LA HUELGA INDEFINIDA DE LA SOCIEDAD CIVIL
(Indefinite Strike of Civil Society)
(protesters march down blockaded streets)
As I write these notes, gunshots can be heard from multiple locations around our hostel. Sirens echo off building walls. Engines rev in the background as mototaxis speed down the streets to escape the dangerous conflict between protesters and riot police. Earlier this week miners littered the streets with tacks and nails to deflate the tires of mototaxi drivers who were not observing the miner’s strike—and that was when things were “pacifico” (peaceful). Today, crowds of protestors flooded the swelteringly hot streets of Puerto Maldonado, hurling rocks toward national police armed in riot gear, who responded by deploying canisters of tear gas (I did not anticipate I would be searching online how to use vinegar to mitigate the effects of tear gas, but fieldwork is apparently full of surprises, starting with the tsunami warning in Lima the first day we arrived to the country).
(riot police in the plaza de armas in Puerto Maldonado)
I walked down the street and caught a glimpse of the scene before hurrying back to our hostel to seek refuge. I snapped a few photos of a fire in the middle of the street and two older Andean women passed by, speaking Quechua (their native language) to extend an invitation for me to join the protest. To their surprise, I replied in Quechua, declining their offer and politely wishing them a happy day. Amused that a random gringo on the street would reply in their native language, they further encouraged me to join the protest, “Jamuy, qhari!” (come with us, man!), they maintained.
(protestors down the street setting fire to tires and trash)
Earlier this morning I woke to the sound of SWAT police as they announced their presence through megaphones, patrolling our street— apparently a harbinger of things to later come today. Now we are sequestered in our room, eating sweet potato chips and mandarins awaiting news from Lima and hoping a resolution is passed to restore peace to the region. This, I am learning, is just one aspect of what it is like to be a denizen of Puerto Maldonado, a city occupied and militarized by around 5,000 miners and 800 national and local police engaged in violent conflict. Many locals are disenchanted with the strike and want it to end. Schools are closed. Streets are blockaded. Some miners have even been throwing stones through glass windows and doors – minutes ago they just passed our hostel and we could hear the raining down of boulders and rocks. A man ran past the buildings on our street yelling, “Cierra las puertas, gente!” (Close/lock your doors, people!). Car parts are burning in the middle of major roads and our fear that the strike would descend into violence finally came true this afternoon. Things escalated after reports last night that two protesters were killed in the nearby town of Mazuko, where police had been looting earlier this week. La Revista de Madre de Dios, a local news organization reports (translated into English):
We call all our citizens who take appropriate security measures, not to risk their lives crossing the streets in any type of vehicle, the protesters take it as provocation, do not allow children, elderly or pregnant women out of their homes, it is preferable to take guard since the police are already throwing tear gas canisters, so have buckets or containers with water ready, cloths or wet rags with vinegar. Try to stay closed somewhere in your house, otherwise go to a safe place (neighbors, friends, family). Everything for the sake of our integrity.
We have been residing in Puerto Maldonado in the southeastern Amazonian region of Perú for exactly one week. Our arrival was timely –just a few days after the start of La huelga indefinida de la sociedad civil (The indefinite strike of civil society), organized jointly by the regional and federal mining syndicates, FEDEMIN and CONAMI, respectively. These kinds of strikes are responses to a series of developments at the national level, including decrees to criminalize informal mining and military interdictions in the region since 2011 (for more on this subject see the page (http://theobrero.com/gold/). This strike in particular was elicited by a decree to control fuel entering the region and other efforts to formalize miners by the imminent deadline of April 19, 2014, an impossible task in this frontier region. There is a lot more contributing to this particular strike (e.g. politics in Lima, charges that the region is complicit in narcotrafficking, etc.) which I will expound upon in my next field note.
(protesters throwing rocks at buildings)
Upon arriving to Puerto Maldonado a week ago, we first noticed that Puerto Maldonado was more crowded than during previous visits over the past six years, especially in the central area, where traffic has doubled and clusters of miners could be see hanging out on the streets and in the doorways and balconies of local hostels that are normally vacant. Serengazo (the local emergency police) are on the beat, but now accompanied by hundreds of national police in riot gear like helmets and shields and armed with automatic rifles and grenades of tear gas.
(riot police patrolling the streets in front of Billinghurst Bridge, the Interoceanic Highway)
A familiar scene in Puerto Maldonado is of children happily playing on the sidewalks in front of their parents’ retail stores, but everything is shut down now because of la huelga indefinida. A few days ago we were eating lunch at a restaurant located on the Interoceanic Highway (one of the only major restaurants in town that remains open during the day when the strike is active), when we suddenly heard loud voices approaching. A small crowd appeared nearby the restaurant and a few servers stood petrified with looks of terror on their faces as if an attack was looming. One of the customers immediately rose from his chair, almost knocking it onto the ground, clenching his fists as if prepared to defend himself and his company. Fortunately, the protesters continued marching down the highway and the atmosphere of the restaurant returned to normal. Everyday since then we can hear low-flying helicopters patrolling over the city.
(army helicopter flying over Puerto Maldonado)
As mentioned, last night there were reports that two protesters were shot and killed by police in Mazuko, where the strike has been more violent. A few days prior a video was leaked showing police looting the town, taking staples, burning people’s possessions –it is uncertain whether we should be more fearful of the protestors or the police, and I imagine residents here feel similarly. Hopefully soon it will be safe to return to the streets to conduct interviews and learn more about people’s conceptions of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ of Puerto Maldonado, but for now people are still walking by our hostel throwing stones at buildings.
Here is a video of the conflict in the nearby town of Mazuko (things escalate at about 1:30 into the video)