The cycle of Indian rebellion and government repression that characterized the first centuries of contact between European and Amerindian peoples can not yet be consigned to the history books. The eruption of an armed movement in southern Mexico, comprised primarily of destitute Maya Indians, as well as smaller demonstrations of resistance in Brazil, Ecuador, and elsewhere speaks eloquently to this fact. While the majority of conflicts between the estimated 40 million indigenous peoples in Latin America and the societies in which they live are now played out in the political arena, security issues continue to generate violent inter-ethnic conflict. (1) Since the Conquest, the interests of indigenous communities usually have conflicted with national governments' security policies. These include a dimension explicitly intended to control the autonomous tendencies of indigenous communities, suppress Indian political organizing, and erase the independent identity of Indian nations.
Relations between Latin America's indigenous population and the state have always been militarized. The European conquistadors subdued native peoples with superior weapons and maintained control through force over the often rebellious indigenous populations of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies from administrative centers established in the viceroyalties and audiencias. After independence, the new states remained centralized, with the majority of the government apparatus located in the capital city and some important provincial commercial centers. By this time, the majority of the indigenous population had fled or been forced into the more remote areas of the country: the unexplored jungles, the highest mountain ranges, and along the blurry borders between the emerging nations. The borderlands were particularly desirable destinations, as they represented the furthest distance between the centralized power of adjacent states and thus the weakest zone of state power. Until very recently, these remote regions of indigenous population were controlled almost exclusively by two institutions: the Catholic Church, which in many countries received a mandate to care for the Indians' bodies and souls; and the military, charged with maintaining the tranquility of the indigenous population, projecting the power of the state, and patrolling contested borders. Areas of commercial agricultural value were ruled by the large landholding classes, backed up by the military when necessary.
By the mid-20th century, little had changed in the indigenous regions of Latin America. From the highlands of Peru and Guatemala to Brazil, where the state remained a distant idea, the military represented state power to indigenous people. In the Amazon Basin. military presence increased, especially along the borders, under the national security regimes of the 1960s and 1970s, when military governments of the Amazonian countries--particularly Brazil--sent troops to defend and patrol their borders. Each encouraged the settlement of colonists in the vicinity to legitimize territorial claims.
BORDER CONFLICTS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR NATURAL RESOURCES
Prior to January 26, 1995, it would have been difficult to convince even experts on the region of the seriousness of border conflicts in Latin America. Machismo, hyper-nationalism, paranoia, and even illicit business opportunities are frequent excuses used to explain policies that mass troops along borders to defend against seemingly imaginary threats. When war broke out between Ecuador and Peru on that date, the unthinkable possibility of a shooting war between Latin American states became a reality, especially to the tens of thousands of Amerindians in villages along both sides of the border, who bore the brunt of months of military attacks. As soon as the first shots were fired, national Indian leaders from both countries appealed to the combatant governments and the international community to cease the fighting, which had resulted in the bombing of several Shuar communities and the evacuation of upwards of 8,000 Shuar from the area. Meanwhile, local leaders of that ethnic group fought each other from either side of the border. (2) Both armies used Indian scouts to navigate the forbidding terrain of the theatre of conflict; the BBC reported that the Peruvian army used Indians as minesweepers to penetrate outposts (in Indian territory) mined by the Ecuadoreans. In mid-February, indigenous and environmental organizations called for the designation of a bi-national protected territory in the affected area and for donations of food and medicine for indigenous refugees. (3)
The casualties suffered by indigenous border communities in Peru and Ecuador would be repeated if hostilities were to break out on other sensitive borders. Disputes remain unresolved between Guyana and Venezuela, which both claim 50,000 square miles of rainforest, and on Venezuela's western flank, where a dispute with Colombia over the use of the Gulf of Venezuela and the Los Monjes islands flares up occasionally. Venezuelan troops also patrol the Arauca area, to prevent drugs and guerrillas from infiltrating their border with Colombia--particularly since February 26, 1995, when 120 to 150 Colombian guerrillas killed eight Venezuelan soldiers and wounded three others during a cross-border raid to steal weapons. (4) As a result, both the Colombian mad Venezuelan militaries have increased their presence on the border. The aggressive defense along the frontier has led to violence against Indians mistaken for guerrillas and complaints by Indians of harassment during trips to visit relatives across the border. While unlikely to lead to armed action in the near future, Bolivia's claim to a Pacific outlet in the region of Antofagasta remains hot politically, particularly in Bolivia.
The Ecuadorean military's occupation of the disputed region following the 1942 settlement of the border conflict with Peru led in the early 1970s to the discovery of oil by the military in the Amazon. Control of this resource--a key source of foreign exchange for the heavily indebted country--fell into the hands of the armed forces. Today, retired Ecuadorian officers own large landholdings in the Amazon and have benefitted from the oil production and colonization boom promoted by the government in the 1980s. Thus, in Ecuador the exploitation of natural resources for national development--and for the enrichment of the military as an institution--has been an important reason for the militarization of areas populated by indigenous peoples, now considered rich in natural (particularly mineral) resources.
Brazil has long maintained a strong military presence in the Amazon to protect its borders and control the exploitation of mineral and timber resources. The first Brazilian government agency in charge of indigenous affairs was created in 1906 under the direction of the military, and it retained charge of indigenous policy until the creation of the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI) by the military dictatorship in 1967. (5) Since the end of military rule in 1985, the government has promoted colonization and development of the Amazon in order to relieve economic and social pressures in the south and depressed northeast, to exploit the region's vast resources, and to patrol its northern frontiers. The military has been on the defensive regarding control of the Amazon and its resources. The international community--particularly environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)--began a campaign in the late 1980s to protect the Amazon rainforest from uncontrolled logging and burning of large tracts of land for environmentally unsustainable cattle ranching and commercial agriculture. The NGOs also mobilized to protect indigenous peoples and their territories from the illegal predations of garimpeiros …