Virgilio Trujillo Arana knew he was risking his life defending the Amazon lands his indigenous Uwottuja community had lived on for centuries.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said in a video recorded before his death. “[But] without land, we disappear. This is why we defend our territories.
Trujillo, 38, was coordinator of the Indigenous Territorial Guard in the municipality of Autana, in the state of Amazonas, in the south of Venezuela. He was also the founder of Ayose Huyunami, a unit defending indigenous lands against criminal groups and illegal mining.
On Thursday, he was shot dead in the town of Puerto Ayacucho by a gunman who opened fire in broad daylight.
His murder left his family and the Uwottuja community scared and furious. Many who knew him asked not to be named out of concern for their own safety.
“This is the first time I have suffered such a great loss… [Trujillo] — may he rest in peace — was the one who took the first step to defend our home,” a family member said.
Trujillo’s murder was seen by human rights defenders as an attack not just on an individual, but on an entire community and its efforts to protect a way of life.
On the night of his murder, other members of the Native Guard received death threats, and one said the killing had had a catastrophic impact on morale.
“Right now I’m devastated and I feel unable to fight back,” the guard said. “We have seen the price of this fight, and it is very painful. We may run out of time. As frontline defenders, we are all at risk.
But Trujillo and the mission of the native guards seem more important than ever.
In 2016, the leader of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, designated an area larger than Portugal as a strategic development zone for the exploitation of gold and other precious minerals.
The state of Amazonas is not part of this area, known as the Orinoco Mining Arc, and mining there has been banned since 1989. But the ban has not stopped mafia gangs and Colombian rebel groups to dig for gold in the jungle – bringing violence, crime and the environment. destruction with them.
Trujillo’s death came amid a wave of threats and violence against rainforest defenders across the Amazon. Last month, Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in the Brazilian Amazon, and activists faced intimidation and violence in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.
In Venezuela alone, 32 indigenous leaders and environmentalists have been killed in the past eight years, according to human rights organization Odevida.
“Virgilio Trujillo was not just any indigenous man. He was the defender of the Amazon,” said Armando Obdola, director of the indigenous organization Kapé Kapé.
His death is at the center of a web of interrelated crises, said Tamara Taraciuk, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
“Virgilio’s death exposes some of the most difficult human rights challenges facing Venezuela today: the brutal control exercised by armed groups over illegal mining in the country; the struggle of indigenous groups, who have been largely forgotten by the authorities; and the futility of the Venezuelan justice system to independently investigate abuses and hold those responsible to account,” she said.
After the murder and death threats, most members of the Native Guard were too scared to show up at Trujillo’s funeral — and they all avoided speaking publicly about what had happened.
“We are entering a situation of passivity and fear,” says Obdola. “But this should be a moment of awakening.”
Trujillo’s family has called for a full investigation, but some blame Venezuelan authorities for his death. Virgilio had previously worked alongside units of the country’s army to protect indigenous lands. After a series of death threats, he asked the Interior Ministry for protective measures more than a year ago, but his requests went unanswered.
“Unfortunately, the government system and these armed groups have formed an alliance,” a family member said. “Instead of protecting the land, they indulged in bribery and smuggling.”
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