In the Amazon, a mystery of murderous revenge and greed
A massacre in Ecuador's Amazon forest has yielded tales of revenge and exploitation involving Indian tribes and outsiders.
TIGUINO, Ecuador - Waorani Indian clan leader Babae Ima gave the cloth sack a shake to scare off a cockroach, and gently worked the knot to display the clan's trophy from its last raid deep into the Amazon forest. Ima pursed his lips over ill-fitting dentures and gingerly shook the bag until the object in the bag rolled into view: a small, dirt-embedded human skull with ashen-black hair still attached. To Ima and his clan, the skull is a symbol of a long and respected tradition of warfare and revenge killings. But to others, including a number of fellow Waorani Indians, the skull is evidence of a massacre instigated by illegal loggers eager to access a forest protected by another tribe. On May 26, 2003, nine Waorani men burst into a clearing deep in the heart of a 1.73-million-acre reserve established to safeguard the fiercely territorial Tagaeri-Taromenane, one of the hemisphere's most reclusive tribes. The Waorani had traveled for three days by boat and on foot. Armed with pistols and rifles, the men would later acknowledge to journalists and Catholic missionaries that they had gone there to avenge the death of Carlos Omene, a Waorani killed by the Tagaeri in 1993. Exactly what happened that morning is still unclear, but when the party returned to Tiguino days later -- carrying looted blowguns, spears and the severed head -- the men claimed to have killed 26 Tagaeri-Taromenane. When Detective Marco Vargas was airlifted to the scene seven days later, he found the decomposing bodies of 12 women and children. Shot with .22- and .38-caliber bullets, they had been skewered with dozens of the Tagaeri's own six-foot serrated lances. The body of a single adult male lay decapitated near a hammock.
As word of the massacre spread across this Andean nation of 14 million people, the Waorani were surprised by the attention it drew. Some were old enough to remember the first time they met an outsider, or cohuori, in the 1950s and 1960s. But for most, it wasn't until 1989, when they settled permanently along an oil prospecting road, that they got a full blast of cohuori culture. Since then, change had come blindingly fast, as men who just 15 years ago were hunting howler monkeys with blowguns now struggled to earn cash to buy canned goods and color TVs. Babae Ima is believed to be well into his 70s. His muscular build and gaping ear holes make him one of the most feared and respected leaders among Ecuador's 2,000 Waoranis. No one travels the muddy Tiguino River without his consent. But while the Waorani men steadfastly maintained that the massacre was an act of revenge, other Waorani communities began to question the killers' relationship to the loggers who were seen hauling 100-pound planks of Spanish cedar up the Tiguino and out through Babae Ima's village. According to Penti Baihua, leader of a Waorani community about eight miles from the massacre site, loggers have been working illegally on the river for years. But recently, a new, more aggressive breed has appeared. Usually armed and from neighboring Colombia, those groups work closely with the Tiguino clan and others. ''These strangers -- these Colombian loggers -- are going into Yasuni and the Tagaeri territory like they own the land,'' Baihua said. ``They have rifles and are very dangerous people.''
