By Maria Ramirez
KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.
Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.
Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed towards the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.
But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.
Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.
Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.
The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back towards their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.
The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.
The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.
The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.
The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro’s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.
“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.
Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.
They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.
The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.
The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defence ministry did not respond to requests for this story.
However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.
The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”
Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.
“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”
Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.
Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.
The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.
When residents learnt of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.
That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometres (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.
They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.
Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.
Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.
“Everything was out of control,” he said.
A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.
The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.
The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.
However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.
“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.
Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.
Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.
Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.
Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.
A regional military command centre operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)