Wave of killings claims six indigenous Guajajara victims from three indigenous lands in Maranhão

Published on: 1 December 2016

By Renato Santana, Communications Advisor,  Indigenous Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário: CIMI)

Growing violence against the indigenous peoples of Maranhão this year has led to more fatal victims amongst the Tenetehar/Guajajara.  Six indigenous people were killed in a little under 90 days.  In most cases, it is possible to establish a relationship between the killings and indigenous people’s struggles in defence of their traditional territories.  The elaborate cruelty employed also demonstrates the killers’ peculiar hatred.  In 2016, the number of murders against indigenous peoples in the state has now reached 12 – overtaking previous years.

The six victims were residents of communities in the Bacurizinho, Cana Brava and Morro Branco Indigenous Lands, located in the municipalities of Grajaú and Barra do Corda. The Guajajara are scared.  The talk of constant threats by non-Indians, including those who are found within indigenous lands.  For this reason, they are afraid to make public declarations, asking only that the authorities act.

According to an investigation undertaken by the Indigenous Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário: CIMI), the first murder in this series took place on 23 September and the last on 26 November, both in the Travessia community in the Cana Brava Indigenous Land, involving important Guajajara leaders in the fight for the defence of the demarcation of traditional territories and the withdrawal of invaders from within them.

Forty-five-year-old José Queirós Guajajara, was found dead at 5 o’clock in the morning of the 23 in a dam near the Nova community.  His family suspects that he was electrocuted in the dam’s electrical network, given the burn marks on his body.  Information suggests that a rancher planned his death, since the dam is within the indigenous land, a place where there should be no electrical networks, and is in an area under dispute with the rancher.  “This indigenous man was a fighter in the defence of indigenous lands, against the illegal withdrawal of timber, and provoked a great deal of anger in those who live off this illegal activity” explained CIMI’s regional directorate.  On Saturday 26 November, Chief José Colírio Oliveira Guajajara, from the Travessia community, was shot dead at point-blank range in front of his family in an ambush – the contracted killer’s modus operandi.  The chief was the principal community leader fighting against land invaders.

A day before the chief’s death, on Friday 25 November, the body of nursing technician Hugo Pompeu Guajajara was found in Barra do Corda, with his tongue cut out and his face slashed. This indigenous man lived in one of the communities on Cana Brava Indigenous Land along the BR-226 highway.  Chopping off limbs is a common feature in other serial murders.

“The news has shaken us profoundly.  We were carefully obtaining information about the other two Guajajara killings that have taken place since the beginning of this week, when we heard about this one.  An investigation has been opened” explained CIMI’s regional directorate.  On 5 November, Lopes de Sousa Guajajara, 16 years old, from the Morro Branco Indigenous Land, was found dead in the Grajaú River.  His penis and ears had been cut off.  On 21 November, José Dias de Oliveira Lopes Guajajara was found dead in the Mearim River.  His body showed signs of strangulation, bleeding at the nape of the neck and some of his face had been slashed.  His daughter informed the Imperatriz Federal Public Prosecution’s Office (Ministério Público Federal: MPF) that he had received indirect threats from Ednewton Fontenele Viana, delivered to him by Francisco Pereira dos Santos.

On 29 October, eighteen-year-old Divino Carvalho Guajajara, resident of the Taboca community on the Bacurizinho Indigenous Land, was murdered.  He was stabbed to death by a non-indigenous individual who was living in the community because he is married to an indigenous woman.  The Guajajara have requested that the Brazilian state investigate these deaths, put protective measures in place and definitively demarcate their lands.

The indigenous land situation

The demarcation of the Morro Branco Indigenous Land has been concluded and registered at the Federal Assets Office (Departamento de Patrimônio da União: DPU). Covering only 49 hectares and located in the municipality of Grajaú, this indigenous land holds 260 Guajajara in a situation of confinement.  The community also suffers from the transition of non-indigenous drug traffickers and harassment from sections of society involved in trafficking – cases of alcoholism are common.  Covering 137.290 hectares between Barra do Corda and Grajaú the demarcation of the Cana Brava Indigenous Land has been concluded and approved.  Approximately 7 thousand Guajajara live on the land, harassed by hunters, loggers, traffickers and land grabbers.  The Guajajara are thus up against real criminal gangs who invade their land without any impediment from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis: IBAMA), the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio: FUNAI) or the Federal Police.  The most unstable case is that of the Bacurizinho Indigenous Land.  Its Declaratory Decree was published by the Ministry of Justice on 30 June 2008, however, since 2011, FUNAI has not been able to mark out its physical landmarks, since ranchers and other non-indigenous people who occupy part of the territory have not permitted this.  The Federal Police, on the other hand, have never accompanied the fieldwork teams to enable them to carry out their work.

