Indigenous leaders get a choice: Join the narcos or run for your lives

Environmental monitors in Yamino, Peru walk through coca fields outside their village.
Environmental monitors in Yamino, Peru walk through coca fields outside their village. (Angela Ponce/For The Washington Post)

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YAMINO, Peru – For Harlin Odisio, an offer from a stranger was life-changing.

In this remote country village, the man, who spoke unannounced Spanish with a Colombian accent and called himself “Fernando,” offered to pay Odicio $127,000 for every planeload of cocaine paste that left his community’s land.

In return, Odisio, the elected leader of the Kakataibo people, stopped complaining to authorities about the destruction of the rainforest by drug traffickers to make way for coca fields, processing laboratories and airstrips.

Money will be transformative. Many of the estimated 4,000 cockatibo live without electricity or running water in the lush Peruvian Amazon. Their livelihood depends on agriculture, hunting and fishing.

However, Odicio rejected it.

“I couldn’t sleep after that, but I couldn’t betray my people,” he says. “I couldn’t have lived with myself. We will not gain anything from drug trafficking. “

For the 36-year-old leader of the Native Federation of Kakataibo Communities, the rejection of the offer in September 2020 was the start of a nightmare that continues to this day. Graphic death threats by phone, text, social media and, worst of all, by his neighbors, forced him to hide from his family. He comes back now Yamino Only occasionally and willing to relinquish the leadership role in Kakataibo.

His fear is well-founded. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, A Approximately 20 indigenous leadersFour of them are cockatoos — have been killed in this frequently lawless region, where coca cultivation has spread from the Andean foothills to the lowlands of the Amazon, killing people hired by drug traffickers or associated loggers.

“If we continue like this, the region will become the second VRAEM, as drug trafficking increases,” says Ucayali interim governor Angel Gutierrez, referring to Peru’s major coca-producing region. The VRAEM — the basins of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers — produces as much leaf as Bolivia.

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The reasons for the spread are complex. Ricardo Soberon, head of DAVID’s national counternarcotics agency, noted that demand and trade from Peru’s Pacific ports have slowed during the pandemic. This made the migration of plantations eastward, closer to the Colombian, Brazilian, and Bolivian borders, a logical option.

Soberon believes another factor could be the increased police and military presence in VRAEM. The hilly, forested terrain is the hideout of the last remnants of the Shining Path, who are now more focused on protecting narcotics than Maoist revolution. The leader of the group, Victor Quispe Palomino, is known as Comrade José Injured in clashes with security forces this month But it lives in large numbers in the valley.

Yet controlling plantations in one area of ​​the Peruvian Amazon, twice the size of California’s border, often leads to expansion into new areas in a never-ending game. Critics warn that there can be no solution without addressing basic economics — including demand in the world’s largest market for cocaine: the United States.

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With three harvests a year, each typically yielding $700 to $1,400 per hectare before labor, pesticides and other costs, coca is more profitable than other Amazonian crops, despite the risks associated with illegal trade.

The encroachment of agriculture on the Yamino and similar communities has put further pressure on indigenous groups in the region, who were already struggling with inequality, loss of culture and language. The bloodshed by drug smugglers is the latest attack on the unique cultures of tribal groups, which have evolved over thousands of years in the rainforest but have been under attack since the start of the rubber boom in the 19th century, including massacres along the Shining Path in the 1980s and 1990s. and more recently rampant illegal logging.

Many tribal communities in Ukayali are now engulfed in coca fields, with the lives of their leaders in danger. The Washington Post, along with volunteer monitors from Yamino, saw the toxic remains of several coca cultivation and processing laboratories, a small bush from Odisio’s village.

In Brazil, the main driver of deforestation is beef. In Peru, it is believed to be coca. The country is the world’s second largest source of the plant, whose leaves are the main ingredient in cocaine, after Colombia.

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According to Devida, Ukayali cultivation increased from 1,734 hectares in 2019 to 10,229 hectares in 2021. Meanwhile, the regional government’s forestry agency has spotted 57 secret airstrips carved into the rainforest.

Given prohibition, global demand and the relatively low returns of cocoa, coffee and other legal crops, Soberon says, the increase is inevitable — as has drug violence.

