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Drug trafficking threatens Indigenous Shipibo communities in Peru

  • The Flor de Ucayali municipality belongs to Indigenous Shipibo-Conibo communities and has been the site of intense deforestation, according to local sources and satellite data.
  • Community members say the driver of forest loss is illicit coca cultivation. Coca is used to make cocaine.
  • Shipibo-Conibo residents say they have been threatened by armed drug traffickers.
  • Authorities have intervened, but residents say the threats continue. Satellite data and imagery show continuing deforestation in the area.

Nine months ago, Abdón was one of 40 Indigenous people from the Peruvian municipality of Flor de Ucayali who traveled, for the last time, to the border between his community and the village of Santa Sofía. This area, located in the northeastern section of Flor de Ucayali, is reportedly now a violent enclave of drug trafficking and illegal logging. Sources say coca crops are expanding around the primary forest, and an armed wing of drug traffickers has caused the withdrawal of the Indigenous Shipibo-Conibo people who used to conserve the forest. In 2020 the leaders of Flor de Ucayali complained of what they said were incessant deforestation and death threats, triggering an inspection by the district attorney.

Prior to the Sept. 2020 inspection, members of the Flor de Ucayali Monitoring Committee said individuals with pistols demanded they present identification when they attempted to enter their ancestral territory, and that areas of the forest had been cleared coca crops – from which cocaine is produced. Some community members said that the same thing happened to other Shipibo-Conibo people who came to the area to hunt or fish. They were also warned not to stay in the forest or cross the area after 4:00pm or they would risk being shot.

Deforestation for coca in Flor de Ucayali. Image courtesy of FECONAU.

Abdón said that, in mid- 2020, they followed a trail of bottles and cans scattered between the trees until they found a pit used for cocaine production. He said they were guided there by a strong, acidic fuel smell that emanated from the drug lab, and that Indigenous community members were shocked by the chemical residue contaminating the river that flows through their town.

“ ‘If you all go out and the police come, the only ones responsible will be you. And you all are going to disappear with your families’,” Abdón said a man with a gun in his hand had told him near the cocaine pit.

A forest full of problems

Flor de Ucayali is situated on the bank of the Utiquinía River, in the district of Callería in Peru’s Ucayali region. It is one of the 30 Indigenous communities that make up the Federation of Native Communities of Ucayali (FECONAU). About 70 Shipibo-Conibo families live there and dedicate their time to small-scale agriculture. Since 1987, the community has held title of a territory of 21,800 hectares (about 53,869 acres), 94% of which is covered by dense rainforest. Flor de Ucayali currently has a valid forestry permit to use 15,896 hectares (about 39,280 acres) of secondary forest for commercial purposes.

It takes seven hours by speedboat to reach the center of the Flor de Ucayali community from Pucallpa, the capital of the Ucayali region. Julián, a member of the Flor de Ucayali Monitoring Committee, told Mongabay Latam that the committee previously monitored the forest without issue. However, he said everything changed when drug traffickers began to control the area and that the committee and community members are no longer able to safely patrol their forest.

“By monitoring with points, we estimate that the deforestation exceeded 2,000 hectares [about 4,942 acres],” Julián said. “Reaching the coca farms means not returning.”

Miguel Guimaraes, the president of FECONAU, explained that among the communities in this Indigenous area, Flor de Ucayali has been the most affected by deforestation caused by drug trafficking.

Deforestation in Flor de Ucayali. Image courtesy of community members.

According to Julián, incursions into the area by illegal loggers-turned-coca farmers began in 2006. He recalled that at first they came sporadically and in small groups. However, he said a lack of state police presence and enforcement allowed for an increasing invasion by coca farmers, loggers and drug traffickers, and these problems were particularly exacerbated in 2018.

A disputed investigation

Due to deforestation and alleged death threats, the leaders of Flor de Ucayali presented a complaint to regional authorities. The complaint prompted the Sept. 2020 inspection by the Office of the Public Prosecutor Specializing in Environmental Matters of Ucayali, Peru’s ecological police, the Directorate of Forest and Wildlife Management of the Regional Government of Ucayali, leaders from FECONAU and a group of residents of the affected community.

Linda Vigo, a lawyer from the Legal Defense Institute (IDL), said that the district attorney had a “resistant attitude” from the start and that. “They looked the other way,” Vigo said. The case was closed January 2021.

In late 2020, IDL, FECONAU, the Federation of Indigenous Kechua Chazuta Amazonian Peoples (FEPIKECHA), and the international organization Forest Peoples Programme sent a report to the Congress of the Republic of Peru that documented the “immense and devastating deforestation” observed during the inspection in Flor de Ucayali. The report also claimed the Public Ministry of Peru’s account of the situation was inaccurate, and that more deforestation had occurred than the ministry had reported.

About 40 Shipibo-Conibo community members from Flor de Ucayali accompanied the inspection conducted in September 2020. Image courtesy of FECONAU.

In an interview with Mongabay Latam, José Guzmán Ferro, the provincial prosecutor from the Office of the Public Prosecutor Specializing in Environmental Matters of Ucayali, said that after the inspection his office filed a report with an anti-drug agency in the hopes that they would intervene.

Meanwhile, many community members said that increasing criminal activity and deforestation are slowly cornering them. Matías Pérez-Ojeda del Arco, advocacy coordinator of the Forest Peoples Programme in Peru, agreed. “The paradigm that [land] titling resolves a community’s problems is broken,” he said. “If it is an abandoned community, it’s possible that the adjacent [communities] could initiate illegal activities.”

Deforestation and death threats

Satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualized on Global Forest Watch show primary forest loss in Flor de Ucayali skyrocketed in 2020, growing more than five-fold over 2019. While preliminary data for 2021 indicates deforestation has abated some this year compared to 2020, the number of tree cover loss alerts recorded by UMD so far in 2021 is still above the average rate. 

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show forest loss has been concentrated in the northeastern part of Flor de Ucayali.

According to Nelly Aedo, the director of the Indigenous Communities program at the Ombudsman’s Office, the absence of government presence in these remote areas of Peru is one of the factors that keeps communities there at risk of invasion.

“There are communities that have titles, like Flor de Ucayali, but they are alone and unprotected,” Aedo said. “Illegal loggers often have violent attitudes, and drug trafficking is a cruel illegal activity.”

Shipibo-Conibo community members said that while they were patrolling another damaged area in early 2021, a logger accosted them and told them that he knew the names of those who had made complaints to authorities. “It will cost us nothing to shoot you all,” he allegedly yelled. The community members said that the drug traffickers log the forest while they wait for the next crop of coca to grow.

Ramiro is a member of the Flor de Ucayali community who said he lived in fear that the loggers and coca farmers near Santa Sofía would identify him as one of the people who had prompted the inspection. He said he even considered leaving town for safety. He said that during that uncertain time, a group of outsiders arrived in the community by boat and fired several shots into the air. “’Anyone who goes back [into the forest where coca is grown] will not come out alive’,” Ramiro said one of the strangers shouted between the staccato of bullets. He said they attacked his farm and his house the following week. “No one was injured, miraculously,” Ramiro said.

The situation continued to escalate. Guimaraes, the president of FECONAU, said he received a series of shocking photos via text that showed men being tortured and dismembered. Accompanying the photos was a threatening message: “Continue with what you are doing, and the same thing will happen to you.”

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, the regions of Amazonas, Ucayali, and San Martín have the highest numbers of Indigenous people who have reported intimidation by loggers, drug traffickers and illegal miners. The office registered 25 murders of Indigenous and environmental defenders between 2013 and 2021, nine of which occurred in 2020 and 2021. The Ombudsman’s Office said the Indigenous groups that are most heavily affected are the Asháninka, the Catacaibo, the Shipibo-Conibo, the Awajún and the Wampís.

Trees cut down to make room for coca crops. Image courtesy of FECONAU.

Luis Pacheco Cornejo, the director of the Peruvian National Police anti-narcotics unit (DIRANDRO) in Pucallpa, said the criminal networks operate independently with each element that makes up their criminal group: the coca farmers, the armed wing, cocaine producers in drug labs, and the drug traffickers themselves.

The Pucallpa arm of DIRANDRO reported that the districts of Callería, Masisea, Yurúa, Purús, and Padre Abad have the highest rates of deforestation. Within these jurisdictions, the areas with the highest rates of deforestation are the Indigenous communities of Santa Rosa, Santa Ana, Chachivai, Santa Clara de Uchunya, and Flor de Ucayali, according to DIRANDRO.

“When the Indigenous people complain of deforestation, they are not considered ‘the aggrieved.’ ‘The aggrieved’ is the government. So, the government does not protect them in the field. This is why the cases have been closed,” said Pérez of the Forest Peoples Programme.

Two community members from Flor de Ucayali who were willing to be interviewed for this article said they have hired personal security due to death threats. The Protocol for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders was activated for one of the two people. Using this protocol, which is operated by Peru’s Ministry of Justice, an alert was generated so that police would be called to guard the person and, if necessary, transfer the person to a secure area. However, both community members say that these protections have been ineffective at deterring threats.

An investigation conducted by the Regional Government of Ucayali confirmed the complaints of Shipibo-Conibo communities. Image courtesy of area community members.

On July 1, an intervention was conducted in Flor de Ucayali by forest monitoring personnel from the Regional Government of Ucayali, representatives from the Prosecutor’s Office for Environmental and Anti-Drug Matters, the Peruvian police, and the Peruvian Navy. Prosecutor José Guzmán Ferro said that the intervention was a “shocking verification” of how coca is planted throughout the area. During the intervention, supplies, shacks, and three coca maceration pits were destroyed. Guzmán believes that periodic interventions will stop criminal operation in the area.

Satellite data and imagery, however, show deforestation has only increased since the July intervention.

Satellite imagery shows clearings proliferated in July and August.

Some community members also don’t agree with Guzmán’s assessment. Guimaraes, the president of FECONAU, said that there is still not an effective, permanent security strategy for Flor de Ucayali.

“They leave the community members as if they are bait,” Guimaraes said.

 

 

The names of some Indigenous community members have been changed for their safety.

This story is a translated and updated version of one reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published in Spanish on our Latam site on July 12, 2021.

Banner image courtesy of FECONAU.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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