- Peruvian police have arrested 12 members of a gang believed to be involved in the murder of four environmental defenders in the Chaparrí ecological reserve.
- The community-run reserve has in recent years been the target of a sustained campaign of land grabs, deforestation and arson.
- The land grabbers appear to be counting on a planned reservoir in the area to boost the value of the land for agricultural use.
- The Peruvian Congress has established a committee to look into the problems there, as threats and attacks against the community persist.
Lambayeque, PERU – Authorities in Peru late last month arrested a dozen alleged members of the notorious El Gran Chaparral criminal syndicate. The members were arrested on the charges of murder, land grabbing, and arson from setting forest fires in the Chaparrí Ecological Reserve. Chaparrí is the first recognized private nature reserve in Peru.
The arrests took place on Oct. 26 as part of a pre-dawn raid by more than 300 police and organized crime officers in Peru’s northwestern Lambayeque region. Among those taken into custody were the alleged gang leader, Hipólito Cruzado Rafael, 62, and his sons, authorities said. Officers also raided 18 properties in connection with the case, the culmination on a nearly year-long investigation.
The suspects are believed to be responsible for the torture and murder of José Napoleón Tarrillo Astonitas, lieutenant-governor of the community of Muchik Santa Catalina de Chongoyape, in December 2017. Astonitas was a prominent environmental defender. They’re also implicated in the murders of three other community members — Yrineo Martínez, Felicie Cherres Garrido and Jesús Guerrero — in October 2016.
The gang’s reign of terror over the past two years is tied to plans to build a reservoir that would fall inside the Chaparrí reserve’s borders. Drawn by the promise of arable farmland conjured out of the arid landscape, hundreds of people have flocked to the area, invading the reserve, deforesting and burning the land, building illegal settlements, and growing crops.
The Chaparrí reserve was established by the Muchik Santa Catalina de Chongoyape community in 2001 as Peru’s first privately managed nature reserve. It’s a biodiversity hotspot that’s home to rare species like the white-winged guan (Penelope albipennis), a bird once thought extinct, and the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), the only living bear species native to South America.
The arrests of the 12 El Gran Chaparral members have restored faith among the community of an end to the threats facing their reserve and justice for the murder of Tarrillo, affectionately known as Napo.
“These arrests represent hope that the biodiversity will continue to recover with the support of sustainable ecotourism,” Heinz Plenge, one of the founding members of the reserve and a renowned wildlife photographer, told Mongabay. “It also brings hope to the community members that still believe in justice and peace.”
Tarrillo’s widow, Flor Vallejos Astonitas, who is under the protection of the National Coordinator for Human Rights, a coalition of NGOs, said in an interview in February that she hoped for justice for her husband’s murder.
Juan de Dios Carrasco Fernández, a founding member of the reserve, also welcomed the arrests. “Those who murdered our brother Napo are punished, as well as all those involved in the land trafficking in the reserve,” he said in an interview.
In an interview earlier this year, Carrasco said that he feared he might be the next target of the gang.
“I know they are going to attack me or my family,” he said in April. “They have already attacked and murdered a comrade [Tarrillo] and have threatened others. I do not know when my time will come.”
The attack he prophesied came on Sept. 2. A group of nearly 30 men invaded Chaparrí, and when Carrasco’s son, Edivar, went to investigate, he was violently attacked by the mob with sticks and stones. He managed to escape.
Within less than a week, the invaders had built an extensive concrete wall that breached the borders of the reserve. The construction damaged the protected area’s sensitive ecosystem, uprooting and destroying protected species of trees and shrubs. Following an intervention by police on Sept. 8, the community managed to halt construction in the protected area, but the damage had already been done.
“I feel ashamed to know that there is a wall on the land that we always speak of as a conservation example,” Carrasco said.
Under a 2011 resolution from the environment ministry, no landscape-altering infrastructure projects are permitted in the reserve, and land-use changes are forbidden.
“According to Peruvian law, the ownership cannot be disrupted and there is a judicial process that determines who has the right to the land,” Carrasco said. “It is not decided through force of threat and aggression. I and my family are living in fear and threat.”
More than 30 people defending the Chaparrí reserve have been subjected to threats, according to interviews and witnesses.
The Chaparrí reserve spans 340 square kilometers (130 square miles) of dry tropical forest. The community that lives there has adopted ecotourism as a sustainable economic alternative to past methods of overhunting and poor farming practices. Through the ecotourism initiative led by Carrasco and his family, they’ve helped to maintain, rehabilitate and reintroduce animals native to the area.
The troubles began six years ago, when plans to build a series of reservoirs in the parched region brought land grabbers to the area. The latter have since gone on to fill important posts and decision-making roles in the community. More than 500 new members have joined the community council known as the Administrative Directive, many of whom don’t meet the criteria to join.
As the invaders have moved deeper into the forest, they continue to stake out and carve up plots with wooden spikes splashed with white paint. Locals who oppose them are threatened with violence. More than 10 square kilometers of the forest have since been destroyed, according to Duberlí Rodríguez, the former head of Peru’s Supreme Court.
Fire is a key weapon in the land grabbers’ arsenal and responsible for much of the destruction. Javier Ruiz Gutierrez, a member of the community security force led by Carrasco, says the reserve has been hit by more than 20 fires set by land invaders. Peru’s National Institute of Civil Defense (INDECI) says fires are set to clear land for seizure, temporary settlement and future resale.
One of the most recent fires began on Sept. 22 and ultimately scorched 120 hectares (300 acres) of the reserve over the course of a week, destroying endangered plant species.
“They are turning our forest to smoke,” Gutierrez said; just one week after the blaze was doused, two new fires flared up in the reserve, he said.
One of the planned reservoirs being pushed by the Lambayeque government, La Montería, will fall within the borders of the Chaparrí reserve. Maria Elena Foronda Farro, a congresswoman and prominent environmental activist, says the project doesn’t have the required approval of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP), the Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), or the Ministry of Environment.
On the ground, the community has also questioned the need for the reservoir. Plenge says a reservoir already exists near the reserve, Tinajones, but has remained mostly dry over the past decade because of the scant water in the region.
“Tinajones can’t be filled up every year because there’s a scarcity of rain. So we don’t know what will happen in the future,” he said. “If they make more reservoirs, what water will they fill them with? There’s not even enough to fill the one reservoir.”
The Tinajones reservoir supplies water for a million people and irrigates 800 square kilometers (300 square miles) of land. It’s fed by the Chancay River, which the Lambayeque government also intends to use to fill La Montería.
In May 2018, following four months of requests by Foronda, the Peruvian Congress established a congressional committee to look into the land grabs in Chaparrí.
“This gives us another level of authority and allows us to enter the area with more power in order to recover it,” Foronda told Mongabay at the time.
The congresswoman has joined the local community in identifying the role of Olivio Huancaruna Perales, a prominent businessman and head of Lambayeque’s chamber of commerce, in masterminding the organized crime network operating in Chaparrí. Huancaruna’s company, Agricola San Juan de Chongoyape, grows grapes and berries for export on farms that border the reserve. Community members say they fear losing the forest to the company’s operations.
Rodríguez, the former court chief, also says there are indications Huancaruna is enabling the land grabs in Chaparrí. Asked about the allegations, Huancaruna denied any involvement in the conflict.
Mar Pérez Aguilera, the National Coordinator for Human Rights, said powerful groups with vast business interests were taking advantage of the fragile security of farmers’ property rights. She said they were using the opportunity to push out traditional landowners and gain control of the region.
“The government needs to implement public policy for the protection of human rights defenders. What we need is the state to do its job, which is to protect its people,” she told Mongabay.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of the Interior issued statements pledging the government’s protection for 25 defenders of the reserve, after Rodríguez received reports of threats and aggressions against them.
Yet despite this, the threats and attacks have continued. In fact, said Gutierrez, a community security force member, those being investigated for land grabbing and destruction of the protected area include longtime defenders of the reserve. Among those subject to formal complaints is Carrasco himself, who stands accused of damaging the environment through his conservation initiatives in Chaparrí.
“The formal complaints are filed by the people promoting the invasions in Chaparrí or by the [suspect] Administrative Directive members of the community,” Gutierrez said. “They might end up sending to prison those who in recent years defended Chaparrí from land grabbers.”
Banner image of a spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) in the wildlife rehabilitation and reintroduction program at the Chaparrí reserve. Image by Matthew Weaver.