicaragua and the international community were shocked to learn of a massacre of Mayangna indigenous on their own lands by 80 heavily armed settlers. This is the latest – and one of the deadliest – of several attacks in recent years. The constant complaint of these indigenous communities is they receive no protection from the Police and Army. Even though they finally do have title to their ancestral land, their pleas for the government to take the required next step in the titling process – dealing with non-indigenous populations on the land – has fallen on deaf ears. This incident shows once again that in the absence of government action, the title becomes a meaningless piece of paper, and the goodwill the titling created is quickly dissipated.
This is how they massacred the Mayangna Indigenous in the Bosawas Reserve
By Amalia del Cid, La Prensa, Sunday February 9, 2020
On January 29th four Mayangna indigenous were attacked when they were in a river, looking for fish for the thanksgiving feast of their community. This was the massacre of Alal.
In the silence of Bosawas it is possible to hear the cry of a person, or the barking of a dog, from far away. If someone wants to find the origin of the sound, they have to walk for ten or fifteen minutes to find it, or instead stay very quiet and listen very carefully. Three women who were fishing in the Kikulang river on the afternoon this past January 29th did that, when they heard steps running toward them.
First, they thought that someone was coming to sound the alarm, as tends to happen in these lands when a person has an unfortunate encounter with a poisonous snake. But a little later they saw a breathless young man appear who could not utter a sound; followed by another boy, with a bullet wound. Behind them ran a third young man, who shouted from a distance, “they killed my Dad!”
The one who was in front was Centeno Indalecio, and the wounded boy, Marcony Jarquín. The last boy was Becker, the son of the best fisherman of the community of Alal, Juan Emilio Devis Gutiérrez. They came fleeing from the Kun Kun river, located an hour and a half walk from the Kikulang river, and they went to the village to alert the rest of its inhabitants. They had to warn them that armed settlers were attacking.
Throughout the previous day and the morning of the 29th itself, a dozen men had left from Alal to fish in the Kun Kun River, and hunt agoutis and deer in the Waktah mountain. Their mission was to get meat so the church could sell it on January 30th, thanksgiving day, recounted a community leader, who has asked that his name be omitted. He is afraid that some settler might recognize him.
Some years ago, before 2015, for the inhabitants of this Mayangna community it was still possible to go out to hunt or fish for three or four days without causing any concern among their relatives. “Now no,” says the indigenous leader. “Now you cannot leave the house. Crossing the Kaska River (which runs through the community) is now dangerous.”
Since the attacks from the settlers began to multiply in the indigenous territory to which Alal belongs, the community members took on the custom of returning early from their plots of land, and letting their relatives know exactly where they were going and when they would return.
Those who left on January 28th said that they were going to return the next day, but they did not return.
The silent “war”
The Mayangna Sauni As territory, or territory one, is found in the heart of the Bosawas Reserve, 25 kilometers from Bonanza in the Autonomous Region of the Northern Caribbean Coast. It extends for some 2,000 square kilometers, and has a population of approximately 7,000 people. The Alal community is one of 23 that make up this territory and is found “on the edge of the Reserve.”
After Alal there is only forest “up to three days of forest” before reaching another community. Walking straight forward it is possible to get lost and never get out of there. The closest communities are found several hours away, and the land is grooved by several rivers and naturals waterways. On that vastness for many years now an unequal “war” has been experienced between indigenous and invading settlers, a drama that affects nearly all the indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples settled on the 23 territories that legally and ancestrally belong to them.
With all that, Alal had never suffered a direct attack. In 2017 the neighboring community of Wilu was attacked by armed settlers, and in 2019, also the communities of Suniwas and Betlehem, even though in none of those attacks were people killed. Forgotten by all the State institutions, the indigenous have maintained their own patrols, armed with homemade harpoons and one or another hunting rifle, to discover in time the presence of “third parties” who come in to occupy by force the land of the reserve. But none of that helped on January 29th.
The first to leave were Marcony Jarquín, Centeno Indalecio and Arly Samuel Gutiérrez. They left on the morning of January 28th, in the direction of the Kun Kun river, located a two and a half hour walk from the community. A little later, Amaru Rener Hernández and Cristino López Ortiz followed their steps. And later, that same day, a group of men left to hunt in the mountains, above the Kun Kun river.
