At only 20-years-old she has lived through situations that others will never have to experience. She has seen her father and grandfather brutally murdered, yet she continues to fight for her people regardless of the threats against her.
Zenaida Romero has become the new Yukpa leader in the fight against the abuse suffered by her people. She does not care that this position puts her life in danger as she learnt the importance of defending rights from her father, chief Sabino Romero, who was killed on March 3rd this year.
The Yukpa people are a community of indigenous Indian Americans who have spent years fighting for the demarcation and ownership of their ancestral lands which are situated to the west of Lake Maracaibo, a region which lies 700 km west of Caracas.
As this land is located in an area that is highly sought after by mining industries and large-scale landowners, over the last few decades, this indigenous community of almost 12,000 inhabitants has lost more than 90% of its ancestral territory.
In March of this year, Zenaida’s father was returning home with his wife after attending an event to protest against the election of a representative for the Yukpa people who was considered to be corrupt.
He attended the event as a supporter of the candidate, Juan Carlos Anane, and this is allegedly the reason as to why he was later ambushed by armed men on a motorbike.
Sabino was shot several times, which led to his death, and his wife Lucía was also wounded. Yet the attack on the family did not stop there. When two of Romero’s sons arrived after hearing the news they were arrested by the army as perpetrators of their father’s murder.
The chief led a difficult life. He received death threats on numerous occasions and survived several attempts on his life. Sabino knew that he literally had a price on his head, but he made the decision to never be silenced.
In 2009, he was accused of being “a drug-trafficker, thief and murderer” and was imprisoned after it was alleged that he had killed three Yukpas. As the prosecution for the case failed to provide evidence to support the accusations, two years later and after 18 months in prison, he was released but without any form of an apology.
All of his family and people disagree with these allegations and believe him to be a victim of violence. In 2008, the chief’s father died as a result of the injuries he suffered when he was beaten by a landowner who had previously threatened to “kill him like a dog”.
Zenaida in danger
Despite all of this, the Yukpa people refuse to be defeated. For this reason, at the end of 2012 they travelled on foot to the Vice President’s office in Venezuela’s capital, in order to demand an explanation over the ownership of the lands.
The indigenous Yukpa population lives in an area rich in mineral resources and the Venezuelan government has expressed its intentions to exploit these assets. This community however, is completely opposed to any kind of extractive or mining industry.
At the forefront of this fight for the rights of her people is Zenaida but it is by no means an easy battle. She is at risk of assassination and has already received death threats.
Over the past few months, at the invitation of LAMMP (Latin American Mining Monitoring Programme), Zenaida has toured Brussels, Geneva and London, appearing on numerous radio programmes and meeting with politicians and several organisations in order to protest about the Yukpa people’s situation.
“My grandfather told me that, not long ago, we lived on the land that now forms part of important cities in Zulia. It is hard to believe because there are only a few small Yukpa communities left”, she comments sadly.
“We now live in an area where it is difficult to grow anything so our children are dying of malnutrition and gastroenteritis. Two of my brother’s babies died and mine is very ill”, explained Zenaida during one of her European tours.
This young Yukpa woman describes how, despite all of this and even in these inhospitable mountains, they are constantly being hounded and harassed by the army, Colombian guerrillas, cattle-ranchers, mining companies and people who are hired to kill their leaders.
Both Zenaida and the organisations that support her cause are now asking for protection for her family and her people as they are constantly under threat. In fact, in 2012 her ex-partner and her brother-in-law were kidnapped.
Her ex-partner survived the attack despite his injuries but his brother was murdered after having his eyes gouged out with wire. To this day, no one has taken the blame for this crime.
Zenaida interprets the fact that none of these attacks or deaths has been investigated, as an obvious sign of the authorities’ disregard for her people and their desire to wash their hands of these matters. “There is no justice for the indigenous people. It is okay to kill Yukpa leaders.”
The Venezuelan government ignores these communities and no government representative has yet agreed to meet them despite their requests. “We ask for protection and that the deaths be investigated. The Venezuelan government created a situation that allowed my father’s murder to take place”, accuses the leader.
Zenaida also makes another request, “We want the government to recognise our right to live on our land and to follow our customs. We do not want to share our land with farmers, cattle-ranchers, landowners or miners.”
(Translated by Rebecca Hayhurst)