The murder of a prominent land rights activist and three other indigenous men in Peru's Amazon region has been attributed to illegal loggers, in a case highlighting the threat the timber trafficking industry poses to those who attempt to stop it.
Edwin Chota, an activist seeking to gain property titles for the Ashaninka indigenous community in Peru's Ucayali region, was killed along with three other Ashaninka men on September 1, reported the Guardian.
The details of the incident remain hazy. According to EFE, at the time of the murders, the men were on their way to meet with other Ashaninka leaders in Brazil about strategies to stop illegal logging, deforestation, and drug trafficking in the region. Another report indicated that the men were killed while hiking to a sister community in Brazil, and were later found dead. However, in a conflicting report, one local leader claimed the men were taken by illegal loggers and shot on the local sports field in front of villagers, according to the Guardian.
On September 9, President Ollanta Humala announced that the National Police and Culture Ministry would investigate the murders, and said wood trafficking "mafias" were suspected of the crime, reported EFE.
The director of conservation group the Environmental Investigation Agency told media that Chota and other community leaders had previously received death threats and had requested protection from Peruvian authorities.
InSight Crime Analysis
While important questions regarding the incident remain unanswered, this case serves as a reminder of the dangers Latin American land activists face in their work. Latin America is the world's deadliest region for environmentalists. Brazil is far and away the world's worst country in this regard, while Peru ranks fourth. Many killings are linked to land disputes, but criminal groups tied to the illegal logging trade are also important contributors to the violence.
SEE MORE: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking
Peru is one of South America's top hardwood exporters. According to a 2012 World Bank study, close to 80 percent of the country's timber exports are illegal. The illegal logging industry is attractive for drug cartels looking to diversify their revenue streams. It serves as a way for them to launder profits from the drug trade, and timber shipments can be used to hide drug loads.
In the Peru-Brazil border region, the two countries' illegal logging industries are closely linked, and those involved act with impunity, thanks to corrupt police who charge a fee in exchange for turning a blind eye. The many indigenous communities present in this region are vulnerable to the incursions of illegal loggers.
In general, eco-trafficking -- which also includes wildlife crime such as poaching -- is a highly lucrative industry in Latin America, and corruption plays a major role in the trade.