Peru Struggles to Defuse Amazon Violence With 50 Dead


LIMA, Peru -- President Alan García struggled over the weekend to defuse a protest by Amazon indigenous groups that left more than 50 police and Indians dead.

The demonstrations against government plans to develop oil, natural gas and forestry resources turned violent Friday, resulting in the deaths of 23 police, some of whom were stabbed with spears or had their throats slit, the government said. Indian leaders said more than 30 protesters were killed.

Mr. García tried to restore order over the weekend by sending in troops and declaring a curfew in the northern Peruvian city of Bagua, which has been at the center of the protests.

The president is facing his worst crisis since 2006, when he took office for a second term. The protesters are demanding that the government backtrack on decrees that the indigenous groups say would weaken their traditional communal land system by breaking up land into parcels of private property. The García government has been moving aggressively to grant concessions for oil and natural gas exploration in the Amazon.

Analysts say giving in to protester demands would make Mr. García seem weak and cast a cloud over a recently signed free-trade agreement with the U.S. Following the pact, the government enacted laws that opened up indigenous lands to development, changes that the indigenous groups oppose.

But coming down too hard on the protesters could further radicalize the population in an area where the García administration is particularly unpopular. "They don't want to go in too gung-ho," says Julio Carrión, a political scientist at the University of Delaware. With an approval rating of about 30%, Mr. García, a former leftist who converted to investment-friendly economic policies, isn't in a strong position to challenge public opinion, analysts say.

Members of the García government are blaming the protest on outside agitators, including Peruvian leftist leader Ollanta Humala, who has ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Mr. Carrión says the García government didn't involve the indigenous population in discussions before it implemented new development rules. "In the U.S., the whole debate and discussion happens before the legislation passes," he says. "In Latin America, you start by passing a law, and then the discussion begins."

The leader of the protesters, Alberto Pizango, has gone into hiding after a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges that include sedition, possession of weapons and homicide.

The bitterness on both sides, and the apparent brutality of the killings, could make it difficult to reach a compromise. The government says 10 policemen were killed after they surrendered at an oil-pipeline pumping station.

Analysts said Mr. García may try to salvage the situation by reshuffling his cabinet, including removing Prime Minister Yehude Simon. "There was a chain of errors that led to this unprecedented massacre," said former Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi.

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Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A6