“What happened to Harlin is directly linked to the international price of coffee,” he says. “Cocaine has been avoided, carbon sequestration has been done and indigenous people are still alive, this price should be for this reason.”

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In theory, endangered defenders of the Peruvian Amazon are protected by a formal guarantee of safety from the Peruvian state. But Odicio says those guarantees aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The police visit Yamino once a year, and no armed officers are assigned to protect it.

“We can’t go to the police or prosecutors because they’re so slow,” he says. “And before they do, word gets out that we’ve notified them. We are completely alone.”

Gutierrez, Interim Governor – Appointed after becoming governor-elect Detained on corruption charges in December – Acknowledges the problem.

“Corruption is institutionalized at every level in Peru,” he says. “That is the sad reality. Therefore, citizens do not trust their officials.

He also notes a lack of resources: Ukayali police have only a few pickup trucks and speedboats to cover 40,000 square miles of forest.

“The answer can’t just be eradication, eradication, eradication,” he says. “Without economic development, it’s going to be very difficult.”

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President Pedro Castillo, to The populist left whose base is the rural poorCoca growers, including indigenous peoples, are notably absent on this issue.

The The neophyte leaderThe target of five separate corruption investigations and barely hanging on to power a A disastrous first yearMet indigenous leaders in June but made no promises.

One of those leaders – Berlin Dickus, head of ORAU, the main indigenous federation in Ucayali – is reprehensible. “When Castillo was elected, it was uplifting,” he says. “People thought that finally there was a president who would help us. But he has broken every promise. He is just like everyone else.”

The Interior Ministry, which has been led by seven different ministers since Castillo took office in July 2021, did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice agreed that more support was needed for local leaders who were threatened but said the government was working to make the problem “visible”.

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Yamino’s monitors spend half their time patrolling the village’s 112 square miles of communally shared forest using drones provided by the environment ministry. They also tell coca growers – often landless migrants escaping poverty in the Andes – that they must quit. Some growers are cordial, monitors say, but others threaten them with machetes and rusty shotguns.

“They know very well that they are on their land,” says 36-year-old Cesar Lopez. But they can be very stubborn. Some of them even ask what we are doing here.”

Supervisors are wary of armed men guarding fields on behalf of Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian gangs who buy coca. From there, it is processed and shipped north to the United States and elsewhere. Coca cultivation is legal in Peru, but only for domestic consumption – mainly, chewing the dried leaves as a mild stimulant. But this crop now exceeds domestic consumption.

At night, strange explosions shake the rainforest surrounding Yamino, an attempt to scare the community, locals say. In the neighboring village of Mariscal Caceres, he says, in recent weeks armed strangers have stopped traffic on the main road to ask for the whereabouts of Cacataibo leaders and, on one occasion, pistol-whipped a villager.

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Smugglers also now operate in the 580-square-mile area Reserved for the last uncontacted Cacataibo, according to the Ukayali Forestry Service, which conducted the overflights. The reserve was created last year after two decades of operations, but is now disturbed by coca fields and two airstrips.

Reserve is the starting point of a A corridor inhabited by some of the last tribes on Earth still living in isolation. It runs 300 miles northeast of Javari, the Brazilian reserve where journalist Dom Phillips, a former Washington Post contributor, and indigenous lawyer Bruno Pereira were murdered in June.

“We can protect our own land, up to a point, but we cannot go there to protect our uncontacted brothers,” said Ukeremachi, a Yamino villager. “They are the most vulnerable, even more than us, but if we try to help them, it will be bloodshed.”

Soberon, the Devida chief, applauds the mission of Colombia’s new leftist president, Gustavo Petro. Petro wants to start an international discussion on ending the US-backed war on drugs by criminalizing and regulating cocaine. But with opposition to this approach in Washington and elsewhere, Soberon says, it’s “a bit utopian.”

Meanwhile, Devida is promoting premium coffee and cocoa, which generate more revenue than coca substitutes. But here, Soberon warns that demands for traceability and certification in North America and Europe for these fair-trade and organic products are financially unfeasible for small Peruvian farmers—pushing them back to coca.

For Odisio and other indigenous leaders in the rainforest at risk, that policy debate is the least of their worries. “My family could be killed,” he says. “This is an ongoing concern. They can appear at any time. You just don’t know.”

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