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October 31st, 2013 (InsideCostaRica.com) The Integrated Development Association of the Talamanca Bribri Indigenous Territory of Limon (ADITIBRI) has reported that U.S. helicopter “gunships” were in the community of Alto Coén, part of the group’s territory. This would be the second alleged incursion to the territory by foreign military or paramilitary groups this year.
The community said that the latest incursion took place in the morning hours of Tuesday, October 29th, when three military helicopters arrived in the community, sparking fear amongst residents.
Residents said they are especially concerned because another group of soldiers or paramilitaries who arrived in a similar helicopter on June 30th threatened to harm the residents after authorities seized their identity documents from an unattended camp.
During the most recent incursion, residents said the personnel and helicopters remained in place for several hours.
Residents notified authorities, which yesterday sent a group of 20 police to the area to collect information from residents.
Residents believe that the helicopters and personnel operate under the United States Southern Command, after the mayor of Talamanca, Melvin Cordero requested permission from President Laura Chinchilla in August to permit incursions by the United States Southern Command within the Bribri Indigenous Territory, which the mayor described as a “humanitarian air bridge” in his letter to Chinchilla.
The U.S. Southern Command is the U.S. military force in charge of security operations, surveillance, and counter-narcotics operations in more than 31 countries in the region. Its aim is to ensure U.S. interests in Latin America.
According to Cordero, the request was intended as a means by which to provide essential services to the communities of Alto Telire, but communities have expressed their opposition to military troops entering their territory.
In an interview with Radio Ceiba earlier this year, native Bribri, Leonardo Buitrago said that such an action would threaten the public and would facilitate the entry of military troops into indigenous territory without consulting the communities involved.
Buitrago said he fears the measure because the U.S. Southern Command has helped dispossess indigenous people of their lands in other countries. Buitrago also questioned Cordero’s motives, saying that extreme poverty doesn’t exist in the community, which Cordero says is the primary motive for the request.
Firearms and threats
While it is not clear if the most recent incidents are related, from late June to early July, a group of supposed “missionaries” arrived in an unmarked black helicopter and delivered Bibles to the homes of indigenous residents. However, the group raised suspicions which were brought to the attention of community leaders, when indigenous residents described the group arriving via helicopter, dressed in military fatigues, with weapons, firearms, and a variety of instruments to perform topographic measurements.
“They described the arrival of a suspicious helicopter, the group brought GPS equipment, altimeters, moisture meters, weapons and firearms, metal detectors and radar, plus they had training to survive in adverse mountainous conditions, and this raised peoples’ suspicions that these people were not evangelists,” said Henry Picado, press officer for Coecoceiba, a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) which defends the rights of indigenous communities
The indigenous communities notified the Prosecutor’s Office in Bribri, who sent members of the Fuerza Publica to investigate.
Two officers located the group’s camp, though the men were not present. The officers, under order from the Attorney General, proceeded to confiscate passports and some weapons found at the camp.
From the passports, the group was identified as Alejandro Cetrulo, Rodolfo Ortíz, Roque Revilla Candiotti, Isaias Romero Acuña, Travis Reid, Brian Bucek, Nual Richardson and Josh Hyatt. The group consisted of a Peruvian, two Costa Ricans and five Canadians.
After the visit by Fuerza Publica officers, indigenous residents said they were violently threatened by the men, who came to their community demanding the return of the items taken by police. One of the men allegedly drew a large caliber firearm and yelled, “If the police return we will shoot them.”
At the time, residents said they feared that the group were paramilitaries, possibly drug-related or mineral prospectors paid by Canadian mining companies.