Decolonial Critique

You are the terrorist: A Decolonial Critique of the State by Indigenous People in Latin America. In Editorial Group for Writing Insurgent Genealogies (Hg.) Utopia of alliances, conditions of impossibilities and the vocabulary of decoloniality 2011- 2013. Löcker Ed., 362 pages.

My principal aim with this text was to keep record of the protest of an Awajun-Wampi against the head of the Peruvian state. In the Peruvian Amazon a series of protests against the extraction of oil, timber and gold in protected areas by the law is counteracted by the state and ends with a hundred civilians injured and the death of what is presented as murdered cops and deceased natives. While the figure 'exploitation of natural resources –environmental damage – protest – state repression' is a constant in Peru, the protest of the Amazonian peoples reveals the most salient aspects of the underlying continuities of a colonial system. State representatives refer alternatively to the protesters as terrorists that impede the progress of the country, or as good people ("the natives are good") who are just being manipulated by forces who seek to destabilize the government. This denial of the Amazonian subject and/or of the Indigenous subject as a political subject is questioned by the protest of an Awajun-Wampi woman who provides an analysis of the role of the State in her sense of reality.

You are the terrorist: A Decolonial Critique of the State by Indigenous People in Latin America.

In what follows, I would like to elaborate on the politics of representation in relation to colonialism in South America. When examining the consequences of colonialism in this continent and how it has been captured on screen, the history of documentaries tends to be full of people presented as suffering circumstances that they deplore or pose questions to, but that they only address in a symbolic way and rarely or never question with open and rational rage. Documentary films normally fail to show to the afflicted any capacity to identify the complexity of their reality, this normally being the function of the one behind the camera. As a counterpart, the history of politics related to indigenous communities is full of questions about the representation and exclusion of people on the basis of the status they hold in society.[1] Due to the colonial heritage, this exclusion is sustained on the basis of racism, which also relates to the exclusion of languages outside of those historically recognized as official. Indigenous communities in Peru are ignored by default and are often represented by politicians that do not identify with them or that consider them their inferior.

In 2008, the Peruvian state broke national and international laws[3] when it approved decrees in order to comply with the regulatory frame of the U.S./Peru Free Trade Agreement. These decrees facilitated further exploitation of territories that legally belonged to communities in the Amazon. When the people affected protested, they were ignored; and though later they were invited to dialogue, their demands remained unanswered. Several months after, in 2009, the communities tried with different blockages to interfere with the economic apparatus and thus protest: against opening up their land to oil, gas, logging and mining companies; against the new exploitation of 'virgin'[4] areas occupied by non-contacted populations; and against what they referred to as changing their way of living and the way in which they took decisions. One of the main protests rested upon the concern on how the new measures would break the internal cohesion of their communities.

The president in office, Alan García, having previously addressed them as an impediment to achieving progress and as “the dog that does not eat or let others eat”, claimed that the protesters were inventing the figure of an “unconnected” native and called them citizens of second class[5]. On June 5, 2009, after having declared a state of emergency, a special task force was sent to break the road blockade. Seeing themselves under aerial and ground attack, the communities were forced to retreat to war logic. The outcome was several people dead[6] and their consequent naming as terrorists, irrational, primitive, and barbaric savages. The criticism to these actions was loudly voiced. “Precisely how this government speech responded to the demands of preservation of collective modes of life away from the exploitation and commodification of natural resources in the defense of ancestral and non-instrumental modes of coexistence with the natural environment was radically cynical, colonial, bloody, and racist. Few times in contemporary local history we have seen desperate and obvious forms of a consensus so contradicted: the closed defense of a model of extreme exploitation, combined with the vaguely transcendental reasons a terminal nation-state, including a Chairman in favor of carnage, together with the explicit and vulgar idea of citizens of first and second category.”[7]

Days after the incident, a person identified as “relative of the deceased natives” was interviewed on television. She shouted with rage and indignation in Awajun language, in what was for many of us, the first time we saw the message of an Amazonian native being broadcasted in national television. Over the next days, the clip was shown again with Castillian subtitles that revealed a comprehensive analysis of the slaughter:

“Please listen to us. You are guilty because you exterminated us. You are killing us. You are selling us. You are the terrorist. We are defending our territory without the use of guns, our only weapons are spears and small sticks that can only reach 5 meters, 10 meters, and that aren’t meant to kill like you have done to us. You exterminated us using guns, bullets, helicopters, and you killed our brothers, sisters, students, teachers, children. Alan, we ask you to come here to our territory and pay us the debt that you owe us. Alan, You sold the country, you sold the indigenous, you sold our natural resources: gold, petroleum, water, and air. You contaminate our natural environment and you leave us poorer. Now you see how we live and how you’ve left us. We, the Awajún-Wampis have not asked you to exterminate us, but rather that you help us. That you help educate our children that you have now killed. We are not taking away your private property. We have not killed your children, your family. Why are you now finishing us off? You have exterminated us! We are left with nothing!”[8]

The mediatic statement of this Awajun-Wampi woman is a statement that breaks with the representation of indigenous individuals as unable to reflect on their reality. In response to the State and more precisely the president placing the fault on “the natives that have killed government agents”, the woman revokes that right of those in power to tell how history has happened. In her view, the real terror is committed not by those who question the government with a solid cause. The real terror is committed to those who are put in a situation where they must fight to survive against State measures that do not recognize an equal status to their existence, and then against the actual State that uses its power of force to attack them.

