Brazilian Indians Kill 29 Prospectors

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Classified By: POLOFF RICHARD REITER, FOR REASONS 1.4B AND D.

¶1. (C) SUMMARY. On April 7, some 29 diamond prospectors
working illegally on an Indian reservation in the western
Brazilian state of Rondonia were slain by members of the
Cinta-Larga tribe. Three bodies were found on April 11 and
another twenty-six on April 16. Authorities now fear
reprisals against Indians, some of whom have been assaulted
in a nearby town. The situation remains tense and a police
investigation is underway. Since reports of the massacre
began to trickle in, conflicting stories have emerged about
the motive for the killings. Indian leaders and officials of
the GoB’s indian agency, FUNAI, say the Indians were
defending their land against a long-running invasion by
illegal miners. But some police officials say that several
Indian leaders are involved in diamond trafficking, and that
the murders were a show of force against those who failed to
give them their share. In response to the massacre, the
government plans another police sweep of the Rondonia
reservation as well as a new law to facilitate legal
concessions of mineral rights on Indian lands. END SUMMARY.

DOZENS DEAD ON ROOSEVELT RESERVATION
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¶2. (SBU) On April 7, at least twenty-nine diamond prospectors
were killed in the dense jungle of the western Brazilian
state of Rondonia. The massacre occurred on the Roosevelt
Indian reservation (named for a nearby river that was first
mapped by Theodore Roosevelt in 1914). The reservation
includes four areas comprising 2.7 million hectares (the size
of Massachusetts) and is home to six Indian tribes, of which
the 1,500-member Cinta-Larga (“Broad Sash”) is the largest.
Three corpses were found at one site on April 4. On April
16, authorities responding to reports from prospectors and
led by local Indians found approximately 26 more bodies at a
separate site. The bodies were hacked to pieces and
decomposed, making it difficult to assess how many were
killed or to identify the dead. Given the rugged terrain and
the isolated nature of mining, more bodies may yet be
discovered. Gilton Muniz, of the Prospectors’ Union, says
another twelve prospectors remain missing, and state Governor
Ivo Cassol told the press on April 17, “Unfortunately, many
more bodies will be found.”

¶3. (SBU) Cinta-Larga leader Oita Matina announced that the
attack was carried out by his tribe’s warriors in response to
an ongoing invasion by diamond hunters that began in 1999.
Mercio Pereira, President of FUNAI (“National Indian
Foundation” –the GoB’s Indian agency) concurred, noting, “We
are very sorry for those who died, but we must also say that
the Indians are defending their lands. The prospectors are
completely illegal.” Pereira’s statement exacerbated
tensions between his agency and the state government, as
Governor Cassol wondered rhetorically if Pereira would
encourage landowners whose farms are occupied by the Landless
Movement (MST) to respond with violence.

DIAMOND TRADE FUELS VIOLENCE
—————————-

¶4. (C) The discovery of South America’s richest diamond
deposits (estimated at US$2 billion) on the Roosevelt
reservation ignited a rush of prospectors to the area in
1999. By law, commercial mining on Indian lands is
prohibited, unless specifically authorized by Congress.
FUNAI’s Pereira says that his agency, along with the Federal
Police, have conducted four sweeps to remove illegal
prospectors from the reservation, including one in January
when 4,500 prospectors were removed, but many later returned.
The lawless nature of the region and the huge sums at stake
have fed a culture of violence: the Civil Police chief in
the nearby town of Espigao do Oeste says that from 1999 to
2003, at least thirty prospectors’ bodies were found on the
Roosevelt reservation, though it is not clear how many died
in conflicts with Indians or with other prospectors. In
November 2003, four prospectors were killed in one incident,
and an injured survivor charged that a FUNAI official, whom
he alleged was involved in diamond trafficking, was among the
assailants. FUNAI President Pereira insisted to us that the
charges were investigated and found baseless.