Among these last ones were Víctor Díaz Tránsito Meza Bruno, Econías Miguel, Carlos Bruno and Navarro Miguel. All forest rangers, responsible for patrolling the plots that the inhabitants of the community work close to the Kaska river.
The next day, on the morning of the 29th, Juan Emilio Devis Gutiérrez and his son Becker also went to Kun Kun for the purpose of collaborating in the collection for the day of thanksgiving. After all, no one fished better in Alal than Juan, 40 years of age. It was known that when he went out to swim under water with his harpoon, he would bring in enough fish to supply a good part of the community. In addition, he was a forest ranger and one of those most concerned about the destructive movement of the settlers into the Reserve.
Like him, the other indigenous that left to fish and hunt were those who did not complain when the church would mention their names to commit them to some task.
Arly Samuel, 19 years old, and Amaru Rene, 24, were working in the plots from Monday to Friday, and Saturdays they would go to high school. Cristino, 25 years old, also would plant the land, and on Fridays would travel to Bonanza, more than four hours by foot and more than two hours by bus, for university classes. He was about to begin his third year of Language and Literature.
At 4:00 in the afternoon that tragic Wednesday no one had returned to Alal, and the community members began to get really concerned.
A cry in the jungle
“They killed my Dad!”, shouted the son of Juan Emilio Devis. And the women who were fishing in the Kikulang began to run along with the three boys who came from the Kun Kun river. On arriving at Alal, Centeno Indalecio and Marcony Jarquín alerted the people, and the community leaders took charge of spreading the word, “they are attacking the community!”
“They told the women and children to leave first,” relates an indigenous leader. “They left without grabbing clothing, without anything. My Mom is a nurse and she got to work to take care of the wounds of Marcony, she just finished doing that, and in five minutes the armed men attacked the community.”
In a few minutes almost all of the nearly 500 inhabitants of the community abandoned their homes and went into the forest to find refuge in neighboring hamlets, above all in Musawas, the capital of the territory, located two hours away.
Alal was left empty. And around 5:20 pm some eighty armed men charged into the village; they burned 16 homes, including the pastoral center; they damaged the church, the school and the health post; they burned the school snacks and killed all the cows that they found: around twenty.
They also wounded a young man named Will Fernández, who received a bullet in the head, but still had the strength to go into the forest to hide, where he spent the entire early morning.
On dawn January 30th the attackers had now left, and the sun lit up the scene of the wooden homes reduced to ruins and ashes. Some inhabitants of Alal returned to confirm the disaster, and they began to look for the disappeared.
Will they found in the forest. He was not speaking, could not see, was barely breathing, but he was alive. The “smell of death” that began to be perceived in the air was the biggest concern, because it was not the stench of the cows; it was coming from a waterway on the banks of the Kaska. There was the body of Juan Emilio, still dressed in the clothing that he used to go fishing. Cream colored pants, threadbare and ripped; rubber boots and an old grey t-shirt with the words “Las Vegas”.
The fisherman was found face up, covered by some leaves that fell from the trees in the early morning. He had his hands tied behind his back, the head showed signs of having been beaten with shovels, various bullet holes and there are those who state that, on taking off his boots, they discovered that his toes had been severed.
Becker was mistaken when, on fleeing from the river, he thought his father was dead. The invaders had brought him in alive from Kun Kun to kill him in the community of Alal itself.
Another three dead
Of all the men who did not return home on the afternoon of the 29th, four were dead. On the 30th those who had gone out to hunt in the mountains were taken to be disappeared, and their names were mentioned in the first denouncements issued by the leaders of Alal. Nevertheless, that same afternoon it was known that, deep in the forest, the hunters did not even know about the attack of the settlers, because the sound of the river drowned out the sound of the gunfire.
It was precisely they who found the bodies of Cristino and Amaru on the banks of the Kun Kun, when they came down off the mountain, the afternoon of Thursday January 30. They saw from far away two men who seemed asleep, and at first, they were alarmed, thinking they were settlers, but on seeing that they were not moving, they went to see what was going on. There they recognized the two boys.
