The indigenous Asháninka of the Peruvian Amazon have long struggled against drug trafficking as well as resource exploitation such as mining, logging, and land-grabbing on their territory in Shankivironi in the Perené river valley . Although most of the country’s indigenous population struggles with the recognition of their land rights, almost all communities in the central jungle have legally recognized titles. However, these titles are over 40 years old and do not have defined borders with coordinates. Consequently, there have been many intrusions upon their territories .
Many of their defenders receive death threats, and the state has not responded to calls for help. The killing of 55-year-old Asháninka leader Estela Casanto Mauricio is now the latest of nine murders of environmental defenders in 2020-2021 . Prior to her assassination, she had also been routinely stalked and threatened for her vocal opposition against land traffickers, which increased in frequency during the pandemic . Indeed, the situation is particularly dire because of criminals taking advantage of the country’s current state of emergency .
A series of murders of indigenous activists has occurred since last year during COVID-19 lockdowns, with crimes occurring mostly in the Junín, Pasco, Huánuco, and Ucayali regions. Benjamín Ríos was assassinated in April 2020 in the Asháninka community of Kipachari. May 2020 was particularly violent with the killings of Cacataibo leader Arbildo Meléndez from Unipacuyacu; Ashaninka leader Gonzalo Pío from Nuevo Amanecer Hawai, whose father, Mauro Pío, was also assassinated in 2013; and Cacataibo leader Santiago Vega from Sinchi Roca. The following month, Lorenzo Wampagkit, a park ranger at the Chayu Nain Communal Reserve was killed in June 2020. Roberto Pacheco, who ran a forest concession threatened by alleged illegal gold miners in the Madre de Dios region, was assassinated in September 2020. In February 2021, Cacataibos Herasmo García from Sinchi Roca and Yenes Ríos from Puerto Nuevo were also murdered, which caused the people of Puerto Nuevo to flee their territory fearing more killings. The culprits still have impunity in all these cases. Even older cases such as the 2014 quadruple murder of Asháninka in Alto Tamaya-Saweto by illegal loggers have yet to be resolved . More about this infamous case can be read at: https://ejatlas.org/conflict/ashaninka-rioamonia-saweto-againstlogging-acre-brazil.
On March 12, Casanto’s body was found in a cave at the bottom of a ravine near her home [3, 4]. Official autopsies alleged that she died by choking while chewing on coca leaves. This, however, contradicts evidence of her being beaten and abducted from her bed, then dragged before being thrown down the ravine . Her body had multiple injuries to the head, face, and neck as well as bloody hemorrhaging .
The murderers were declared to be neighboring community settlers, who had been threatening and harassing Casanto for more than five years because she refused to give up part of her land . These settlers, or “colonos,” are outsiders occupying indigenous territory without permission. Casanto never reported the threats out of fear of putting herself at even more risk . Police arrested the suspect, who was only detained for less than a day because there had been no complaints [3, 4] The president of CECONSEC (a coalition of 120 Asháninka communities), Teddy Sinacay, feels dubious about the investigation, saying, “… it is like they are making fun of us. We hope that the Police and the Prosecutor's Office will do a good investigation, but we have a feeling that a good job is not being done” .
In response, the president of the Congress of the Republic, Mirtha Vásquez, has asked the Ministry of the Interior to provide immediate protections for the community, and specially Casanto’s family members which remain under threat [3, 7]. CECONSEC is also demanding protections from the Peruvian state to guarantee protection of defenders of live, collective territories, and environmental and human rights. They have also asked the World Bank to improve the socio-environmental and health safeguards in their loans and to demand that the borrowing states give them priority status for COVID response measures because of the grave danger they face in the onslaught of the pandemic .