May 16, 2012

Camisea Hostage Crisis: Matsigenka natives locate Peruvian commandos ambushed by Sendero Luminoso

It took a pair of Matsigenka natives, armed only with machetes and jungle savvy, to retrieve the fallen commando after the Peruvian military, using helicopter gunships and hundreds of troops, failed after searching for nearly three weeks.

On April 9, Sendero Luminoso guerrillas stormed Kepashiato town square in the Peruvian rainforest north of Cusco and took hostage 36 workers on the Camisea gas pipeline, demanding $10 million in ransom.  Peruvian police and military commandos were helicoptered in three days later but the rescue mission ended in disaster:  one soldier, Landert Tamani, was killed, while two others, badly wounded, were abandoned in the retreat.  For the next seventeen days, the Peruvian press followed the dramatic search for the missing men, José Astuquilca and Cesar Vilca.

(Photo source:

The hostages were freed suddenly on April 14, and although the Peruvian government and the Camisea pipeline consortium have denied any such negotiations, it is widely presumed that a substantial ransom was paid.  Military operations continued as some 1500 police and soldiers combed the jungle to hunt out Sendero fighters and rescue the missing men.  Matsigenka villagers abandoned their homes and fled from the heavy bombardment.  But by the end of April, six more Peruvian troops were dead and the two wounded men were still missing.

Then on April 29, two native Matsigenka women from the community of Inkaari found José Astuquilca alive and helped him get to the small town of Kiteni on the lower Urubamba River.  Dionisio Vilca went to the remote region by himself and hired two Matsigenka guides to help search for his own missing son.  On May 2, they located Cesar Vilca's body less than 300 yards from where the ambush had first taken place.   

Cesar Vilca
(Photo source:

The Peruvian press has lambasted the military and police for abandoning the wounded soldiers, and for the travesty of the botched rescue mission.  With a growing public outcry, the Ministers of Defense and the Interior recently resigned.

Yet the episode also highlights the bravery and dire predicament of the anonymous heroes of the story, the Matsigenka, an indigenous people caught up in the rapid and sometimes chaotic transformations ushered in by the Camisea gas pipeline.

Camisea pipeline during construction
(Photo source: Panoramio)
The Camisea gas project has brought in over 4 billion dollars in foreign investment to Peru's booming economy, and the regional government of Cusco has received roughly $1 billion in direct royalty payments.  The municipality of Echarate, where these events unfolded, is now among the richest in Peru, awash in royalty payments from the Camisea gas fields.

Camisea pumping station at Malvinas
(Photo source: Panoramio)

And yet the Matsigenka and other native communities within Echarate have seen minimal long-term benefits:  large amounts of development money have been wasted on failed projects, fish and game populations have dwindled, social problems like alcoholism and prostitution have multiplied while health care remains precarious.  Yet another gas spill (the 7th in the 8-year history of the pipeline) was reported in March, contaminating streams near the Matsigenka community of Camaná.  A wave of illnesses and several recent deaths in Camaná have been blamed on the spill, though these claims are still being investigated.

The recent hostage-taking incident and dramatic resurgence of Sendero Luminoso reveal further dark consequences of gas development in this region.  One can only hope that the Peruvian government will emerge from this tragedy with a renewed covenant not only with its armed forces, but also with its unsung native heroes.


Media sources: