Mérida, Venezuela -- On Tuesday, the day after the national government granted more than 40,000 hectares of land to Yukpa indigenous communities in northwestern Venezuela, assassins attacked the community of Yukpa chief and indigenous rights activist Sabino Romero, killing two and injuring at least four.
Romero's son in law, Ever Garcia, and a young, pregnant Yukpa woman were shot dead in the attack. Romero received three bullet wounds and is currently in the hospital in stable condition, according to reports from the community. Romero's daughter, grand daughter, and nephew were also hospitalized with bullet wounds, and are now in the hospital in stable condition.
Romero was one of several Yukpa chiefs who led land occupations last year to demand that the government pay indemnity to the private estate owners and transfer the land to the Yukpa in the form of collective property, in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution and indigenous rights laws passed by the government of President Hugo Chavez.
Since the land occupations began in July 2008, the Yukpa communities involved have been subject to repeated death threats and attacks by thugs believed to have been hired by large estate owners and their local government allies.
In August 2008, estate owner Alejandro Vargas participated in an attack on Romero's community, during which Romero's father, a community elder of more than one hundred years of age, was beaten and killed.
Vargas, a cattle rancher, in an attempt to justify his deadly raid on the Yukpa, accused Romero of stealing several head of cattle. He also claimed on one occasion to have paid bribes to local legal authorities for protection against prosecution, according to the victims of the attacks.
The Yukpa reported the attacks to local police, who said investigations were opened, but no suspects have been arrested.
The National Guard maintains a heavy presence and the government plans to build a new military base in the sparsely populated and conflict-ridden border zone, which is rich in coal deposits and affected by the spillover of refugees, guerrilla insurgents, and paramilitaries from the civil war in Colombia.
Romero and other Yukpa chiefs allied with him are openly opposed to the land grants issued by the government on Monday. They say the government did not effectively consult with the Yukpa communities about the proper demarcation of Yukpa land, and instead carved up Yukpa territory to protect large estate owners, preserve access to coal deposits, and preserve space for a military base in the region. Meanwhile, several other Yukpa chiefs have allied themselves with Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nicia Maldonado and supported the government's plan for indigenous land demarcation.
In addition to the land titles issued on October 12th in celebration of Columbus Day, which the Chavez government officially renamed Indigenous Resistance Day in 2004, the government also gave houses, transport vehicles, and a variety of small business credits to semi-rural indigenous communities in the states of Amazonas, Bolivar, Anzoátegui, and Zulia.
Education Minister Hector Navarro and Agriculture and Land Minister Elias Jaua attended the inauguration of a bilingual public primary school in Anzoátegui state, where the local indigenous community will be able to study and learn in Spanish as well as their native language.
In the Amazon region, Presidential Chief of Staff Luis Reyes visited a community of approximately one hundred Piaroa families who received small houses of uniform suburban design that were built by the government. The government also gave the community vehicles to transport fruit from their farms to the market. In previous years, the community received credits to build a fruit processing plant and a radio station, and the government built a primary school and a local health clinic as well.
Venezuela's indigenous population constitutes less than two percent of the national population. Indigenous communities have gained substantial constitutional, legal, and parliamentary recognition since President Chavez took office in 1999.