Colombia apologizes for Amazon genocide

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos on Oct. 12—recognized in Latin America as Día de La Raza—issued an official apology to indigenous communities in the Amazon for deaths and destruction caused by the rubber boom beginning a century ago. From 1912 to 1929 the Peruvian firm Casa Arana, led by rubber baron Julio César Arana with British backing, exploited rubber near La Chorrera in what is now Colombia's Amazonas department. Up 100,000 people were killed and communities devastated in the operations, with indigenous rainforest dwellers forced into slave labor and slain or displaced if they resisted. The situation was brought to the world's attention following an investigation by British diplomat Roger Casement, who had previously documented similar atrocities in the Belgian Congo.

In his official statement, Santos said: "Today, in the name of the Colombian State, I ask forgiveness from the communities of the Uitoto, Bora, Okaina, Muinane, Andoque, Nonuya, Miraña, Yukuna and Matapí peoples for your deaths, for your orphans, for your victims." He said he hoped his statement would "contribute to healing the wounds that this has left in your lives and in the memory of our nation." In comments to the press, he added that the government of the day "failed to understand the importance of safeguarding each indigenous person and culture as an essential part of a society we now understand as multi-ethnic and multicultural." While Santos' official statement used to the word "tragedy" to describe the devastation, and editorial in Bogotá's El Tiempo  used the word "genocide." (An Phoblacht, Oct. 13; BBC News, Presidencia de la República statement, Oct. 12; El Tiempo, Oct. 10)

Presumably in consideration of not emphasizing that the territory had ever been contested, Santos' statement failed to note that La Chorrera had been under Peruvian government control at the time of the genocide. The territory was ceded to Colombia under the 1922  Salomón-Lozano Treaty, and actually turned over to Colombain control in 1929 (which is why the Casa Arana operations ended that year). In September 1932, a group of Peruvian adventurers seized the Colombian border city of Leticia on the Amazon River, sparking a war that lasted until the following May. Although Peru failed to win back any territory, the war is commemorated each Sept. 1 by Peruvian nationalists, especially in the northern Amazon region of Loreto. Peru's irredentists especially refuse to acknowledge Colombian sovereignty over the so-called "Trapezoid" between Leticia and the Río Putumayo to the north. The area remains heavily militarized, with Peru's armed forces periodically carrying out an "Operation Trapezoid" along the Colombian border, ostensibly to crack down on narco activity. In last year's operation, the army claimed to have destroyed 15 cocaine laboratories and 33 hectares of coca crops on the southern border of the Trapezoid. On Oct. 10 of this year, Peru's military announced the arrest of three Colombians with alleged links to the FARC on charges of maintaining large marijuana plantations in the zone. (Correo, Oct. 10; Global Voices, Sept. 1; Living in Peru, July 11, 2011)