An indigenous environmental activist was killed in Mexico's south-central state of Morelos on Feb. 20—three days ahead of a planned referendum on an energy development project that he opposed. Samir Flores Soberanes was a leader of the local Peoples in Defense of Land and Water Front (FPDTA) and community radio station Amilzinko. He was slain by unknown gunmen in an attack at his home in the village of Amilcingo, Temoac municipality. He was a longtime figure in local opposition to the planned Huexca power plant and associated natural-gas pipeline, pushed by the government under the Morelos Integral Project (PIM).
Under pressure to address the ongoing wave of targeted assassinations in Colombia, President Iván Duque Jan. 30 for the first time spoke before the National Commission to Guarantee Security, formed by the previous government to address continuing violence in the country—which has only worsened since he took office last year. Duque said 4,000 people are now under the government's protection program for threatened citizens. But his office implied that the narco trade is entirely behind the growing violence. Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez told the meeting: "This great problem is derived from the 200,000 hectares of illicit crops that we have in Colombia." (Espectador, Jan. 30)
Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN Mission in Colombia, warned President Iván Duque about the human rights situation in the country when they met at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace in Bogotá last week. Ruiz said he especially expressed convern about "the issue of the assassinations of social leaders and human rights defenders." (Nuevo Siglo, Jan. 15) Duque had days earlier announced a new plan of action to address the ongoing targeted assassinations, pledging: "We are going to strengthen all the instruments that the Public Force has at its disposition so that the leaders of armed groups, which are behind a large part of these homicides, are brought to justice." He spoke at Riohacha, La Guajira department, one of the areas hard hit by the ongoing killings. (Nuevo Siglo, Jan. 10)
Speaking at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of their New Year's Day 1994 uprising in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, leaders of the Zapatista rebels pledged their opposition to Mexico's new left-populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Anger was particularly directed at the planned "Maya Train" project, which would link the tourist resort of Cancún on the Caribbean coast with the Palenque archeological site in Chiapas, spearheading a new thrust of tourism mega-development. At the New Year's Eve ceremony, held at the rebel-controlled settlement of La Realidad and dubbed the "Meeting of the Networks of Resistance and Rebellion," thousands of supporters from across Mexico gathered to watch Zapatista troops march in formation—although wielding symbolic bastónes (staffs) rather than rifles.
On his first day in office Jan. 2, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro issued a provisional measure (Medida Provisório 870) taking away responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from the indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, and handing it over to the Agriculture Ministry. In the same decree, Bolsonaro shifted authority over regularization of quilombos (lands titled to runaway slave descendants) from the agrarian reform institute, INCRA, to the Agriculture Ministry. The measure greatly weakens FUNAI, taking away its most important function. In practice, key areas of indigenous and quilombo policy will now be in the hands of agribusiness advocates—a long-time demand of the Bancada Ruralista (agribusiness bloc) in Congress.
The dark days of state collaboration with Colombia's murderous paramilitary groups were recalled with the arrest in New York last month of Javier Valle Anaya, former sub-director of Bogotá's Administrative Security Department (DAS), a now-disbanded intelligence agency that was found to be feeding information to the paras. Valle Anaya was detained on an immigration violation, and may face extradition back to Colombia, where he is wanted in connection with the 2004 assassination of human rights activist Alfredo Correa De Andreis in Barranquilla. (El Tiempo, Oct. 12) Ironically, the arrest comes just as a new scandal has emerged concerning an illegal network of chuzadas—Colombian slang for eavesdroppers. Retired National Police general Humberto Guatibonza was arrested in Bogotá Oct. 24, charged with running a chuzada ring that spied on labor activists—particularly members of the airline workers union, ACDAC. He has been placed under house arrest while the case is being investigated. (Caracol Radio, Oct. 31; W Radio, RCN Radio, Oct. 24)
Brazil's far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on a plan to privatize vast swaths of the Amazon rainforest, turning it over to agribusiness and mining. In addition, he seeks to expand hydro-power and other energy mega-projects the region. Since his election in an Oct. 28 run-off vote, Bolsonaro's team has announced that his administration will merge the ministries of agriculture and the environment into a new "super ministry" to oversee the plan. Brazil now has some 720 indigenous reserves, ranging in size from a single hectare to nearly ten million hectares. Bolsonaro has said he wants to put all of those lands—13% of Brazil's territory—on the auction block. "Minorities have to adapt to the majority, or simply disappear," he said on the campaign trail, adding that under his administration, "not one square centimeter" of Brazil will be reserved for the country's indigenous peoples.
At its 75th annual convention in Denver this week, leaders of the National Congress of American Indians spoke strongly against the Trump administration's decision to halt the restoration of ancestral lands to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts, invoking a return to the disastrous policies of the "termination era." At issue are 321 acres in the towns of Mashpee and Taunton, where the Wampanoag sought to build a casino. The US Interior Department issued a decision in 2015 to take the lands into trust for the tribe, to be added to their reservation. Ground was broken on the casino the following year. But opponents of the casino challenged the land transfer in the courts. In April 2016, US District Court Judge William Young found the 2015 Interior decision had bypassed the Supreme Court's 2009 ruling in Carcieri v Salazar, concerning a land recovery effort by the Narragansett Indian Nation of Rhode Island. In the Carcieri case, the high court ruled that the federal government had no power to grant land in trust for tribes recognized after passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. In September of this year, the Interior decision was reversed by Tara Sweeney, the new assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Trump administration. Sweeney determined that the Mashpee Wampanoag-—whose ancestors welcomed some of the first settlers to the Americas more than 300 years ago—could not have their homelands restored because they were only federally recognized in 2007.