Diana Ríos (second from left), daughter of slain Saweto environmental defender Jorge Ríos Pérez, protests the Peruvian government at the UN Headquarters in New York City in 2016, for failing to prosecute the killing of the four indigenous activists from her community. IMAGE CREDIT: If Not Us Then Who?

Delay in Trial for Murder of Four Indigenous Rainforest Activists

The murder trial of Amazon loggers who allegedly killed four indigenous environmental activists from the village of Saweto was postponed at the last moment on Monday, April 4th, when three of the five accused failed to show up to court for opening statements at the Superior Court of Ucayali in Pucallpa, Peru. 

Defendants Eurico Mapes Gomez, Josimar Atachi Felix, and Segundo Euclides Atachi all failed to show up to their murder trial, depsite the fact that they were permitted to attend via Skype—an idea that would’ve been unfathomable before the pandemic, and still stretches credulity today given the seriousness of the charges. 

Hugo Soria Flores, José Carlos Estrada Huayta, and the three aforementioned defendents—all from the logging company Ecofusac—are accused of murdering Saweto villagers Edwin Chota Valera, Leoncio Quintisima Meléndez, Jorge Ríos Pérez, and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez in 2014. Each defendant faces up to 35 years’ imprisonment and liability for up to one million Peruvian soles (approximately $250,000) civil compensation to the victims’ families.

In the years since the 2014 murders, Rainforest Foundation US (RFUS) has worked diligently to bring the case to justice. We’ve successfully: lobbied to have the case prosecuted as an organized crime, ensuring that those who ordered the murders are held accountable; lobbied the federal courts to dismiss the lead prosecutor, who had undisclosed conflicts of interest in the case and was maneuvering to throw the charges out; advocated to have a prosecutor from outside the jurisdiction try the case, so as to avoid other potential conflicts of interest; and provided a safe house to the family members of the murder victims while they await the trial.

The judge was legally permitted to declare the defendants guilty of contempt and issue an arrest warrant because they did not show up, but she instead postponed opening statements to June 20th. 

Four of the five defendants have never been arrested for their alleged roles in the murders, and await their trial as free men. The fifth, Mapes Gomez, was detained in 2016, but was released without bail after 18 months when continued delays in the trial exceeded the maximum legally-permissible detainment period.

The case is an unprecedented legal effort by a Peruvian prosecutor’s office to extend criminal accountability in the murder of indigenous environmental defenders: not just to the triggermen, but also to those who ordered the murders. 

Loggers and other extractive industrialists throughout the Amazon basin regularly perpetrate organized violent crime against indigenous peoples who resist their efforts. In 2020, more than one hundred indigenous environmental activists were murdered for standing up against deforestation on their lands.

Prior to the murders, the activists had lodged a complaint against Ecofusac with the provincial government for illegally logging on Saweto territory. Estrada and Soria are Ecofusac executives who allegedly planned and ordered the assassinations that the other defendants allegedly carried out.

That the trial has yet to take place eight years after the murders illustrates just how vulnerable indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon are. From the beginning, the investigation and prosecution of the homicides were mired by systemic indifference and localized corruption. The federal police took eight days to report to the crime scene, causing the degradation of valuable evidence. The district attorney of Ucayali initially signaled that he was going to end the investigation without bringing charges, and had to be removed from his post when a subsequent investigation by Rainforest Foundation US Legal & Policy Analyst Margoth Quispe revealed that he had direct family ties to the logging company implicated in the murders. The case only gained momentum after the prosecutor in the Specialized Supranational Organized Crime Coordination unit  assigned the case in 2018 to a prosecutor from outside the region, eventually culminating in this trial.

Learn more about the case here.

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