SOME INDIAN LEADERS MAY BE DIAMOND SMUGGLERS
——————————————–

¶5. (SBU) In a recent interview, regional Federal Police
commander Marco Aurelio Moura said his office has refocused
its efforts away from the Roosevelt reservation, “We don’t
have enough people to interfere with the prospectors’
activities, and now we have information that the Indians
themselves are involved in diamond trafficking, so we have
changed our strategy to investigate those who buy the gems.”
By going after smugglers rather than prospectors, the Federal
Police have made 30 arrests in Rondonia this year, including
of Marcos Glika, reportedly one of Brazil’s most important
gem traffickers. Press reporting dating to 2001 describes
how some tribal leaders suddenly became rich while most of
the tribe lived in misery, and also alleged that some FUNAI
officials may be implicated in the diamond trade.

¶6. (C) These reports, which the Federal Police’s National
Coordinator for Special Border Operations, Mauro Sposito,
told us were generally accurate, indicate that soon after the
diamond rush began in 1999, some Cinta-Larga began charging
fees to the prospectors: a reported R$10,000 (about US$3,300)
per head plus up to 50% of profits. This suggests that the
April 7 massacre was more complicated than the initial
reporting indicated. As thousands of prospectors surged into
the area –and formed unions that pressured the government
for commercial rights– the Indians began to lose control of
their profit-sharing system. Some Federal Police have told
the press that there is no broad conflict between the
Cinta-Larga and the prospectors, but that the killings are a
“settling of scores”: killing those who failed to pay their
fees.

SITUATION: “A POWDER KEG”
————————-

¶7. (SBU) The massacre has left the region a “powder keg”,
according to Federal Police commander Moura. As reports
brought by prospectors trickled in, Indians in the area have
been assaulted by furious townspeople and miners. One Indian
was terrorized by 300 people on the central square of the
town of Espigao do Oeste, only to be freed after hours of
negotiations by local officials. Military Police commander
Firmino Aparecido told the press that most of the 100
Cinta-Larga who live in the town have now fled. Prospectors’
Union leader Muniz says that the climate is tense, “The
prospectors are upset and want to react. The prospectors
were surprised by the Indians, who showed up shooting. We
just want to work and have the right to extract the
minerals”. Muniz estimates there are 7,000 prospectors in
Rondonia, about 1,000 of whom are on the Roosevelt
reservation.

STATE OF THE INVESTIGATION
————————–

¶8. (C) Federal Police Coordinator Sposito told us on April 18
that the remains were still being removed by helicopter to
the state capital of Porto Velho for autopsies and
identification and that the operation could take a few more
days. Fifty Federal Police agents, together with FUNAI
officials, are investigating the massacre. Sposito noted
that while the Cinta-Larga tribe has taken responsibility,
the investigation will look for the individuals involved
–and that the police have a “good idea” who they were.
FUNAI President Mercio Pereira told us he was alarmed that
the government was pointing the finger at the Cinta-Larga and
looking for an easy scapegoat. In the meantime, federal
officials are planning another operation to remove
prospectors still on the reservation, and uniformed police
are on alert to prevent an escalation of violence.

COMMENT – SLOW PROGRESS ON INDIAN AFFAIRS
—————————————–

¶9. (C) In the short-run, the GoB response to the Rondonia
massacre consists of the police investigation, followed by
what Justice Minister Bastos announced on April 18 will be an
operation of “general disarmament” to try to discourage
further bloodshed. 200 Federal Police and FUNAI officers
will initiate the operation as soon as they have finished
recovering the remains of the 26 murdered prospectors. This
operation may be lashed together with the previously
scheduled “Operation Rondonia” (reftel). Medium-term, the
government is drafting a law to regulate mineral rights on
reservations in order to provide Indians with legal means to
extract and sell diamonds without resorting to the black
market. FUNAI President Pereira told us the bill is now in
an inter-ministerial committee, and he hopes it will go to
Congress before the July recess. Further, the Ministry of
Mines and Energy is studying the possibility of making
available to prospectors some mining concessions located
outside of the reservation.

¶10. (C) Longer term, the Lula government has been slow to
take the initiative on indigenous issues. It has not put
forward a comprehensive national plan and is trying to
resolve several simultaneous disputes, most of which concern
demarcation of new reservations. Last week President Lula
presided over a contentious cabinet meeting to debate the
long-running case of the Raposa Serra do Sul reservation in
the northern state of Roraima (septel) that still awaits
demarcation; a decision was put off until April 27.
HRINAK