Yasuni is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and one of the richest and most bio-diverse stretches of wilderness on the planet. It is brimming with plant and animal life, and its isolation and the presence of surrounding Waorani communities have kept it remarkably intact. While Waorani are allowed to fell trees for personal use, commercial logging in the region is banned. Even Waorani are barred from the Tagaeri Zone, set up in 1999 to protect that tribe from outsiders. Believed to number fewer than 150, the Tagaeri split off from the greater Waorani community in the late 1950s, fleeing the U.S. missionaries and oil explorers. Since then, the Tagaeri have suffered raids, disease and internal battles. Despite their weakened state, their deadly accuracy with lances inspired fear, and their territory has been largely untouched. But according to Baihua, who visited the massacre site and interviewed several of the killers, a group of loggers had come within a few hundred yards of the Tagaeri's dwellings shortly before the killings. ''The loggers left there scared of the Tagaeri and went to Tiguino,'' Baihua said. 'They told them, `We'll give you gasoline and ammunition, but go kill the Tagaeri, because we want to work in that area.' And that's how it happened.'' Capuchin missionary Juan Carlos Andueza, who has worked with the Waorani for 17 years, said the killers talked to him shortly after the massacre and never mentioned any motive beyond revenge. ''Most of those involved were related to Carlos Omene in one way or another,'' he said. ``He was killed 11 years ago, but it might as well be yesterday in the Waorani sense of time.'' But Detective Vargas said the evidence points to outside influences. He said increased demand in Colombia for mahogany and Spanish cedar has encouraged loggers to cross the border, where they are working closely with communities like Tiguino that control access points. ''Revenge might have been one of the reasons they committed the massacre, but I am absolutely sure it wasn't the only one,'' said Vargas, who visited Tiguino undercover. ``The business ties between the loggers and the Tiguino community are very, very strong. The only people who really represented an obstacle to the loggers are now dead.'' Said Andueza: ``Twenty days [after the killing], I was at the [Tiguino] bridge, and there were the loggers hauling out wood during the middle of the day like nothing had happened. . . . It was infuriating.''
When Vargas traveled to Tiguino weeks later to interrogate the attackers, ONHAE, the organization that represents Ecuador's 32 Waorani communities, and community representatives told him that he was not welcome, that the case had already been settled by the tribe's council of elders. In August, the council -- which includes Babae Ima -- had indeed declared the massacre a legitimate act of revenge, after extracting promises from the attackers to oust the illegal loggers and leave the Tagaeri alone. Because Ecuador's Constitution gives indigenous communities the right to settle internal conflicts according to tradition, the ruling stuck. Signs of illegal logging in Waorani territory abound. On a 10-mile stretch of the Tiguino River, a recent visitor spotted three logging camps and almost a dozen of the rich-smelling, 6-foot-long cedar planks floating down the river. According to locals, on average, five boats a day work their way upriver toward Tiguino, each loaded with 70 to 100 planks. From there, the boards are taken overland to the border with Colombia. ''We know Waorani and Colombians are working together in that area, taking out mahogany and cedar, but there is very little we can do about it,'' said Marco Vivar, general manager of the Ministry of Environment's department responsible for watching the roads for illegal logging. ``If we tried to put inspectors [in Waorani territory], within two days we would have a pair of dead inspectors.''
No one knows the exact toll of illegal logging, but Ecuador already has the highest deforestation rate in South America. According to a U.N. study, between 1990 and 2000 Ecuador lost 3.2 million acres -- an area the size of Connecticut. Industry sources say up to 70 percent of the wood felled in Ecuador is illegal. Those figures could be getting worse. Five months after the massacre, Ecuador's Constitutional Court declared that the work of SGS, a Swiss company hired by the government to regulate forestry licenses, was unconstitutional. Then, the department that watches roads for illegal lumber saw its budget unexpectedly slashed by the Ministry of Finance. ''Logging is a huge business in Ecuador, and our job affects interests at every level,'' Vivar explained. ``We get very little support, and there are a lot of people who would like to see us shut down.'' The violence may be continuing. Waorani leader Penti Baihua said that early in May, he heard Tiguino clan leader Babae Ima on the radio, planning another raid on the Tagaeri. The clan fears that the Tagaeri are preparing a counterattack and want to finish them off first, neighbors told The Herald. Babae's clan has tried but failed to go in on at least two occasions, they said. ''The Tagaeri live peacefully in the forest and have never tried to harm us,'' Baihua said. ``There is no reason to kill them. They are just like us, they are family. But there is no control around here, and every day that goes by that we don't do something about the loggers, the more they work in this area. It's a very big problem, and someday there is going to be a very big conflict.''
This report was made possible by the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
BY JIM WYSS / Miami Herald