Marcelino Tangoa, apu (indigenous chief) of an Amazonian population in the Huánuco region, should be harvesting cocoa today on his two-hectare farm, but he had to abandon his land in April due to threats from drug trafficking. He leads the titling procedures of the Unipacuyacu community and the efforts before the State against crime in a territory that borders the Ucayali region, in the Amazon. There, since 2020, coca crops have multiplied and narcistsaccording to reports from affected indigenous organizations and Peru’s anti-drug entity.
The National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (Devida) indicates that that year the area of coca cultivated in Peru increased by 13% and was 61,777 hectares. Of these, almost 28,000 were in the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (a territory called VRAEM, in the center-south of the country), and more than 3,800 in Ucayali (on the border with Brazil). However, in 2021 in this Amazon region the area exceeded 10,000 hectares planted, the president of the entity, Ricardo Soberón, reported this week.
Since the last decade, the VRAEM has been the main center of operations for drug traffickers and the valley with the highest production of coca for illicit purposes, despite the military and police presence since 2006; but the situation has changed as a result of the pandemic. ”The growing dynamics of European and US demand now uses the space of the Amazon for transit, cultivation, trafficking and exploitation. We have new coca growers: the VRAEM is emptying and it is increasing in Ucayali,” Soberón explained at a press conference in Lima this week.
The Unipacuyacu community, populated mainly by Cacataibo indigenous people, has been processing the title to its 22,000 hectares since 1995, but the bureaucracy of the regional government and the influence of illegal networks have prevented it from defending itself against invaders who rent land to produce coca destined for drug traffickers. Arbildo Meléndez, the head of the community that managed the titling in 2020, was assassinated in April of that year, at the beginning of the covid-19 quarantine, when the Peruvian state was paralyzed. A witness to the threats against Meléndez reports by telephone that, since 2010, drug and land trafficking operators have murdered five people in Unipacuyacu.
Since 2019, the Native Federation of Cacataibo Communities (Fenacoca) and other Amazonian organizations have denounced “narco-violence” between Huánuco and Ucayali before authorities and international entities. In June, the State eradicated coca crops for the first time in several communities in that area, and destroyed a narcist of cement in Unipacuyacu with explosives launched from helicopters.
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The consequences were negative for the community members despite the fact that they had alerted the authorities. In a statement they reported reprisals against them, since they are left alone against the armed invaders after the interdiction. “The eradication operations constitute an important milestone and the first real blow to drug trafficking in the area, but the timely warning about the need to accompany the eradication operations with an effective presence of law enforcement has not been heeded.” and an immediate restitution of the invaded indigenous territories,” the Fenacoca federation stated in a June statement.
The nearest police station is two and a half hours away by boat and the police have no money for fuel. I would request the presence of the police or the armed forces even once a week to be able to live in peace, we have nowhere to go”, adds Tangoa. In their community there is no mobile signal and in an emergency they can only use the internet from a school computer.
The apu He has three school-age children and is going through a difficult economic situation, since he planted bananas, corn, papaya and cocoa to generate income and is losing his crops. “I would ask that they not see us simply as indigenous: how long have we been in this fight to achieve titling! This affects our territory, we have to see to the education and nutrition of our children”, adds the indigenous chief with concern. An environmentalist consulted points out that the narcists of land destroyed in Huánuco and Ucayali are quickly repaired, because as the eradication of crops is not complete, the drug traffickers need to finish removing their production and rebuild them. “Unipacuyacu is a strategic point where the flights depart from because it is a closed area,” adds a witness to the threats.
Soberón explains that the new coca-growing area called Bajo Ucayali has “ideal conditions” for coca cultivation and interconnection with “the new river and air trade structures, towards the port of Guayaquil and even, by land, towards Brazil”, where there is another of the great drug demands, in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom. The head of the Peruvian anti-drug entity describes that Guayaquil is one of the exit points for substances derived from coca as a result of changes in the business and post-covid illegal routes.
Defenders threatened by drug traffickers
In 2021, the Ministry of Justice created the so-called Intersectoral Mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders in the country, which includes environmental and land defenders, and has received a request for protection measures to the apu of Unipacuyacu. Ángel Gonzales, director of human rights policies and management of that ministry, explains that in the case of 29 indigenous people, the risk reports propose protection measures through said mechanism. However, the Ministry of the Interior has not yet approved guidelines to make the recommended measures effective and therefore they face difficulties.
“In the case of Marcelino Tangoa, we are waiting for the technical opinion and the plan of activities that indicates how his protection will be financed and who would be in charge of it, but we are permanently monitoring his situation,” Gonzales said. The official explained that in cases where the police stations do not have logistics or funds for the protection of defenders, they coordinate with some NGOs or with Devida to manage the transfers. Of the 29 cases of defenders requiring protection measures, 14 correspond to Ucayali, and to all the members of a community in that same region and in Madre de Dios, also on the border with Brazil.
Until the end of December, there were 50 human rights defenders at risk in Ucayali, and nine in Huánuco, according to a report prepared by the NGOs Proética and IDL with figures from the Ministry of Justice. The same report indicates that drug trafficking is the source of risk for 18 human rights defenders and Peruvian indigenous defenders identified by said mechanism.
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