Four Indigenous leaders in Peru's Amazon have been murdered since the government declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, revealing how their opposition to illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking leaves them continuously exposed when focus is elsewhere.
On September 11, the body of Roberto Carlos Pacheco Villanueva was discovered in Madre de Dios, an Amazon forest region where he and his father had long fought vast illegal gold mining. The latest threat on his life came in April, according to a tweet by the account of Peru's National Coordinator of Human Rights (Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDDHH), "but authorities did very little to protect him."
Pacheco's slaying was the fourth of an Indigenous leader in the seven months since the nation declared a state of emergency and lockdown in March to combat the coronavirus. The government recently prolonged the lockdown until the end of September in some of the worst-affected areas, AFP reported.
SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profile
In April, Arbildo Meléndez Grandes, head of the indigenous Unipacuyacu community, was shot dead in Puerto Inca. Meléndez Grandes had long sought the title to tribe's lands, which borders Ucayali y Huánuco, and fought illegal activity there.
Land in remote areas around Puerto Inca is invaded for the cultivation of illegal coca, said Sandra Jesús Olivera Lara, legal advisor to the Aidesep Ucayali Regional Organization (Organización Regional Aidesep Ucayali – ORAU) on the Meléndez Grandes case.
"The central axis of this case is land trafficking and drug trafficking," she told environmental news outlet Mongabay.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent killings of Peru Indigenous leaders raise concerns that the pandemic has left them even more vulnerable to attacks by criminal groups.
Twenty environmental activists have been killed in Peru since 2013, of whom 12 were Indigenous leaders in the Amazon region, according to OjoPúblico, citing data from the CNDDHH.
The last time this many activists were killed in a year was in 2014, when five were murdered. Four were gunned down on their way to a meeting about illegal logging, in a massacre that caused international outrage. During the next five years, just two Indigenous leaders were killed, according to OjoPúblico,
No convictions have been secured for any of the 12 murders, though prosecutors have charged five men in the timber industry in the 2014 massacre. A key witness in one of the cases was even murdered in 2018.
September's brazen assassination of Pacheco Villanueva in Madre de Dios indicates that illegal gold mining remains as entrenched as ever there, even after the government's massive military efforts to drive miners out last year. Miners recently returned to the Amazon region, emboldened by weak controls and soaring gold prices.
The country in Latin America most afflicted by the deaths of social leaders is neighboring Colombia, which saw a staggering 872 killings between January 2016 and September 2019. According to the Bogotá-based Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ), the nation has already seen approximately 214 social leaders and human rights defenders killed this year alone.