Cristino and Amaru were buried on the morning of Friday January 31, in the small cemetery that is located 300 meters from the church. The previous afternoon the community buried Juan Emilio and Arly Samuel, who they found on the path between Kun Kun and Kikulang. The bullets got him when he was running, and later the attackers struck him until they nearly cut his head off.
That Friday, when now the dead of Alal were buried, the Police issued a press release stating that there was no evidence in the zone that people had died. It was not until Saturday, three days after the massacre, and in the face of the overwhelming evidence that was already circulating on social networks, that the institution was forced to recognize the murder of the four Mayangna indigenous.
Life in the community, nevertheless, has not returned to normal. And it may never return, as long as the conflict with the settlers persists, who are invading indigenous territories. For now, the community members have not even finished returning, and those who returned, do not have anything to eat, because they are afraid of what might happen to them if they go beyond the Kaska river.
A little more than a month ago Cristino receive a medal for being the best goalkeeper in the soccer league of the Mayangna Sauni As territory, and less than two weeks ago was preparing to start a new year of classes in the university. Now he is dead, and the fear is that no one will pay for this.
From 2015 to now, at least forty indigenous have been murdered for resisting the illegal occupation of their lands, states Lottie Cunningham, the president of the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN). All of those cases have gone unpunished.
“None have been investigated, there is no material or intellectual author punished or sentenced, and this impunity is going to encourage this invasion even more,” she maintains.
For the indigenous who have lost friends and relatives at the hands of the settlers, the feeling of injustice and vulnerability is even greater. “They are violating the law on us”, says one of them. “If I see a dead horse in the street, I take a photo of it, put it on internet, its life has value. But we, it is like we are nothing…like we aren´t worth anything”.
Social impact of the invasion of the settlers
The problem of the invasion of the settlers is an old one. It has not been resolved by any government, and in recent years it has gotten exponentially worse. It is a matter of thousands of people who invade lands that by law belong to the indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples, a territory that encompasses about 54% of the Caribbean Coast.
There is every type of settler: from peasants who are deceived by sellers of land that does not belong to them, to former military and large landowners who have seized “farms” of up to 10,000 manzanas. They are people who show up with deeds signed by anyone.
There are 23 indigenous territories, within which there are 304 communities and 270 of them live “in distress, fear and crisis”, threatened with greater or lesser amounts of violence, “under intimidation, harassment and that massive illegal invasion of their territory,” points out Lottie Cunningham, president of the Center for Justice and Human Rights in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN).
Twelve of those communities have protectionist measures from the IACHR, “but since 2015, at no moment have the State authorities demonstrated the willingness to implement those measures to protect the life and territory of the indigenous.”
For Cunningham there is no doubt that the tragedy that the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean are experiencing is the direct responsibility of the State. “The State authorities have been accomplices, because they have not carried out comprehensive actions to mitigate the threat, intimidation and harassment that the communities are experiencing. The Government has demonstrated that it has supported the settlers in a paternalistic way, many of them former military, because they are armed. Right now, most of the indigenous communities are on alert, they do not sleep. They are watchful so as to not be attacked,” she maintains.
Just in those twelve communities benefitted by protection measures, more than 1,000 people have been displaced from their crop lands, and more then 600 from their communities. 32,330 hectares of plots of land have been lost. And if a census could be done of the rest of the 270 threatened communities, the results would be even more overwhelming.
The people who have stayed in their communities are “dying of hunger”, surviving on bananas that grow in the jungle. Those who have left, have had to overcome daily difficulties in cities like Waspam, Puerto Cabezas and Bonanza, or in communities with larger populations. Some indigenous have migrated to Costa Rica and Panama, and many to Honduras.
The women are placed as poorly paid domestic workers, and the men have gone out to sea to work in deep diving, fishing lobster and shrimp, states Cunningham. But since they are not accustomed to that work in the high seas, several have drowned.
The tragedy of the indigenous in the face of the invasion of the settlers, who are looking for land for grazing cattle and mono-cropping, precious wood and gold, is profound. Its most visible and brutal face is that of the murders, but there is a deeper complex problem which no authority has wanted to resolve, even though, frequently the names of the invaders are known.