Pubdate: Sun, 7 Dec 2008
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A6
Copyright: 2008 The New York Times Company
Author: Alexei Barrionuevo
Note: Mery Galanternick contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.


TABATINGA, Brazil -- The Tikuna Indians living near this Amazon 
outpost long believed that their community was a portal to the 
supernatural, to immortals who would guard them and secure their existence.

But lately they are finding that location may instead be a curse.

The Tikuna community, Mariacu, lies along a placid stretch of the 
Solimoes River, less than three miles down a reddish-dirt road from 
Tabatinga, a bustling commercial town.

While seemingly tranquil, the area has become a magnet for drug 
traffickers who roam the borders here with Colombia and Peru.

Some Indians are accepting cash to work as drug mules, using their 
knowledge of the rivers and dense rain forest to transport cocaine 
into Brazil's growing market, local officials say. And a growing 
number of young Tikunas are succumbing to drug and alcohol abuse, 
which Indian leaders blame for some 30 adolescent suicides over the 
past five years.

For the Tikunas, these traumas represent the latest threat in a fight 
for tribal survival. With high unemployment and new challenges to its 
subsistence livelihood, the community is struggling to keep young 
people from losing themselves in the vices of the white man's world 
and from destroying what is left of traditional Tikuna culture.

Like other Indian communities tucked close to growing urban areas, 
Tikunas are tempted by the consumerism on display and frustrated that 
it is beyond their means. To the youth especially, alcohol, drugs and 
drug money seem to offer a way out. They have also unleashed a surge 
of violence and disobedience.

Alarmed by these trends, Mariacu's two chiefs recently made an 
unusual and desperate appeal for help: they asked the Brazilian 
police, who generally do not have jurisdiction in Indian towns, to 
enter their community and crack down on traffickers and substance 
abusers, even if that would mean putting the Indians at the mercy of 
Brazilian laws.

"We want government officials to help us save our children, so they 
don't take part in these ruinous practices," said Oswaldo Honorato 
Mendes, a deep-voiced Mariacu chief. "Every day the situation gets 
worse. The younger generation does not obey. They do not show respect 
for our authority as chiefs. They need to learn respect."

Respect and obedience to the chiefs are the pillars of tribal law, 
which usually holds sway in Indian communities but has proved 
insufficient to cope with new challenges.

The tribal leaders reached a breaking point in early October when 
Ildo Mariano, 18, hanged himself while his parents were sleeping 
inside their tiny wood home. For months, he had been drinking and 
possibly doing drugs with friends who lived in Tabatinga, said his 
father, Alfredo Mariano.

"He would arrive from class at night and hit the books, and then his 
friends would pick him up and take him to I don't know where," Mr. 
Mariano said one recent afternoon, as he sat outside on a wood bench 
while a few feet away his wife boiled pupunha palm tree fruit.

Four days after Ildo's suicide, the chiefs summoned officials from 
the federal, civil and military police in Tabatinga to a meeting in 
Mariacu, where some 5,200 Tikunas live. They pleaded for the police 
to do more to control drug traffickers and arrest lawbreakers in 
their communities. The police officials listened politely but walked 
away unconvinced they could help.

"It is a desperate request, but not one that we can legally respond 
to," said Sergio Fontes, the superintendent of the federal police in 
the northern city of Manaus, which oversees Tabatinga. "The chiefs 
want to resolve a social problem with the police, and that is wrong."

The police generally may not enter an Indian community to carry out 
investigations, and Indians generally enjoy immunity from Brazilian 
laws, Mr. Fontes said. In addition, Brazil treats drug users as 
victims who require treatment, not as criminals. They are usually 
sentenced to receiving drug-addiction treatment and performing 
community service in lieu of serving prison time.

And while drugs and alcohol are strictly illegal in Mariacu, store 
shelves in Tabatinga are lined with liquor of all kinds. The Tikunas 
also speak of a white paste, which most think is a form of cocaine, 
that their youth are mixing with alcoholic beverages.

The Tikunas, who have lived in the region for centuries and migrated 
to this area in the early 1840s, have traditionally fished and 
planted bananas and cassava. According to legend, their god, Yoi, 
fished them from a tributary of the Solimoes.

The borders with Peru and Colombia traditionally meant little to 
them. Leticia, Colombia's southernmost town, is less than a 20-minute 
minibus ride away.

They remained largely isolated until the 1940s, when Brazil's Indian 
Protection Service, now the Fundacao Nacional do Indio, or Funai, 
created an office for Indian affairs here, making the town a sort of 
regional capital.

