- The department of Loreto, in northeast Peru, shares a nearly uninhabited border with Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil, making it ideal for illegal logging and wildlife trafficking.
- A law passed in November allows prosecutors to treat wildlife traffickers as organized crime groups with harsher sentences.
- Loreto prosecutor Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche, who specializes in environmental crime, spoke to Mongabay about protecting the department’s vast Amazonian rainforest, and how Peru’s recent political upheaval impacts that work.
Earlier this month, faced with a third impeachment attempt, former Peru President Pedro Castillo announced that he would be suspending congress, writing a new constitution and ruling by decree. But congress, which viewed the move as an effective coup d’état, voted to remove Castillo.
He was sent to prison and Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in as the country’s first female president. Protests across Peru have continued throughout the month, with residents demanding new elections and more accountability in the political system — there have been seven presidents since 2018, some ousted because of corruption scandals and others by constitutional crises.
In Loreto, the largest and one of the most rural departments of Peru, the environment has been suffering from this political unrest. The national government has underfunded environment-related work, which gets pushed back by every change of head of state.
Logging and wildlife trafficking are on the rise, much of it at the hands of organized crime groups that know how to circumvent environmental regulations. That’s especially worrying in Loreto, which hosts around 35 million hectares of Amazonian rainforest, making it one of the most biodiverse areas in Peru.
Loreto, located in the northeast, also shares massive, uninhabited borders with Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia, which even with cross-border cooperation can be almost impossible to monitor fully.
In November, a law was passed making the penalty for trafficking flora and fauna much stricter. It also allowed prosecutors to treat people involved in trafficking as an organized crime group. The law faced backlash in congress after it was passed, with some lawmakers claiming, among other things, that it unfairly targeted artisanal fishermen who fish out of season. However, repeal efforts have failed so far.
Mongabay spoke to Loreto Prosecutor Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche about the new wildlife trafficking law, environmental crime trends in the Peruvian Amazon and how the country’s continued political turmoil is impacting wildlife trafficking and logging.
Mongabay: What sorts of environmental crime have you been dealing with over the last year, coming out of the pandemic? Are any of them on the rise?
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche: My territory, the Loreto region, is almost as large as Italy or Germany. It’s 220 Bogotás and 440 Santiago de Chiles. You can imagine how important Loreto is. We have to handle the neighboring countries of Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil. And basically our problem has always been to work as crime chasers. We’re working in the Amazon, the immense vegetation, [and with] flora and fauna. We have the largest forest in all of Peru and it’s a constant concern for us, since we only have nine prosecutors in Loreto, so it’s extremely difficult for us. We’re specialized in environmental matters and, as environmental prosecutors, we’re in charge of a Satellite Monitoring and Reference unit, which uses databases and satellites to help find out where environmental crimes are being committed. For example, the crime of logging, deforestation. With satellite images, we can confirm that a certain area [is being targeted]. We call it “forest alerts,” which go into a file that we then investigate. The most common crimes are against forests. The felling of trees, deforestation, mining, we also have crimes against wildlife. We also have pollution crimes … About 80% of all complaints that come to the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Environmental Matters are crimes against forests. That’s anything that has to do with wood. Then the other 20% is divided between mining crimes, which have increased recently because there’s a large presence of illegal miners in the Nanay River Basin and in the Napo River Basin. And we also have crimes related to environmental pollution. But most of the crimes we see have to do with forests — probably around 70% or 80% of all of the cases that come to the Prosecutor’s Office are related to that.
Mongabay: Congress last month reformed a law that makes it easier for prosecutors to go after wildlife traffickers. Can you explain how exactly that new law impacts your work?
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche: That’s Law 31.622 that passed in November. For us criminal prosecutors, it has a huge impact because in one way or another it gives us more tools for prosecuting crimes. It incorporates article 308 D [which stipulates a penalty of three to five years in prison for wildlife trafficking] into the language of the law. In the previous code, there was no article 308 D for the illegal trafficking of wildlife, so now we can more easily prosecute and hand out a greater penalty to people financing wildlife trafficking crimes. It has a negative impact on the people who have dedicated themselves to illegal activities.
There has been some lobbying, or some efforts in and around congress — meetings with congressmen — to suppress or eliminate these recently published articles from the law. But they haven’t stuck this time. Given what’s been happening here in Peru, you can bet they will try to do it again, to get a repeal, because there are powerful economic interests behind these environmental crimes.
Mongabay: Some opponents of the law claimed that artisanal fishermen, possibly in Indigenous communities, would be unfairly targeted by the law. But supporters of the law said this was just an excuse to repeal.
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche: The final provision of Law 31.622 establishes criminal activity as involving the participation of people as members of a group. The investigation and trial is governed by the provisions of Law 30.077, which is the law against organized crime. So these crimes are being investigated as organized crime. It’s meant to sound the alarm on organized crime. Because organized crime really has very severe, very harsh penalties and you can be sure that we are going to find roles and functions for people who finance them and carry them out in an aggravated form.
