Following multiple killings, Indigenous leaders in the Peruvian Amazon are again facing threats of violence after coca eradication operations in their area, in a stark warning of the risks faced by those opposing drug trafficking in the Amazon.
In a press release issued in early July, the Native Federation of Kakataibos Communities (Federación Nativa de Comunidades Kakataibos - FENACOKA) announced that several of its members have been targeted in a recent spate of violence in the Amazonian departments of Ucayali and Huánuco, central Peru.
Amazonian departments have increasingly acted as areas of coca production and trafficking routes for the Peru's criminal organizations. Since 2019, four Kakataibos leaders have been killed for standing up to narcotraffickers, FENACOKA stated.
FENACOKA, which unites Indigenous communities in the country’s Amazonian departments, said Kakataibos leaders and community members faced worsening acts of intimidation after requesting the support of Peruvian authorities in the eradication of illegal coca — the raw material used in cocaine production — in their territories, RPP Noticias reported.
In mid-June, an Indigenous community member was beaten and threatened with death by three armed men, who demanded that the victim tell them where to find the leaders that had "brought the Navy" to eradicate coca crops in the area.
The same month, the lives of three other members of the Kakataibos community were threatened by drug trafficking groups, with one victim forced to flee their home for their safety.
Over the past few years, drug traffickers have planted coca crops across the Amazon, particularly in Indigenous territories, due to the lack of a State presence. Ucayali and Huánuco are of strategic importance to traffickers, who use the departments as transit points for drugs moving into Ecuador and Brazil.
InSight Crime Analysis
Recent operations to eradicate coca crops have put the indigenous communities and environmental defenders of the Peruvian Amazon, who oppose the expansion of illicit coca crops in their territories, at great risk.
The Kakataibos territories, as well as those of other communities in the Amazon — like Flor de Ucayali, or the Shipibo-Konibo, settled from south to north, from Madre de Dios to Loreto — have been overrun by drug traffickers in recent years. These actors have planted coca crops, built maceration ponds and clandestine airstrips in their territories, Magaly Ávila, director of forest governance for Proética, a chapter of Transparency International in Peru, told InSight Crime.
Murders of environmental and indigenous defenders have reached unprecedented levels in Peru's Amazon since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 20 leaders have been killed and an untold number have been threatened, according to a recent investigation by InSight Crime. Four of these leaders belonged to the Kakataibos community: Arbildo Meléndez; Santiago Vega; Herasmo García; and Yenes Ríos.
While indigenous communities have traditionally been threatened by land traffickers and illegal loggers, InSight Crime was able to corroborate, via fieldwork in Peru at the end of 2021, the expansion of drug trafficking in the Amazon. This has become one of the main drivers of violence against indigenous peoples.
In 2019, Kakataibos leaders requested authorities’ support to eradicate the coca that drug traffickers have planted on their lands without their authorization.
In mid-June 2022, in an attempt to curb the expansion of illicit crops in the Amazon and as a response to community requests, forced eradication operations were initiated throughout Kakataibos' territory, particularly around the basins of the Aguaytia, San Alejandro and Sungaroyacu rivers, according to FENACOKA’s press release.
Eradication in this area of the Amazon represents a change in the perspective of the Peruvian authorities, as, for years, anti-narcotics efforts in Peru had focused on the heart of the country's cocaine industry, the valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM).
The Kakataibos communities have also recognized that eradication is the first step in the fight against drug trafficking in the region. However, the lack of a real State presence in the region leaves them even more vulnerable to attacks by the criminal networks spearheading coca production regionally.
“The problem is that there is no accompaniment after eradication and communities are afraid of reprisals from drug traffickers,” said Ávila. “After the eradication, the authorities leave and leave them with a bigger problem than they already had.”