Among the activities of the non-indigenous occupiers are mobile charcoal works, the kind of work that, with privileged information, enables the owners to move from one part of the traditional land to another.  There are cattle ranches and areas that have been devastated in order to sell high-quality timber.  The Guajajara from the Bacurizinho Indigenous Land are locked in a battle for the entirety of their traditional lands that has lasted more than 30 years.

The first definition of the limits of the Bacurizinho Indigenous Land took place in 1957 and was carried out by the now defunct Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção ao Índio: SPI); 82,432 hectares were confirmed by FUNAI in 1979.  FUNAI’s Order of Service no. 10 was expedited on 31 January 1979 and determined that the demarcation of part of the Bacurizinho Indigenous Land was to be carried out by the company SETAG, based in Goiânia (GO); the contract was signed on 29 January 1979.  The indigenous people did not accept certain limits and in March the works were interrupted (FUNAI Brasilia Process no. 1135-79, p. 144).

FUNAI concluded this demarcation without taking the indigenous position into account.  The approval was signed and published in the Official Gazette by Homologation Decree no. 88600 of 10/08/1983.  With the 1988 Constitution, and thus with indigenous peoples’ right to have violations remedied, in 1990 the Guajajara requested a review of these limits, demanding the demarcation of 52 thousand hectares under the new procedure.

The Declaratory Decree was finally published in 2008.  Prior to this, in 2005, the chief of the Kamihaw community, João Araújo Guajajara was murdered.  A house was also set on fire and three other indigenous people were seriously injured.  Violence then returned in force.  According to the Guajajara, more deaths can only be avoided with the definitive homologation of their reviewed land and non-intrusion.

2016: Violence in Maranhão

According to partial data from the CIMI Report on Violence Against Indigenous Peoples, at least 12 indigenous people have been murdered in Maranhão this year.  As well as the six Guajajara killed over the last 6 days, another five Tenetehar/Guajajara from the Arariboia Indigenous Land, as well as Fernando Gamela, were killed between March and August. Genésio, Aponuyre, Isaias e Assis, all from the Guajajara, were among the dead.

The Maranhão Society for the Defence of Human Rights lists 25 defenders who have been murdered in the state, including quilombolas, peasant farmers and indigenous people, all killed between 2015 and October this year.  “We are living under constant threat.  It is almost impossible for the Ka’apor, for example, to move around in cities bordering indigenous lands.  It has become dangerous to spend much time in the same place” declared one supporter of the indigenous cause in Maranhão who asked not to be identified for reasons of security.  There have also been almost a dozen reports of death threats, particularly amongst both the Ka’apor, who have set up eight Indigenous Forest Guard checkpoints on the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land against logger activity, and the Gamela people, in a clear process for the restoration of areas in their traditional territory. “We live with the possibility of being murdered at any time,” said Kum’Tum Gamela.

A total of 14 reports have been made of violence against assets – possessory invasions, the illegal exploitation of natural resources and other attempts – on indigenous lands across the state.  “The number of fires on indigenous lands that are fighting against invaders needs to be investigated.  In 2015 and 2016, about 70% of the territory on the Arariboia Indigenous Land has been burnt in fires,” declared one of the Guajajara brigade.

UN and the European Parliament

The United Nations and the European Parliament have called on the Brazilian government to conduct impartial investigations into the cases of violence against indigenous people.  In the case of the death of José Dias de Oliveira Lopes Guajajara, for example, the Civil Police closed an investigation after just a few days, concluding that he drowned – despite signs of strangulation and other signs of violence.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, presented her recommendations to members of the UN General Assembly in order to guarantee the human rights of the original populations of Brazil, Honduras and the Nordic peoples.  This year alone, the specialist has sent more than 50 communications to more than thirty countries around the world, holding governments to account in relation to the violation of indigenous economic, social, cultural and civic rights and policies.  In the case of the European Parliament, an Urgent Resolution has requested that the Brazilian authorities “guarantee independent investigations into the killings and attacks which have victimized indigenous people for trying to defend their human rights and territories, ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice”.