Eight Indigenous leaders from Ucayali and Huánuco have received threats for months from narco-trafficking mafias, land invaders, and illegal loggers. Several days ago, they were in Lima demanding protection from the Peruvian government. They fear for their lives.
It couldn’t have been a coincidence. A threatening message arrived on October 2nd in the afternoon. It was left in the front door of the offices of ORAU (Regional Organization of AIDESEP in Ucayali) in Pucallpa. That same day, only hours before, one of their office workers was shot in an alleged robbery.
The threat was directed at Berlín Diques, President of ORAU, and his advisor Jamer López. The organization, which represents 300 communities among 15 different Amazonian Indigenous Peoples of the Ucayali region in Peru, had denounced various mafias that operate in the rainforest. They filed charges, activating the Ministry of Justice’s protocol for human rights defenders, and both received police protection. But this protection lasted just one day.
Diques arrived in Lima during the first days of December along with a group of Indigenous leaders from different native communities in the regions of Ucayali, Huánuco, and Pasco. They are all fearful because they are also under threat. The following are some of their cases:
1. Zulema Guevara – A leader in search of justice
Zulema is one member of the group. Her husband, Arbildo Meléndez Grandes (34 years old), a Cacataibo leader from the community of Unipacuyacu, was assassinated by gunshot on April 12, 2020, when he was walking through the forest. He had previously confronted invaders connected to land traffickers who had threatened to kill him. The judicial authorities had heard about the case. A month before the gunshots that took his life, there had been a meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst. But even that couldn’t prevent the crime.
“From the time my husband died, I have been abandoned by the government,” says Zulema. She had to leave her community along with her three young children to set themselves up in Pucallpa, far from her family and agricultural traditions.
However, to participate in judicial proceedings related to the murder of her husband, she has traveled to Puerto Inca (Huánuco). There, unknown individuals on motorcycles have threatened her on three occasions. She has asked for protection for her life.
On the legal front, she feels that the legal case has stalled due to bad intentions. Her lawyer has asked for both the prosecutor and the judge to be removed, given that they have not issued a detention order against the confessed murderer and because they are trying to accept a manslaughter defense.
2. Miguel Guimaraes – Leader threatened since 2018
Miguel Guimaraes Vásquez, President of the Federation of Native Communities of the Ucayali River and Tributaries (FECONAU), has also received various threats. The latest was through a message to his cell phone from an unknown number. He received a video showing dismembered people and a clear message. “If I continue pushing forward with my work, the same will happen to me,” he says they told him. This happened on October 14, 2020.
The case has been taken up by the Criminal Investigation Division of the Peruvian National Police, and various weeks have passed without results. The Public Ministry, which initiated its investigation, doesn’t have new developments either. He has been receiving this kind of harassment since 2018, when he wasn’t even a community leader. “We are here trying to speak with the authorities because we don’t want to be the next victims,” he says.
Miguel explains that there are more than 2,000 hectares of deforested forests around the community of Flor de Ucayali and others. The mafias chop down the forests to plant coca leaves and set up their production sites to make paste for cocaine. In the last two years, the destroyed areas have multiplied. The state of emergency declared for the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the mafias. “The presence of the government is null,” Gimaraes says.
3. Diana Ríos – Daughter of the leader who sought justice
For more than six years, Diana Ríos has felt indignant and very frustrated because the judicial process against the killers of Jorge Ríos, her father, has not concluded. On September 1, 2014, Jorge and other Asháninka Indigenous leaders, Edwin Chota Leoncio Quintisima Meléndez and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez, were cruelly assassinated by illegal loggers. The four had denounced the illegal logging criminal networks that continue operating with impunity along the border between Peru and Brazil.
“The accused people have been identified. We have photos, evidence, everything. It is unjust that they are trying to archive the case. Four leaders were assassinated for defending their forests, their territories. The government has become an accomplice for not listening to our demands,” Ríos says.
Diana – similar to Zulema – had to leave her community of Alto Tamaya Saweto. She moved with her four children to Pucallpa for security reasons. “I can’t go calmly to my community because the killer of my father is still around there, along the same river,” she says angrily.
In her community, to which she can’t return, there are now more than 8,000 hectares of rainforest deforested at the hands of the illegal loggers, and the area has been converted into the “land of no one.”
4. Herlín Odicio
Herlín Odicio, President of the Native Federation of Cacataibo Communities (FENACOCA), has also been threatened by phone calls and threatening messages that say, “We know who you are.”
The messages come from different phone numbers. They call him throughout the day. Herlín has requested government protection, and the police have received information about the numbers from which the threats are carried out.
5. Marcelo Odicio Angulo – The leader who doesn’t stop patrolling his forest
In the territories of his community Yamino, located in the province of Padre Abad (Ucayali region), coca production and narco-trafficking activities have increased even though they are found in the buffer zone of the Cordillera Azul National Park.
“The Culture Ministry hasn’t done almost anything in this zone,” he says, noting that some 20 people from his Cacataibo Indigenous community are the ones who organize themselves to carry out forest patrols. They are only armed with arrows.
They have received threats from third parties and have asked for protection. Protection was offered but not even one police officer has visited the community, even though there is a police station about 40 minutes away in the city of Aguaytia. “We need protection, the government should intervene,” says Marcelo Odicio.
Over the first days of December, the threatened leaders held various meetings in Lima with high-level officials to explain their cases.
The Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Eduardo Vega, met with them on December 2nd. The Ministry agreed to revise the protocol for human rights defenders to turn them into a useful mechanism for preventing violence and protecting Indigenous Peoples.
They also met with the Minister of Interior, Rubén Vargas. Among the commitments he made before leaving his position was a more active resistance against organized crime in these parts of the rainforest. He told the leaders that they have a new protocol for police operations to build relationships with Indigenous communities.
This past Wednesday, the government declared a State of Emergency for 60 days in six districts of Huánuco and three districts of Pasco, with the goal to have the Peruvian National Police and Armed Forces strengthen their fight against organized crime such as illicit traffic of drugs, illegal mining, terrorism, kidnapping, extortion, murder, and illegal logging.
For her part, the President of Congress, Mirtha Vásquez, told them that the Frente Amplio party had presented a new proposed law for human rights defenders, including a plan to attend to and compensate victims. The congressman Alberto de Belaunde also offered to present a proposed law for environmental defenders and human rights.
They also met with the Ministry of the Environment’s Solicitor’s Office. Their officials promised to devise official complaints in the name of their office and pass them along to the National Office Against Drugs (DIRANDRO) of the National Police.
The coordinator of the Public Ministry’s Environmental Prosecutors, Flor de María Vega, listened to Zulema Guevara’s critiques about the investigation into her husband’s killing and the request that the prosecutors in Puerto Inca (Huánuco department) should reinforce their operations against drug trafficking.
Request for protection from the government
With all the risks implied in defending the rainforest, ORAU President Berlín Diques affirmed that they are going to “continue because the forests are our source of life, of food, of security, of ongoing life.”
He says it is urgent for the justice system to accelerate the investigations and processes to detain and sentence those responsible for the deaths of assassinated Indigenous leaders in recent years. He says that it is also urgent for the government to reinforce their campaign against narcotrafficking, illegal logging, and the illegal plantations of mono-crops like oil palm. This is, Diques adds, “a constant struggle.”