Diana Ríos, daughter of slain indigenous activist Jorge Ríos Pérez.

Daughter of Slain Indigenous Activist Speaks Out in The Miami Herald

I was 21 years old when my father was killed.

We all knew who did it. For years, he’d been trying to get a land title for Saweto, our Asheninka village in the Peruvian Amazon. Dad and some of the other village leaders had filed a complaint against the loggers, who’d been invading our land and cutting down our trees. 

The loggers kept threatening them. They told them what they were going to do.

The last time I saw my dad he came to visit me on my farm, a two-hour walk from his house. By then I had been living with my husband for five years. We had three children. 

I was in the field planting yuca when dad showed up. He was on his way to meet up with other activists. He was in a good mood that day. He told me we would win our land title. As he walked away, I heard him whooping to himself, with joy.

I knew that the work he was doing was important. I always supported my dad. Indigenous peoples need something to call our own: our own proper territory, where we can live well, without harming the forests. We couldn’t allow them to take everything from us.  It wasn’t fair.

But I was scared.

A few days later, I got another visit, this time from my sister Adela. I was eating breakfast when she told me dad had been killed.

“What are you talking about?” I said. “He’s coming home on Friday.”

But I knew it was true when I walked down into the village and saw the people gathered. The four widows were huddled together. They were wailing. When they saw me they told me, “They’re dead, they’re all dead by the river, and the scavengers are eating their bodies.”

It took eight days for the police to come investigate. By that point, only their bones remained.

I went to Pucallpa—the capital of the region—to demand that prosecutors open a case. Pucallpa was a three-day boat ride away from Saweto. It was a different world from what I knew. It was a city. In the country, you can go hunting. You can walk around freely. But the city is loud, and there are so many people. I knew that the murderers were still free, so everywhere I went I wondered if they were amongst the people all around me. Would that person try to hurt me? What about that one?

I told myself I would stay in Pucallpa until justice was served. But I didn’t think justice would take so long. That’s why I’m asking the international community to pay attention to the homicide trial of the loggers responsible. It’s been seven years, and the trial is only starting now. Life became complicated; my husband didn’t understand why I had to stay in the city. He wanted me to come home, but I couldn’t go back without justice. We separated.

The hardest part about my dad’s murder is that they never found his body. They identified the others’ remains, but my father’s body was completely washed away in the river. And so I can never fully accept that he is dead. Part of me always believes that he’s alive, and that one of these days I’ll see him on the three-day boat journey between Pucallpa and Saweto. And so I am always looking for him. Because it’s impossible to believe he’s dead. He was only 44 years old. And he was always so healthy. I never saw him sick. 

For years, the prosecutor had evidence about who committed these murders. There were witnesses who saw the killers following their victims on the day they disappeared. But the killers are still living free, and so injustice remains in the air all around me. And as long as they are free, I continue to live in fear, because they could kidnap my children. They could kill us.

I miss Saweto. The last time I was there, last year, everyone was afraid. They told me strange people have been coming onto the territory: New invaders, who want to cut down our trees and plant coca. It’s a new mafia. This one feels even more dangerous.

But I still miss my home. I love being close to the river. It’s so beautiful there. The Asheninka believe in Mother Earth. And when you walk in the forest, you feel as though you’re inside of her. You feel protected. The sound of birdsong, the afternoon light: These are things that people of the city don’t understand. Even scientists know we are the best guardians of nature. Because we believe the plants have souls, same as people: That’s why we protect them so much. Because when you cut down plants, you have to ask the place for permission. You can’t just take from the earth. You ask her for permission.

As first appeared in the Miami Herald on April 21st, 2022.

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