“We are looking for you, dead or alive” is one of the daily threats that Herlín Odicio receives on his mobile phone.
The leader of the Cacataibo indigenous people in Peru’s central Amazon has been forced into hiding for confronting drug traffickers trying to steal his land. “We have reported on coca plantations on our land so many times and nothing has been done,” Odicio said.
He said threats against his life soared after he rejected an offer of 500,000 Peruvian soles (£ 96,500) for every drug flight departing from a secret airstrip on his territory. “They are coming for me,” he said by phone from a secret location in Peru. “I cannot walk freely in my community. [The narcos] They are looking for me “.
Indigenous communities in Peru’s central Amazon are experiencing increased violence, threats and harassment as drug gangs attack their lands to grow coca, the plant that is used to produce cocaine. Covid-19 restrictions have made the remote region even more vulnerable by slowing state efforts to protect the land and eradicate illegal coca cultivation.
Is coca cultivation boom – Peru is the second world producer of cocaine after Colombia, according to the TO – it has come at the cost of indigenous lives. In February, two leaders from Cacataibo, Yénser Ríos, 30, and Herasmo García, 28, were found shot to death 12 days apart in the Padre Abad province of Ucayali, an area riddled with coca plantations and clandestine landing strips for the transport of cocaine. to Bolivia.
Peru’s police chief of criminal investigations, General Vicente Tiburcio, said police were investigating whether the men’s deaths were revenge killings by coca growers. Tiburcio said Ríos had been responsible for patrolling his community’s territory and was known to have participated in the eradication of coca.
In April 2020, Arbildo Meléndez, leader of the same Cacataibo indigenous group, he was shot dead near the town of Unipacuyacu. He had denounced the presence of drug gangs and secret landing strips to the authorities, and had asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand that the Peruvian state protect him.
These men are three of the seven Amazonians in Peru killed during the pandemic when land grabbers exploited the crisis to seize land to grow coca, as well as for logging and cash crops like palm oil.
The most recent victim is Estela Casanto, 55, an Asháninka indigenous, who was found dead on March 12. “His family found blood stains on his bed,” said Teddy Sinacay, president of Ceconsec, an organization of 120 Asháninka communities in Peru’s central Amazon. “They had beaten her, they had dragged her out of her house. They took her about 40 meters and threw her into a ravine. Then they dragged her further and hit her on the head with a stone. “
Police are still investigating the circumstances, but his death provides even more evidence of the precariousness of indigenous land claims and the often deadly consequences of trying to enforce them.
Amazon Indians say police and prosecutors are not following their warnings and are allowing killers to act with impunity. In all, nine environmental activists have been killed in Peru since the start of the pandemic, but there have been no convictions for murder in any case.
Meléndez’s alleged killer was arrested but released on bail on a manslaughter charge after judges and prosecutors accepted his statement that his gun had been accidentally fired.
“For the state, we don’t exist,” said Berlin Diques, a native leader in Ucayali. “We are constantly harassed and threatened,” he said.
“We have lost confidence in the prosecution and the police,” said Odicio, who received police protection for a few days last year but now does not have it.
Álvaro Másquez, lawyer specializing in indigenous rights in Lima Institute of Legal Defense, said the balance tips in favor of outsiders seeking to buy land in indigenous territories. For the ancestral inhabitants, however, acquiring a property title it may take decades.
“It is a common practice that drug traffickers, land traffickers and illegal loggers end up bribing officials who authorize forest or agricultural concessions and property titles,” said Másquez.
At the same time, “structural racism in the judiciary and the prosecution” means that impunity is the norm for land grabbers, he said.
The territorial insecurity of indigenous peoples has made them easy targets for drug traffickers who use “established organized crime networks” to exploit their weakness, said Vladimir Pinto of Amazon Watch, which works to protect the rainforest and the rights of the people. natives.
As restrictions on the coronavirus ease in Peru, coca eradication, which fell from an average of 25,000 hectares (61,000 acres) of coca a year before the pandemic to about 6,000 hectares in 2020 – has just been resumed in the Cacataibo indigenous territory.
This worries Diques, who expects retaliation from drug gangs. “The cannon fodder will be us the indigenous [people]”He said.” The authorities are leaving and we will be blamed. We do not want to cry for more deaths. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism