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Saweto: The violence of oblivion

Official indifference in Lima confers impunity on the illegal loggers who murdered indigenous leaders


This article is an edited version of one published by Ojo Público. You can see the original here.

Five years after the murder in the heart of the Amazon of the Asheninka leaders Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quintisima Meléndez, and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez, OjoPúblico traveled to Ucayali. Our examination of files, reports, and evidence reveals negligence and a string of irregularities involving several state officials responsible for investigating a 2008 complaint about illegal logging that later led to the ruthless 2014 killing of indigenous leaders: we reveal the strategies of the mafias behind the trafficking of timber between Peru and Brazil.

Today little has changed. The indigenous lands have at last been demarcated and registered. But the court cases for illegal logging, land invasion and murder are stalled, with charges against some dropped and verdicts unlikely until 2021.

Main image: MURDER. Representation of the massacre of the leaders of Saweto elaborated by ashéninka painter Enrique Casanto Shingari

The grave of the Asheninka leader Edwin Chota is a small niche located high up on one of the corroded white wall crypts of Pucallpa’s public cemetery. Two vases bereft of flowers hang from the sides. Protected by a glass cover and a grille with narrow rods, the niche shows his date of birth: 29 June 1961. And the date of his murder: 1 September 2014. The remains of Leoncio Quintisima lie just a few paces away. However, Karen Shawiri, a community leader who today is accompanying our visit, has never seen these graves. They are located hundreds of miles away from her Saweto community, in a city which remains the center of the timber trafficking mafias that both men denounced many times prior to their deaths.  

In September of 2014 Edwin Chota, Leoncio Quintisima, Jorge Ríos Pérez and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez, all leaders of the Saweto community, were ruthlessly murdered a short distance from their community’s land on the border of Peru and Brazil.  Several days after their disappearance, the police found some burnt remains of human bone; according to the forensic analysis, these included a femur, a tibia, and parts of a foot. The cruelty carried hallmarks of a revenge killing: since 2008 Chota had been reporting a mafia of timber traffickers operating within his indigenous community’s territory along border of Peru and Brazil.

The first complaint that Edwin Chota presented against the wood traffickers was in February 2008, six years before they killed him.

OjoPúblico has accessed, reviewed, and compared documents and records generated since 2008 when Chota first filed a complaint about forest degradation and illegal logging. We have identified a string of irregularities that demonstrate sloppiness by state officials that has gone unpunished. The four leaders of Saweto died at the hands of a mafia that had been threatening them since the complaints began in 2008. Nothing made any difference: not the witness testimonies, nor the personal safety guarantees the men had requested, nor the complaints they had made about illegal logging to at least a dozen agencies together with the exact coordinates of where the groups were operating. State inaction led to the murder of these men.  

A complaint dismissed

Indifference is a form of state violence. The first complaint against the timber traffickers dates back to 12 February 2008. Chota filed it before the Pucallpa Technical Administration, a branch of the National Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA is the Spanish acronym), from where it was forwarded to the recently created Office of the Environmental Prosecutor (OPE) in Ucayali. Although the prosecutor admitted the complaint, due to the area’s remoteness and a lack of a logistical resources a requested inspection never took place.

The community leader reported that a group of Peruvians and Brazilians were illegally extracting timber from their land and asked authorities to intervene. During the following two years, neither INRENA nor OPE inspected the areas in question. 

THEY DID NOT INVESTIGATE. Resolution of the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office (FEMA) that filed Edwin Chota’s first complaint for timber trafficking, 2010. Saweto leaders have accused the brothers Atachi Felix and Eurico Mapes Gómez since 2008, of being loggers at the border. They are the main suspects in the murder. The full court finding can be downloaded here

Rather than insist on an urgent inspection, the then provincial prosecutor Fanny Álvarez Bravo decided on 7 May 2010 to adjourn the case on a provisional basis. She argued that, without clear proof and with the State having authorized several licenses for timber extraction in the area that could reach into the community’s territory, an indefinite investigation could infringe the rights of the licence holders. Chota’s original complaint in 2008 had pointed the finger at several individuals: Francisco Santillán Rojas, Eurico Mapes Gomez, Adeuso Mapes Rodríguez, Armando Cárdenas, Wilson Montenegro, and the brothers Juan, Carlos, Segundo, and Josimar Atachi Félix.  

When approached by OjoPúblico, Álvarez Bravo claimed that with passage of time she could no longer remember the details of her decision nor even the case itself. 

As the case of Edwin Chota clearly shows, dismissing a complaint is to consign an investigation process to oblivion and to open the door to impunity. Silently, miles from anywhere, in the dense jungles along a forgotten border shared by Brazil and Peru, the tension grew. 

Ecofusar was one of the companies that held a logging license. When, on 26 September 2011, some of its employees arrived in the area by boat to undertake fieldwork, leaders of the Saweto and Apiucha communities (the latter located on the Brazilian side of the river) refused access and turned them back.  

In a 25 November 2011 report to Marcial Pezo Armas, the then executive director of forestry in Ucayali, Ecofusac’s legal representative, Joseph Estrada, pointed out that since the community was claiming ownership of the land it was possible there were overlapping rights. But nothing was done. Today Marcial Pezo is once again the Director of Forestry in Ucayali and has been reported several times for authorizing the extraction of non-existent trees.

Illegal authorization

Seated on a stone bench at the Pucallpa General Cemetery, Karen Shawiri Campos recalls the prescience of Edwin Chota: ‘Everything he was saying then is what we are seeing now: the destruction of the environment.’ Shawiri was, until last year, the leader of the Saweto community. She was also amongst those who for years led opposition to the extraction of timber in their territory and was with Chota on the day they first turned back the Ecofusar loggers.

ASHÉNINKAS. Representation of Alto Tamaya Saweto, a community located on the border with Brazil. Illustration: Enrique Casanto Shingari.

As the years went by the conflict on the border became increasingly serious. Lacking the financial resources to obtain the necessary technical report, the community had yet to obtain title to the land. Exhausted after so many years of inaction, in 2013 Chota again reported the logging activity to OPE in Ucayali. This time, however, he went further, and took more risks. 

Towards the end of March, he had traveled by river with a group of leaders following the route of the illegally extracted timber and had witnessed a shipment valued at more than PEN100,000 entering a sawmill at the port of Pucallpa. This was the point at which the first transformation of the enormous trees trunks into timber was taking place. 

On 5 April Chota filed his complaint before the Ucayali Forestry Executive Directorate, headed by Marcial Pezo Armas. The case was assigned to Juan Bedoya Ijuma of the illegal logging department. And it was there that the first irregularity occurred: despite the complaint and the loggers’ lack of documentation, Bedoya took no action. 

Tired of not being listened to, in 2013, the leader takes more risks, following for days the route taken by the illegal timber, down the river

Frustrated at this outcome, the indigenous leaders presented a criminal complaint to the environmental office of the public prosecutor. In the document, dated 8 April 2013, Edwin Chota complained about the forestry directorate’s delay in inspecting the timber. A day later, prosecutor Patricia Lucano opened a criminal investigation into the individuals allegedly responsible for the illegal logging. She ordered that the sawmill Forza Nuova EIRL be inspected immediately.

As part of its investigation, the prosecutor’s office took statements from officials and company representatives. After analyzing the case file, OjoPúblico has identified a series of irregularities committed by officials of the regional government of Ucayali which were not reported at the appropriate time during the subsequent criminal investigation.

When the shipment reached the sawmill on either 3 or 4 April, it lacked the bay control stamp that was an essential requirement for verifying the origin of timber. As was normal in such circumstances, company secretary Kethy Romayna Sánchez called the cellphone of Roy Pinedo Lopez, an agricultural engineer and official of the Ucayali Forestry Directorate. Pinedo was responsible for compliance to prevent the sale of illegal timber.

Despite the missing permits, he gave verbal authorization by phone to unload the shipment. Kethy Romayna testified before the prosecutor that this protocol was standard practice ‘to avoid problems.’ She stated that the official had informed her ‘there was no problem with the timber brought by Hugo Soria Flores.’

For his part, Roy Pinedo provided contradictory responses to the prosecutor’s office. He acknowledged that he had failed to check whether the origin of the timber was legal, that he had not viewed the documents, and that he had authorized the unloading of the shipment over the phone ‘in accordance with his duties as an executive official.’ During the investigation, however, the prosecutor asked Marcial Pezo, Roy Pinedo’s supervisor, whether ‘it was normal for engineers of the Forestry Directorate to provide these authorizations without having documentation that proved legal origin.’ Pezo replied: ‘This action is not standard and if any technical staff were to perform it, they would be in breach of their official obligations.’ Despite these statements and evidence, authorities never reported or filed a complaint against Pinedo.

OjoPúblico recently contacted Marcial Pezo, again occupying the position he held at the time of these events. Via e-mail he reiterated his testimony at the time: the engineer in charge of the department should have personally inspected the documentation related to the product reported by Chota as illegal for “correct coding, quantities, species, and measurements in accordance with the procedure.”

CONFRONTATION. Community members had been threatened on different occasions by loggers operating on the border of Peru and Brazil.
Illustration: Enrique Casanto Shingari.
A year before he was killed, Edwin Chota requested guarantees for his life and that of his companions, but the authorities never provided him with security. The full petition can be viewed here.

OPE has never investigated the actions of Roy Pinedo López. According to Marcial Pezo Armas, the official was simply ‘urged to comply’ when it ‘became evident that he was not following the procedures for verifying forest timber products.’ Roy Pinedo López remained on the payroll of the Ucayali Regional Government until as late as 2018.

The prosecutor’s investigation did nothing to stop acts of intimidation against the indigenous leaders. Edwin Chota and Jorge Ríos were openly threatened by Hugo Soria, who identified himself as the owner of the timber: ‘A Sawetino is going to die,’ he told them, a warning that was duly recorded in a brief prosecution report on 9 April 2013. One year and five months later, both indigenous leaders were dead.

State inaction

OPE’s local headquarters are located on the first block of Jirón William Sisley in the district of Coronel Portillo, just five minutes from the center of Pucallpa. From the outside, the building has three stories, green tiles, metal doors, and a single narrow entrance. Inside, the small desks in each office overflow with hundreds of paper files that flutter in the breeze generated by fans barely able to stem the jungle heat. It was here that Edwin Chota and Jorge Rios arrived on 8 April 2013 to lodge their second complaint for the year. They accused the same individuals named in their original 2008 complaint: Segundo Atachi Félix, Eurico Mapes Gómez, Josimar Atachi Félix, and others responsible for illegal logging on their community’s land. In response, environmental prosecutors Patricia Lucano and Francisco Berrospi ordered that 800 logs of wood be seized the following day. 

Roy Pinedo Lopez was never called to give evnidence in this case by the Environmental Magistrate

Present at the time in his sawmill and claiming ownership of the shipment, Hugo Soria Flores was included in the investigation launched as a result of the complaint. 
The prosecutor’s office called Chota as a witness on 18 April 2013. The transcript of this interview reveals the leader’s obvious frustration some five years after he had begun his campaign. The evidence of state inaction is also clear: ‘I know the Mapes family. They have been logging since 2002, before the Alto Tamaya Saweto Community was organized. On the other hand, the Atachi family began logging in the area only in 2005..They do not hold forest licenses. They entered the area with an arrogance and have even threatened me and other community members with death.’

DANGER. In an act of the environmental prosecutor’s office of Ucayali, of April 2013, a direct threat against the life of Edwin Chota by Hugo Soria Flores was recorded.
Capture: Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Ucayali.

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– Explain what kind of threats you have received from the aforementioned individuals and under what circumstances.

– I want to state that the first act of aggression that we received came from Eurico Mapes Gomez and his father Amadeus Mapes Rodríguez. It was in revenge because the Brazilian police had investigated and confiscated all their property after they were found cutting down trees in Brazil. They believed we were the informants and stole two peque peque motorboats and destroyed a canoe and a one and a half ton boat. This Brazilian family shoots into the air to scare us every time they pass by our community transporting timber. With regard to Segundo Atachi Félix, he is the head of the organization that is logging trees in our community and is the one who gives the orders. Between 2005 and 2006 Josimar Atachi Félix and one of his workers approached and threatened me saying, ‘if my timber doesn’t make it out, I will kill someone’. He was carrying a firearm.

– In your capacity as a leader, what actions did you take or are you taking with respect to these unlawful acts?

We have been reporting them to various authorities. However, no inspection has been carried out so far due to the inaccessibility of the area.

The final part of Chota’s statement is a desperate appeal to authorities to visit his community to ‘verify the reality on the ground’, and to undertake joint inspection and control work with Brazilian authorities, given that the Saweto community was already working with the Brazilian Apiucha community.

In the five years that had passed since the first complaint, authorities had not made a single inspection in Saweto. Everyone said there were no resources. Indeed, a report dated 29 May 2013 confirmed that state agencies did ‘not have enough financial resources to perform a visual inspection’ in the Alto Tamaya basin.

The answer was ‘No’ — this time a new ‘No’: there was no helicopter available, they said.

Some weeks later, the Ucayali regional government, led by Jorge Velásquez Portocarrero, requested that the Interior Ministry send a helicopter from Pucallpa to explore the areas that Saweto’s leaders had identified as camping areas used by illegal loggers. The response was disappointing: no helicopters were available.

Wilfredo Pedraza was minister at the time. When approached by OjoPúblico he said he could not recall a request by governor Velásquez. He also noted that since the Ministry of Defence had purchased French helicopters only in 2015, it was unlikely his portfolio would have had the capacity to respond directly. 

The investigation made no progress during the months that followed. No inspection took place. Meanwhile, the threats against the leaders continued. In June 2013, Edwin Chota sought in writing a guarantee from the governor of Ucayali to protect his life and those of the other members of the Saweto community. In the document, Chota publicly held the individuals under investigation for illegal logging responsible for any act of aggression against himself or the community. 

Persons involved in the Chota case

The denunciations made by Chota were collected and published by various different regional organizations. Prior to these events, former officals were involved, together with people who allowed the illegal transport of timber reported by Chota before his murder in 2014.

IndividualPosition Involvement
Marcial Pezo ArmasForestry Director at UcayaliTurned down the request by Chota [for action over] the alleged dominance of logging activity within his community. Ignored a series of denunciations by Ashenika leaders about [damage to] the environment.
Hugo Soria FloresTimber businessmanAccused of transporting illegally felled timber from Saweto to the Forza Nuova EIRL sawmill in Pucallpa.
Roy Pinedo LópezForestry specialist in the forestry directorate at UcayaliGave authorisation, by phone, for timber brought by Hugo Soria to be admitted to the Forza Nuova EIRL sawmill.
Fanny Álvarez BravoEnvironmental magistrate at UcayaliClosed the case on the first denunciation lodged by Chota in 2008, on the grounds that the facts had not been established in the field.
Patricia Lucano GómezEnvironmental magistrate at UcayaliInspector who took on the case in 2013 and carried out a partial investigation of the facts.
Francisco Berrospi BallarteEnvironmental magistrate at UcayaliInspector who took over the case in 2013 and interrogated some of those involved.
Dumas Campos MalpartidaEnvironmental magistrate at UcayaliIn charge of the case brought atainst five individuals involded in the timber traffic denounced by Chota.
Kethy RomaynaSecretary of Forza Nuova EIRLCalled Roy Pinedo to ask about admitting the timber brought by Hugo Soria to the Forza Nuova EIRL sawmill.
Juan Bedoya IjumaIllegal felling department of the forestry directorate at UcayaliRefused to intervene at the sawmill where Edwin Chota stated that timber illegally felled in his community had been transported.

