Nine indigenous leaders in Peru’s central Amazon have been murdered in the past year and many more have been threatened with death because their ancestral lands are seized by drug traffickers.
Covid-19 restrictions have made the remote region even more vulnerable as government efforts to protect the land have been hampered. Despite mounting pressure, the authorities have recently taken action, but our observers say more needs to be done.
The latest attack was reported on April 23, 2021 in the eastern region of Ucayali, where alleged drug gangs set fire to the home of Elmer Gonzales, who belongs to the Cacataibo indigenous ethnic group. The traffickers also left a warning saying, “I am Colombian. Elmer, I want my load ”(see photo below). Meanwhile, Fredy Yaycate, from the same community, was kidnapped and found a few days later with signs of torture. They are now among a growing number of Cacataibo people who have gone into hiding fearful for their lives.
Warning left by traffickers that reads “I am Colombian. Elmer, I want my load ”© Observers
We spoke with the president of the indigenous federation of Cacataibo communities, Herlín Odicio, who went into hiding in April after death threats and attacks on his land in Ucayali escalated.
The situation started to turn bad last September, when a Colombian [narcos] came to my community and offered me a lot of money to work with them. They offered me money for every drug flight that took off from a secret airstrip on my territory. I did not accept the offer and since then the death threats have gotten worse. But they already knew me, I got the first threats five years ago.
In February 2021, the Ucayali government released a report identifying 46 clandestine runways in the region used to transport coca to neighboring Brazil and Bolivia. The report also revealed that the drug trade in Ucayali caused the deforestation of 42,600 hectares of land in 2020.
When the coronavirus emergency set in, government agencies shut down and the narcos took advantage of the silence to go deeper into the Amazon and kill more leaders. The Amazon is huge and the police cannot be everywhere. But the main problem is that the state is not working, they have not protected us. We’ve seen the illegal crops and maceration pits they use to make cocaine paste, and we’ve sent evidence to the police. But nothing has been done.
Exposing what is happening is all I can do. Our communities have had no rights for too long, but we have not spoken out. It is time for this to change. I know I am risking my life, but I will continue this battle until the last days of my existence.
The nine indigenous leaders killed this year all rebelled against the drug mafia in their territory. But there is a different denominator in each case: impunity. We spoke to Zulema Guevara, whose husband, Arbilo Meléndez, was murdered in April 2020. Shortly after the death of the Cacataibo leader, the prosecution identified the alleged perpetrator, but he was never convicted. More than a year later, Zulema Guevara is still demanding justice for her husband.
Justice does not happen, even though they have all the cards in their hands. The person who killed my husband is still free and it looks like he could stay free. I seek justice not only for my husband, but also for all the leaders who are being murdered and for their widows and children they have left behind. … Our communities are being abandoned.
Zulema Guevara has been threatened with death by the same group of people who killed her husband. In an attempt to save her life and that of her children, she went into hiding with her family.
Such stories are increasingly common and have prompted indigenous organizations and the threatened defenders to launch an emergency campaign to get the government’s attention.
The government is taking welcome but ‘superficial’ measures
In response to pressure from these indigenous communities, as well as from the US, Norway and the UN, the Peruvian government announced in April the creation of an ‘intersectoral mechanism’ under which different sectors of the government would come together to protect human rights . of defenders.
¡And defensa de quienes nos protegen! Mediante el Decreto Supremo N ° 004-2021-JUS, el Estado peruano crea el Mecanismo intersectorial para la protección de las personas defensoras de derechos humanos 👉 https://t.co/yWAQCSA7bH. pic.twitter.com/qEuYzuiIvc
– Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos (@MinjusDH_Peru) April 22, 2021
Since the beginning of April, authorities have also begun to destroy clandestine runways and coca laboratories.
# SanMartín 📸 | It’s a workplace against the TID, it’s a place where the coca-coca has been cut, it’s a wrong way of working for the PBC effect, and a distrito of the # Shunté. pic.twitter.com/EfgBpuGfZ8
– Policía Nacional del Perú (@PoliciaPeru) May 3, 2021
#Tocache 📹 | Durante operaciones policiales contra el #TID, se on a pista the aterrizaje clandestina acondicionada para vuelos de avionetas vinculadas a narcotráfico. See a personal character, a personal document and an incontinence for vehicles and vehicles. pic.twitter.com/7Don1B362G
– Policía Nacional del Perú (@PoliciaPeru) April 20, 2021
While these initiatives are a step in the right direction, indigenous leaders say the mechanism is a superficial solution to the problem.
Berlin Diquez, president of the regional indigenous organization ORAU, told us the violence would continue unabated until the government commits to assisting tribes in obtaining legal titles on ancestral land.
Until we have something that is legally recognized, we will keep fighting because until then, justice will not be served.
No man’s land
Ucayali is vulnerable to land invasions as many of its indigenous communities have no legal titles in their ancestral territory. To obtain these titles, tribes must work their way through a complex procedure that can take decades.
Meanwhile, titles to individual properties have been going much faster, encouraging outsiders to buy land in indigenous areas with government support.
The JowharObservers team spoke with Lavaro Masquez, a lawyer specializing in indigenous rights at Lima’s Legal Defense Institute.
Titles are the main problem facing indigenous communities in Peru. One of the cases I’m currently working on involves a tribe that has been filing property rights to their land for 25 years, but still hasn’t acquired legal ownership of what is rightfully theirs. Meanwhile, drug trafficking and other illegal activities have spread and threaten the community.
In our country there is structural discrimination and racism against indigenous communities. The government does not prioritize indigenous cases as the balance is tipped in favor of those who have money.
Indigenous peoples risk their lives to stop the spread of coca and protect their land. It’s time to give them the importance they deserve. We have to give them back their land.
The difficulties Peruvian indigenous communities face in obtaining land titles are not unique to Peru. Indigenous peoples and rural communities occupy more than half of the world’s land, but legally own only 10 percent of it.
A special thanks to Gabrielle Colchen and Laura Peña Silva for their help in translating the interviews.