Coke from Peru: For indigenous leaders, a choice: join the narcos or run for your life

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

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YAMINO, Peru — For Herlin Odicio, the offer from abroad changed his life.

The man, who showed up unannounced in this remote indigenous village speaking Spanish with a Colombian accent and calling himself “Fernando”, offered to pay Odicio $127,000 for every plane loaded with cocaine paste that took off land in his community.

In return, Odicio, the elected leader of the Cacataibo people, would stop complaining to authorities about drug traffickers who were destroying the rainforest to make way for coca fields, processing labs, and airstrips.

Money would be transformative. Many of the approximately 4,000 Cacataibo, hidden here in the lush Peruvian Amazon, live without electricity or running water. They live largely from subsistence farming, hunting and fishing.

Still, Odicio refused.

“I couldn’t sleep after that, but I couldn’t betray my people,” he said. “I couldn’t have lived with myself. Nothing good will come to us from drug trafficking.

For the 36-year-old leader of the Indigenous Federation of Cacataibo Communities, rejecting 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, transmitted by his neighbors, led him to drive his family into hiding. He now only returns to Yamino occasionally and is about to give up his role as leader among the Cacataibo.

His fears are well founded. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, around 20 indigenous leaders – including four Cacataibo – have been killed in this often lawless territory, many of them by hitmen believed to have been hired by drug traffickers or associated loggers, as culture coca spreads from the Andean foothills to the Amazon plains.

“If we continue like this, with the advance of drug trafficking, this region will become a second VRAEM,” said Angel Gutiérrez, acting governor of Ucayali, referring to Peru’s main coca-growing area. The VRAEM – the valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers – produces as many leaves as Bolivia.

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The reasons for the spread are complex. Ricardo Soberón, head of the national anti-narcotics agency Devida, cites rising demand and slowing trade through Peru’s Pacific ports during the pandemic. This made the migration of cultures eastward, closer to the Colombian, Brazilian and Bolivian borders, a logical alternative.

Soberón thinks another factor could be an increased police and military presence in the VRAEM. The hilly, forested terrain is also home to the last remnants of the Shining Path, which now focus more on protecting the narcos than the Maoist revolution. The leader of the group, Víctor Quispe Palomino, known as Comrade José, was injured in clashes with security forces this month but remains at large in the valley.

Yet the repression of culture in part of the Peruvian Amazon, a border area twice the size of California, often causes it to surge into new regions in an endless game of mole-swiping. Critics warn there can be no solution without addressing fundamental economics, including demand in the world’s largest cocaine market: the United States.

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With three harvests a year, each typically bringing in between $700 and $1,400 per hectare before labour, pesticides and other costs, coca is far more profitable than other Amazon crops, even with the risks associated with illicit trade.

The encroachment of culture on Yamino and similar communities increased pressure on indigenous groups in the region, who were already struggling with inequality, acculturation and loss of languages. The bloodshed of drug traffickers is the latest attack on the unique cultures of indigenous groups, which have developed over millennia in the rainforest, but have come under attack since the start of the rubber boom in the 19th century, including the Shining Path massacres of the 1980s and 1990s, and rampant illegal logging more recently.

Many indigenous communities here in Ucayali are now hemmed in by coca fields, with the lives of their leaders threatened. The Washington Post, accompanied by volunteer monitors from Yamino, saw several coca plantations and the toxic remains of the processing laboratories, not far from the village of Odicio.

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 this plant, whose leaf is the key ingredient in cocaine, after Colombia.

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Cultivation in Ucayali increased from 1,734 hectares in 2019 to 10,229 hectares in 2021, according to Devida. Meanwhile, the regional government’s forestry agency has spotted 57 clandestine airstrips dug into the rainforest.

Given Prohibition, global demand and the relatively low yields of cocoa, coffee and other legal crops, Soberón says, this growth was inevitable, as was the narcoviolence that accompanied it.

“What happened in Herlin is directly linked to the international price of coffee,” he said. “That price should take into account the cocaine avoided, the carbon sequestered, and the indigenous peoples still alive.”

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In theory, threatened defenders of the Peruvian Amazon are protected by formal security guarantees from the Peruvian state. But Odicio says those guarantees aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Police visit Yamino about once a year, he said, and have not assigned armed officers to protect him.

“We can’t go to the police or the prosecutors because they are moving so slowly anyway,” he says. “And before they do, we learn that we have warned them. We are completely alone.

Gutiérrez, the interim governor – he was appointed after the governor-elect was arrested in December for alleged corruption – acknowledges the problem.

“Corruption is institutionalized at all levels in Peru,” he says. ” It’s the sad truth. This is why citizens do not trust their authorities.

He also notes a lack of resources: Ucayali police have only a handful of pickup trucks and speedboats to cover 40,000 square miles of jungle.

“The solution cannot be to simply eradicate, eradicate, eradicate,” he says. “Without economic development, it’s going to be very difficult.”

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President Pedro Castillo, a left-wing populist whose base is the rural poor, including coca growers and indigenous peoples, has been noticeably absent on the subject.

The neophyte chief, the target of five separate corruption investigations and barely clinging to power after a calamitous first year, met with indigenous leaders in June but made no commitments.

One of those leaders – Berlin Diques, the head of ORAU, Ucayali’s main indigenous federation – is scathing. “It was uplifting when Castillo was elected,” he said. “People felt that there was finally a president who would help us. But he broke every one of his promises. He is like all the others. »

The Interior Ministry, led by seven different ministers since Castillo took office in July 2021, did not respond to requests for comment. A justice ministry spokesman agreed there was a need to provide more support to indigenous leaders under threat, but said the government was working to “make visible” the problem.

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Yamino monitors spend half their time patrolling the village’s 180 km² communal forest using a drone provided by the Ministry of Environment. They also tell coca growers – often landless migrants fleeing the squalor of the Andes – that they must leave. Some growers are friendly, monitors say, but others threaten them with machetes and rusty shotguns.

“They know perfectly well that they are on our land,” says César López, 36. “But they can be quite stubborn. Some of them even ask what we are doing here.

The guards are careful to avoid the armed men who guard the fields on behalf of the Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian gangs who buy the coca. From there it is processed and shipped north to the United States and elsewhere. It is legal to grow coca in Peru, but only for domestic use – primarily, chewing the dried leaves as a mild stimulant. But the harvest now greatly exceeds domestic consumption.

At night, strange explosions rocked the rainforest around Yamino, an effort to intimidate the community, residents say. In the nearby village of Mariscal Cáceres, they say, unidentified gunmen have stopped traffic on the main road in recent weeks to demand the whereabouts of Cacataibo leaders and on one occasion whipped a villager with a pistol.

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Traffickers are also now operating in a 580 square mile reserve for the last uncontacted Cacataibo, according to the Ucayali Forest Service, which has conducted overflights. The reserve was created last year after a two-decade campaign, but is now marred by coca fields and two airstrips.

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

“We can defend our own land, up to a point, but we cannot go there to defend our isolated brothers,” said Ucaremachi, a villager from Yamino. “They are the most vulnerable, even more than us, but if we tried to help them, it would be a bloodbath.”

Soberón, the leader of La Devida, admires the goal of Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s new left-wing president. Petro wants to start an international discussion about ending the US-backed war on drugs by decriminalizing and regulating cocaine. But given the opposition to this approach from Washington and elsewhere, Soberón says, it’s “a bit utopian.”

In the meantime, Devida promotes premium coffee and cocoa, which earn more than most coke alternatives. But here, Soberón warns that demands in North America and Europe for traceability and certification of these fair trade and organic products are financially impossible for small Peruvian farmers – pushing them back to coca.

As for Odicio and other threatened indigenous leaders in the rainforest, this political debate is the least of their worries. “My family could be killed,” he said. “It’s constant anxiety. They could appear at any time. You just don’t know.

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