Iquitos, Peru – It's been more than one month since Peru's government sent investigators to the Amazon to probe the brutal murders and mutilation of at least 14 shamans, traditional healers or medicos, of the indigenous Shawi people of Peru's northern border region near Ecuador.
Since then, the government has remained mum and, so far, has made no arrests, or at least has not made any known. Early reports focused on the Evangelical Christian mayor of the river port town of Balsapuerto, citing officials who accused him of instigating a fanatical religious purge.
But Alberto Pizango, Peru's top indigenous leader and president of the country's most powerful indigenous organization, the Interethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Rainforest (known by its Spanish acronym, AIDESEP) paints a more complex picture of the case, blaming cash and pressure from legal and illegal industries in the Amazon who poach natural resources from indigenous lands.
“What is happening now in my community is organized crime,” said Pizango, himself a Shawi medico who studied for seven years under a master shaman.
“This work, I would say, is done in a very subtle way by the extractive industries,” Pizango said, naming the timber and oil industries as well as those involved in producing illegal drugs.
“Divide and conquer,” he said. “That is exactly what is happening here.”
Pizango explained that Shawi tradition used to allow certain shamans, often ones who had quit their apprenticeships and used their powers for “bad things,” to be killed or banished by others in the community. Now, he said, a “bad interpretation” of that tradition has been used to cover up corruption and greed.
“The criminals accuse someone, [they say], “He is a brujo! He is evil! He was killed because he was evil!” Pizango said. “That was ancestral justice,” he said. “But now it is just organized crime.”
Original reports cited public prosecutors from the nearby port of Yurimaguas who specifically named Balsapuerto mayor Alfredo Torres and his brother Augusto, also known locally as a matabrujos or “witch killer,” as suspects in at least some of the murders. One early report said at least seven additional shamans were still missing from Shawi territory and listed as dead by local officials of the Catholic Church – making it more than 20 shamans killed in the region in less than two years.
At the time the murders were first reported, London's Guardian newspaper quoted the lead investigator, the vice minister of intercultural affairs, airing suspicions that religion or tradition were mere cover for territorial and political disputes – an interpretation with which Pizango concurred.
“[T]he mayor, the authority there, conspires with this oppressive system that offers him a way into office. This system gives him money for his campaign, so he is compromised,” Pizango said.
“And when the people come out to defend their territorial rights, their rights to their natural resources, then the mayor has the perfect criminal organization to shut them up, accuse them, say that someone was killed because he was a brujo.”
In the Amazon, shamans are keepers and teachers of the traditional knowledge of the forest, including plant medicines such as the visionary vine ayahuasca, as well as teachers of the spiritual and cosmological foundations of cultures. It often takes a generation of study and practice before one is considered a shaman or trusted by a community as a medico. The recent killings represent a devastating blow to Shawi culture and a loss for Amazonian society in general.
“[T]he recent murder of shamans in Peru is deplorable, and unfortunately is part of a historical pattern,” said anthropologist Jeremy Narby, an expert on Peruvian indigenous issues and author of “The Cosmic Serpent” and “Shamans Through Time.”
“Until recently, such occurrences have been under-reported. [T]reating shamans as devils goes way back in time,” Narby said.
After spending long stretches with other Peruvian tribes, including the nearby Amazonian group, the Awajun, Narby said he's known of healers being forced to practice their art in secret and being subject to as much threat from within their own people as from forces and influences encroaching from the world outside.
“It's a very risky thing. If you say that you know how to administer ayahuasca and you know how to cure,” said Narby. “But if they don't get better, or even if they die because they actually have a condition, then you risk getting killed.”
When the the conquering Spanish and Portuguese arrived, they declared open season on shamans and shamanism. Narby said modern versions of the conquerors' religion continue adding fuel to the old witch-burning fire.
“The people themselves have absorbed the outside ideology, in this particular case, the Evangelical Christian one, which goes explicitly against their own culture,” said Narby, who noted that Christian and indigenous groups both have histories of bloody excesses in the Amazon.
Evangelical Christianity, Narby continued, “says ayahuasca is bad, it's the devil's stuff, we have to give up all this traditional stuff and we've got to sing all these hymns and talk about Jesus Christ and love and build temples in our communities,” he said.
“And then communities are divided between those who are members of the Evangelical Church and those who aren't … and it gets really complicated,” he said.
Pizango, who considered a presidential run earlier this year under a blanket indigenous party, says that the visions he and other medicos receive through ayahuasca emphasize harmony with nature, the value of all life and unity of all things – visions that contradict the dominant culture's ethos of consumerism and environmental destruction by industrial development.
As the keepers, cultivars and promoters of an alternative vision, he said traditional Amazonian healers continue to be seen as threats to the system and thus targeted, subjected to harassment and, in the case of the Shawi shamans, even worse.
Meanwhile, the government's official investigation of shamanicide continues.
“I lament so much that human beings are being eliminated, my brothers (are being killed), due to a bad interpretation,” Pizango said.
“But that's not the bottom line,” he said. “The bottom line here is that there's a purpose … a political purpose.”
A note on the author and sources: Freelance writer Darrin Mortenson is a former war correspondent and a contributor to Truthout. Interviews for this article are part of an ongoing investigation for Alianza Arkana, a nonprofit that works directly with indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon to help defend their territories and traditions. For more information, please visit www.alianzaarkana.org.