Today, it’s made these people’s hair stand on end because serious investigations are really coming, and not only into environmental crimes but crimes that fit into the framework of organized crime, which is where an entire criminal organization is disrupted and criminal prosecution is carried out not only against the last link of the business — the fisherman — but also from the top down: the author, the financier, the people where the money is coming from. Then the people who transport the product. Then the fishermen. [We’re going to look at] how they get the product all the way through to the final packaging of it so it can be sent abroad. That’s what it is for us, from the perspective of the prosecution. It’s a tool that we can use to create effective sentences and to be able to combat organized crime.
Mongabay: So if I’m an artisanal fisherman carrying out the traditional practices of my community, I have nothing to worry about?
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche: No, of course not. This was created and structured by officials in Peru to combat organized crime and the illegal financing of these environmental crimes. The last link is the fisherman, who’s in a community and not really impacted. There are administrative rules that provide exceptions. A fisherman who goes about his fishing activities for subsistence won’t face a penalty, won’t face any administrative sanction or other type of infraction. This was created specifically to combat organized crime in Peru in accordance with Law 30.077.
Mongabay: Why is combatting organized crime such an important part of the larger fight to protect the environment?
Alberto Yusen Caraza: I believe that when we talk about environmental crimes, it’s often born out of organized crime, because the mere act of cutting down a tree is not something one person does. The illegality of the crime, what makes it an environmental crime in Peru, needs the organization — a collection of roles and functions from the top, the leader, the one who finances it and organizes it and can handle the money. In order to transport wood, you need a lot of money, you need to hire boats, hire tractors, hire a lot of people … After that, you have to go to a sawmill that doesn’t have any kind of authorization or license. So we recognize there are predetermined roles and functions that are needed to commit environmental crimes. And that’s just talking about wood. Something similar happens when it comes to wildlife. For fauna, you need financial backers to send someone to get [the animals] out of the forest … I consider them the last link in the chain of illegal wildlife trafficking. They don’t just play a role at the end of the production chain.
…So if the question is whether environmental crimes are connected to organized crime, of course they are. What we have to do is really carry out serious investigations, investigations with police officers who can carry out the good work of putting up a fight against these crimes. That’s been our weakness. Our weakness as a prosecutor’s office is that we don’t have specialized police officers to develop serious investigations and interventions to bring down environmental crime.
Mongabay: Is that a budgeting issue?
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche: It’s a question of logistics. It’s a question of how little attention the Peruvian state is giving to implementing the necessary measures for combating these environmental crimes.
Mongabay: Your jurisdiction shares an international border with Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. Does that complicate the fight against organized environmental crime?
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche: Peru is a large territory, really immense, and for us prosecutors it’s quite difficult to move around remote areas. The remote places are often around the border, including Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil…Cross-border environmental crimes are already happening at a very intense level in Colombia, especially illegal mining. It’s come and settled in Peru. We have cases linked to the rivers that connect Peru and Colombia in the Peruvian Amazon … The area has a high incidence of illegal mining that’s gotten more complicated. We’ve started dialogues with the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office and I hope soon we can carry out binational operations for crimes related to wildlife [trafficking].
We’ve had some problems on the tri-border area of Brazil, Peru and Colombia. We’ve carried out quite successful operations on the Peruvian side because unfortunately there is no state presence when it comes to the armed forces, the military, police, the navy, and that’s why illegality spreads into Peru and it’s very easy for [people in] neighboring countries like Colombia and Brazil to simply take a boat and come in. The only thing that divides the border of Peru, Colombia and Brazil is the [rainforest] and the river. They come through and that’s where all this illegality happens, both for wood and for wildlife. We’ve tried to coordinate with Colombian prosecutors and I think that it’s going well. At the end of this year and the start of 2023, we’re hoping to have meetings for carrying out a binational operation in the area.
Mongabay: The country has gone through a lot politically in recent years. Last month, former President Pedro Castillo was impeached for trying to dissolve congress, leading the way for the inauguration of his vice president, Dina Boluarte. Has this political fragmentation contributed to the state’s inability to combat environmental crime?
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche: We’ve gone through six presidents in five years. Peru has a tremendous amount of political instability and coupled with political instability is economic instability. This economic instability is reflected in the economic budget assigned to each public institution. Currently, the Public Ministry has requested a budget to continue working through 2023 and former President Castillo gave the Public Ministry only 60% of what it asked for. That means we won’t even be able to make it through the middle of 2023 if this continues the way it has. It’s going to go from bad to worse. But I believe the new president has all the desire in the world. She’s been in meetings with all the major entities [of the government]. Let’s hope that all this progresses in a better way.
Editor’s Note: This interview was translated from Spanish and lightly edited for style and clarity.
Banner image: Rainforest in Loreto, Peru. Photo courtesy of Anna & Michal/Flickr.
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