Six years and four murders

Pucallpa’s Natural Park of is one of the most popular tourist sites in Ucayali. This 28-hectare area is home to more than 400 wildlife species and is the site of the Forestry Directorate’s regional office. Edwin Chota was a frequent visitor to the office in his repeated attempts to put a stop to illegal logging. Although frustrated, he remained undeterred. 

April 14 denunciation of illegal felling

On 28 April 2014, after six tiring years of letter writing and appeals, Chota lodged new letters with the regional government, the national government, the national police, and the prosecutor’s office. In the face of death threats, state inaction and delays which put the lives of Saweto’s leaders at risk, Chota attached photographs to the documents showing the illegal loggers and the exact coordinates of their camps. He did what judicial authorities had never done: he identified the mafia.

With 67 locations of illegal timber logging now revealed, Chota once again sought an inspection of the area. Yet once again there was almost no response. Only the Defensoría del Pueblo (the Ombudsman’s Office) took any action. It organized a meeting attended by Chota himself, five other community leaders (Roger Shawiri Campos, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Teresa López Pérez, Julia Pérez Gonzáles, Maritza Pinedo Comingahuete), OSINFOR (Emilio Álvarez Romero and Ildelfonso Riquelme Ciriaco), the General Forestry Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture (Belmira Carrera La Torre), and the Office for Dialogue and Sustainability of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (Javier Lam Figueroa). 

For the first time, action was agreed, with OSINFOR committing to inspect the area. However, administrative problems meant the mission could not take place until 25 to 29 August. By this time the mafia had become more widespread along the border. OSINFOR’s inspection was the first and last.

On 1 September 2014, Edwin Chota, Leoncio Quintisima, Jorge Ríos Pérez and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez were murdered. Their bodies were dismembered and then disappeared along the border with Brazil. The remains of two of the men have never been found.

Rights swept away

The struggle that Edwin Chota led together with his fellow leaders was about more than timber trafficking: it also sought land title. But here too, theirs was an uphill battle. In was in 2013, amidst threats to their lives, that Saweto’s leaders first learned the government had granted forestry licenses over land the community had been using for many years. It was all too common for the Peruvian government to grant private concessions in an expeditious manner whilst leaving community title requests unattended. 

Edwin Chota’s response was to write a letter to the Ucayali Forestry Directorate, dated 5 April 2013, seeking ‘the exclusion and re-measurement of forest management units overlapping Saweto.’ The request remained unaddressed until January 2014. When the directorate’s head, Marcial Pezo Armas, finally assessed the proposal, he rejected it.  His reasoning was that a technical report showed seven forest concessions issued to Eco Forestal Ucayali SAC covering land claimed by the Saweti community.

Edwin Chota’s pleas—at that moment a desperate final cry against impunity—reached as far as the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (PCM), in the form of a letter dated 3 June 2014 to Rene Cornejo Díaz, the then president of the body. This correspondence set out the land titling delays and the lack of progress by the prosecutors against illegal logging in Saweto, and concluded with a request to create a multisectoral commission that would address the community’s concerns. 

RECURRENCE. In the environmental complaint of the leaders of Saweto also mentioned the constant threats they faced.

Capture: Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Ucayali.

The PCM’s response came ten days later. It made no mention of any actions against the loggers, noting only that COFOPRI was at the point of completing the land titling process. The PCM and OPE had each received the same sets of photos and the same location coordinates yet neither mobilized a single police contingent.