What has happened in Mariacu "is not the result of any abandonment of 
Tikuna culture," said Joao Pacheco de Oliveira, a professor of 
anthropology at the National Museum. Rather, he said, history and 
non-Indian culture have reshaped the world around the Tikunas.

Tabatinga, once a small military town, began growing rapidly as a 
border trading center in the 1980s and is now home to some 48,000 
people. Tikunas began participating in Tabatinga politics in the 
1990s, served as military reservists and sent their children to 
public schools here.

But the region has also been a way station for drug traffickers since 
the 1970s. The Colombian government's recent crackdown on 
narco-guerillas has driven more drug shipments into Brazilian 
territory, said Mr. Fontes, the police superintendent. The federal 
police in Manaus have seized more than two tons of cocaine this year, 
about 1,700 pounds in November alone.

"There has been an escalation of violence in the region of High 
Solimoes, of drug-trafficking gangs, with an astonishing number of 
killings, and the majority of these gangs are in Brazilian 
territory," Mr. Fontes said.

The lack of jobs is proving stifling. A decade ago the fish in the 
river began to decline.

With Mariacu's growing population and stagnant official boundaries 
there is little room to expand cultivation areas, or to create open 
spaces for children to play in.

Luz Marina Mendes, a sister of Chief Mendes, said she nearly lost her 
19-year-old son, Donizete, twice last year when he tried to kill 
himself during drug-induced stupors. She walked in on him taking 
drugs last year, finding a whitish paste that her niece later told 
her was a drug.

One day Donizete stumbled through the family's front door in a 
violent rage, his arm bleeding from a deep, self-inflicted gash. 
Another day, Ms. Mendes said, she saved him when she found him trying 
to hang himself.

He later joined the army reserves and cleaned up while living on the 
base in Tabatinga, she said.

"Virgin Mary, I went through such a rough time with him," she said, 
her eyes welling up at the memory. "I struggled so much."

But reaching for outside help is a thorny issue.

While Indians who have not been exposed to outside culture cannot be 
prosecuted at all under Brazilian law, so-called acculturated 
Indians, like the Tikuna, can be under certain circumstances, said 
Davi Cecilio, head of the Tabatinga office of Funai.

Even so, an acculturated Indian "cannot be imprisoned for the same 
time as a white man," he said.

At Tabatinga's local jail, a half-dozen Indians were recently being 
detained, suspected of acting as drug mules. Drug traffickers 
approach Indians because they often do not understand that the 
substances they are being asked to carry are illegal, said Lt. 
Francisco Garcia, who runs the jail. The Indians probably suspect 
that what they are being asked to do is not quite right but often do 
not fully grasp the grave prison sentences they could suffer in the 
white man's world.

And the lure of easy money is tough to resist. Most Tikunas in 
Mariacu earn little more than Brazil's minimum wage of $168 a month. 
In the jail, Max Tello, a 20-year-old Kokama Indian, another tribe in 
the western Amazon, said he had accepted $404 in January to take a 
bag of cocaine up the river, when he was working on a riverboat.

Queliane Gomes, 23, who is part Tikuna and part Kokama, and also in 
jail, said she was paid more than 12 times as much as what she earned 
as a housekeeper in Tabatinga to transport a bag of a white substance 
that, she said, she later learned was cocaine.

While she realizes what she did was illegal, she said Indians should 
be held to a different standard.

"The law of the white men is the law of the white men, and our law 
has to take precedence, because our people didn't get here because of 
the whites," Ms. Gomes said. "If we don't fight for our rights, our 
ethnicity will cease to exist."

Portuguese is slowly eroding the importance of the Tikunas language 
in Mariacu. Younger Tikunas are less and less interested in fishing 
for a living or in carrying on the artisan traditions of their 
elders, residents said. The younger Tikunas "want to have a 
motorcycle like the whites in town do, to dance to their music, to 
participate in the regular life of the whites in Tabatinga," said 
Joel Santos de Lima, Tabatinga's mayor.

That lifestyle has brought violence that seems almost inescapable 
some days, the chiefs said.

"The police are the security of Brazil, and they aren't doing 
anything," Chief Mendes said. "It is their responsibility. It is what 
they are paid to do."

But with the police rejecting the Indians' plea, for now, at least, 
the Tikunas will have to find ways to cope with their own social 
problems and the swirling new influences.

"The Tikunas are between two worlds," Mr. Fontes said, "and I don't 
know which one is worse."
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