1. 500 Years of Confrontation: Indigenous Peoples and Security Policy in Latin America *

By Van Cott, Donna Lee | McNair Papers, October 1996 | Go to article overview

1. 500 Years of Confrontation: Indigenous Peoples and Security Policy in Latin America *


Van Cott, Donna Lee, McNair Papers


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. …

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