Throughout the entire Peruvian jungle thousands of people have organized themselves and created groups that watch over their legal and political rights. Lives protesting their right to continue living, and in some cases to live as much as possible outside of capitalism. The protests in the Amazon were possible to begin with because the communities were politically organized. Grouped together as AIDESEP, this initiative already carries within its name a narrative different from the official one. AIDESEP, or the Interethnic Association for Development in the Peruvian Amazon, asserts in its title that, first, it is not the State who is observing for the development in their land, and second, that they are reclaiming a way that is different from the notion of development as it was formulated by modernist, post-colonial, industrial standards.

Following the theorizations of Achille Mbembe, necropolitics[9] describe the relationship between sovereignty and power which lies in the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die. Neoliberal necrocapitalism reproduces itself through deregulation and privatization. The implementation of their policies demands substantial State intervention – which is made to the benefit of economic elites and with no plan for advancing policies of wealth redistribution. When the government declared a state of emergency, the attempt was to criminalize the legal protests, to give itself the license to violently repress people by subjecting these areas to military occupation in order to silence the opponents of extractive industries. Although necropolitics’ mechanisms are in operation around the world, is in the former colonies where their way of functioning is made evident.

There is a new perspective though, and when thousands of people are willing to mobilize in such difficult conditions in order to fight for the autonomy that has been historically negated to them, it is possible to speak of the beginning of a change. Their movement to have the right to decide upon their land and their lives forced momentaneously the government to stop the implementation of this illegal legislation. But because the real terror lies behind the power, they will have to continue fighting, and those reenacting the abusive structures of State power will need to continue to be challenged.


[1] Although in its original meaning the word “native” relates to those born in a place (Natio), in the ex-colonies it is alternatively used as a synonym for undeveloped, primitive and backwards.

[2] These notions about race are further analyzed in several works of the Peruvian sociologists Nelson Manrique, La piel y la pluma: escritos sobre literatura, etnicidad y racismo[The Skin and The Feather: Writings About Literature, Ethnicity and Racism], Casa de Estudios del Socialismo & Centro de Informe y Desarrollo Integral de Autogestión, Lima, 1999, and Anibal Quijano “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Latin America,” in: Nepantla, no. 3, Duke University Press, Durham, 2000.

[3] The new laws directly undermined and violated rights recognized in the national constitution as well as in international treaties, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169.

[4] This term was in use in the media discussion and I use it here as I reminder of the patriarchal vocabulary of colonialism.

[5] In a televised interview following the Bagua clash, Peruvian President Alan Garcia said, "These people are not first class citizens, if 400,000 [sic] natives can say to 28 million Peruvians ‘you can't come here.' That is a very grave error, and anyone who thinks that way wants to take us on an irrational and primitive retreat into the past."

[6] According to the local count, the number of deaths amounts to hundreds, most of them indigenous. Lacking identity documents, they do not have the legal means to prove this.

[7] A response to the Washington Consensus that presents a series of free market policies that were promoted from about 1980 to 2008 by the IMF and World Bank and which included the advice to liberalize and deregulate international trade. Rodrigo Quijano, “Contra el consenso de Lima: notas incompletas sobre las colectividades artísticas en el Perú, sus nuevas, viejas condiciones,” [Against the Lima Consensus: Incomplete Notes About Artistic Collectives in Peru, their (their?? Yes)New, Old Conditions]. Originally published in Hacia el salón del siglo XXI. Más allá del centro de exhibición. Arte Global. Arte Latinoamericano. in Nuevas Estrategias, [Towards the Salon of the 21st Century: Beyond the Exhibition Centre. Global Art. Latin American Art. New Strategies], ArteBA Fundación, Buenos Aires, 2009, pp. 168–178.

[8] Declaration of an Awajun-Wampi woman aired on television right after the Bagua Massacre. The speech was aired initially without a translation to Spanish but was soon after translated into Spanish by Fermin Tiwi. This version in English is my translation.

[9] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” in: Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003, pp. 11–40.


1) Mikhail Bakhtin, The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics, Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt, eds., University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1991.

2) AIDESEP, Carta abierta al Presidente de la República Peruana, (Open Letter to the President of Peru), 2007. See

3) Marisol de la Cadena, “Alternative Indigeneities: Conceptual Proposals,” in: Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, vol. 3, no. 3, November[ES16][OM17] , Routledge, London, 2008, pp. 341–349. See

4) Nelson Manrique, Algunas reflexiones sobre el colonialismo, el racismo y la cuestión nacional [Some Reflections About Colonialism, Racism and the National Question], Casa Sur, Lima, 1993.

5) Anibal Quijano, “The Challenge of the Indigenous Movement in Latin America,” in: Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, issue 3, Routledge, New York, 2005.