It took the murder of the four Saweto leaders for the state to take notice. The Ucayali Regional Government issued a resolution on 14 October 2014 that revoked 48,000 hectares of logging concessions held by Eco Forestal SAC. The company’s current address—according to public records—is kilometer 13 of the Federico Basadre Highway, the same address as a company known as Grupo Vargas Negocios Amazónicos SAC. 

Justice still to be served

Following the massacre of Saweto’s leadership OPE reopened its investigation into illegal logging. For its part, the national government released the Saweto Action Plan, a document containing a raft of new initiatives for the community, including health, education, women’s, development, and social inclusion programs. 

More than five years later, the current generation of indigenous leaders see few positive results. Work has yet to commence to construct a 35-kilometer path that would link Saweto with the Brazilian Apiucha community, or to install basic housing modules—valued at just PEN 10,000 each—that would benefit twenty-five families. At least the community land titling project is finally complete, following twelve years of paperwork—one of the few promises to have been fulfilled. 

More than five years since the murders, most of the government’s promises to Saweto have not been fulfilled.

The criminal trial for timber trafficking has been slow, and at every new stage of the process the number of people under investigation continues to diminish. Currently facing the adversarial stage are Segundo Atachi Félix, Josimar Atachi Félix, and Hugo Soria Flores. For the crime of illegal timber trafficking, environmental prosecutor Dumas Campos is seeking a five-year prison term. But José Estrada Huayta, the timber trader and founder of Eco Forestal Ucayali, was able to obtain a suspension of his indictment on the same charge. And despite all the evidence of wrongdoing, prosecutors have never included in the proceedings the regional government officials who turned a blind eye to the illegal timber trade in Saweto. 

No less than five prosecutors have been in charge of the case since Edwin Choto’s first complaint in 2008: Patricia Lucano and José Francisco Berrospi for the preliminary and preparatory stage, Yenni Edita Alvarado Cabrera and Julio César Guizado Acuña for the adversarial stage, and Dumas Campos for the indictment control stage.

VICTIMS. According to the Ashéninka worldview, the leaders killed today represent four warriors who died defending their land.
Illustration: Enrique Casanto Shingari.

The final stage is still awaiting hearing. Sources from the Second Environmental Prosecutor’s Office have told OjoPúblico that the sessions are scheduled for the middle of this year and early 2021. The delay—they claim—is due to the heavy caseload currently facing the Ucayali Superior Court.

All those accused of timber trafficking also face charges issued by organized crime prosecutor Otoniel Jara Córdova in October 2019 for the murder of the four Asheninka leaders. He has requested thirty-five years prison for aggravated homicide. 

The murder of the Asheninka leaders highlights state indifference, and its ineffectiveness against the illegal trade in timber and in protecting indigenous leaders. Saweto’s leaders—Edwin Chota, Leoncio Quintisima, Jorge Ríos Pérez and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez—spent six years reporting a timber mafia along the border between Peru and Brazil yet were unable to obtain even an inspection of the area. Chota went so far as to seek guarantees for his life, but never received them. 

OjoPúblico requested information from the Ministry of the Interior about the actions it took to protect Edwin Chota following his request of 14 June 2013. The response demonstrates the enormous divide that exists between Peru’s capital, Lima, and the country’s remote communities. This gulf is as much a question of rights as it is of geographical distance. Following consultation with the prefecture of Ucayali, the General Directorate of Internal Government replied:

‘The process of personal safety guarantees requested by Edwin Chota in 2013 has not been attended to in timely manner, for reasons were not specified.’ The document, dated October 2019, concludes, ‘this office recommends that Edwin Chota Valera submit a new request for personal safety guarantees in the district where these events are occurring so that it can be processed.’ The Directorate of Authorizations and Guarantees of the Ministry of the Interior that provided this letter is the same body that abandoned the search for Jorge Ríos Pérez and Francisco Pinedo’s bodies. The violence of oblivion. 

Copyright, Ojo Público. Reprinted with permission.