PUCALLPA, Peru—Tribal people in a remote headwaters region in the Peruvian Amazon are reacting with defiance and despair to the recent brutal murders of four community leaders who were ambushed on a jungle trail near the border with Brazil.
Among those slain last week was Edwin Chota Valero, 54, the president of the Ashéninka indigenous settlement of Saweto.
Chota was a charismatic activist who opposed drug traffickers and criminal timber syndicates that have come to operate with a sense of near-total impunity across broad swaths of Peru's isolated borderlands.
Three of the victims' widows, along with eight of their younger children, arrived in the Amazonian timber hub of Pucallpa on Monday night after traveling three days and nights from Saweto by motorized dugout canoe.
Upon their arrival, the women demanded that the government act immediately to retrieve the bodies of their husbands and provide security for Saweto's remaining residents, who remain under grave threat from loggers and other criminal elements still lurking in the surrounding forests.
"We want the bodies of our husbands that have been left out in the jungle as though they were animals," says Ergilia López, speaking via Skype from the Pucallpa offices of ProPurús, an NGO that has been assisting the residents of Saweto to gain legal title to their land.
López is the widow of community treasurer Jorge Ríos Pérez, who was also murdered in the ambush. Slumped in a chair beside López was Julia Pérez, Edwin Chota's widow, who gave birth to the couple's first child last year and is seven months pregnant with another. The other two victims have been identified by police as Saweto community members Leoncio Quinticima and Francisco Pinedo.
Renewed Call for Land Titles
Evidently fatigued and distraught as she sat among the children in the ProPurús office, López called on the government to move swiftly to complete the land titling process for Saweto.
As revulsion over the quadruple homicide continues to grow around the world, Peruvian president Ollanta Humala announced on September 10 that authorities would travel to the scene in an effort to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice for a crime he characterized as "barbaric."
For the past ten years, Chota had been petitioning the Ucayali regional government in Pucallpa to gain legal title for Saweto, a 275-square-mile (712-square-kilometer) headwaters region in the upper reaches of the Alto Tamaya River. Chota saw titling as a fundamental step toward expunging the plague of illegal loggers who pillage Saweto's forests and drug traffickers who move coca paste across the porous border into Brazil.
They threaten us. They intimidate. They have the guns.
"As long as we don't have title, the loggers don't respect native ownership," Chota told me three years ago as I traveled with him by dugout canoe through the rugged forests while on assignment for National Geographic magazine.
A wiry man with unruly jet-black hair and a winsome, gap-toothed smile, Chota had a gift for motivating his people to persevere despite the evident risks. "They threaten us. They intimidate. They have the guns."
The Law of the Gun
With a sweep of the hand, he had gestured out to the surrounding forests for hundreds of miles in all directions. "Welcome to the land without law," he told me. "The only law here is the law of the gun."
Chota made it his business to confront logging crews that came upriver from Pucallpa to cut timber illegally within the boundaries of Saweto's land claim. He doggedly pursued his vision to create an ecological reserve where his people could live sustainably amid the bounty afforded by the forested hollows and emerald-green creeks of the township. As his activism intensified, so too did the threats on his life.
Last year, as I reported on NationalGeographic.com, he led police to a sawmill outside Pucallpa on the banks of the Ucayali River, where piles of raw timber illegally harvested in Saweto awaited milling.
"Someone Is Going to Die"
After agents impounded the ill-gotten timber, Chota and treasurer Ríos testified that they were singled out by well-connected logging bosses, who warned that "someone from Saweto is going to die."
"The timber and the loggers are now under investigation," Chota wrote at the time. "But who will protect the people of Saweto and their leaders from the armed and dangerous loggers?"
His words seemed to presage the death that awaited him. His repeated pleas for security and a government presence on the Alto Tamaya fell on deaf ears.
Chota and his fellow villagers were killed on September 1—the day after they left Saweto bound for Apiwtxa, an Ashéninka community across the border in Brazil, a two-day hike away along jungle footpaths.
According to Ergilia López, when the men failed to appear in Apiwtxa, their comrades doubled back and discovered the decomposing bodies. Word of the killings seeped out five days later from Saweto, which is linked to the outside world only by a faltering two-way radio.
David Salisbury, a University of Richmond geography professor and longtime adviser to the community, says the loggers in the surrounding forests are continuing to wage a campaign of terror against the Ashéninka of Saweto, even since the murders.
"They're threatening to kill everyone," he says.
Salisbury believes that timber and drug mafias had come to see the land titling process in Saweto, which has gained momentum in recent months, as an obstacle to their operations.
"No Going Back"
"These murders have exposed the collusion between the drug traffickers and the loggers," he says. "The people of Saweto were an impediment to both."
If the assailants hoped the deaths would drive the remaining residents from Saweto, they may be disappointed.
"I'm going to keep fighting till the end, until they kill me too," Ergilia López says. "You have to keep going. There's no going back. They have no understanding of the forest. All they do is destroy. They know nothing. I am not afraid of them."
Still, without some kind of protection from the authorities, remaining community members are in extreme peril.
"Everyone in Saweto is in danger," Salisbury says.
They have no understanding of the forest. All they do is destroy.
Frustrated with Peru's slow response, the Ashéninkas' Brazilian relatives from Apiwtxa dispatched their own team of 16 tribal members, which arrived at the crime scene yesterday, according to the community's blog.
The team identified the body of Jorge Ríos, who appeared to have been shot in the base of the neck, and the belongings of the others, including Edwin Chota's backpack.
It's not clear where the bodies of the other victims have gone, but heavy rains in recent days may have washed them away, according to the posting. The team intends to remain on the site until Peruvian authorities conduct forensic investigations and provide security for the residents of Saweto.
Besides his wife, Julia Pérez, and their growing family, Chota leaves behind a seven-year-old son, Kitoniro, from a previous marriage. He doted on Kitoniro during my visit, carrying him around the village everywhere he went.
Scott Wallace, a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado-Boulder, wrote about Edwin Chota and illegal logging in Peru in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic. He is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes.