Flor Vallejos was forced to listen to her husband’s screams as he was tortured and killed by members of a criminal gang of land traffickers.
Vallejo’s husband, 50-year-old Jose Napoleon Tarrillo Astonitas, has been brutally murdered by four men who bound the Peruvian community leader’s hands and feet, beat him and then strangled the victim with an electric cable after they entered the couple’s home in El Mirador near the Chaparri Ecological Reserve.
Local police said they are searching for the murderers.
Tarrillo was actively opposed to the land invaders who have been clearing parts of the national reserve in northern Peru and cultivating crops. The reserve is a bio-diverse hotspot and is home to one of the largest populations of the endemic and endangered Andean spectacled bear, and the critically endangered white-winged guan, a bird once thought extinct.
“He was threatened two days before he was killed,” said Juan Carrasco, a fellow member of the Muchik Santa Catalina de Chongoyape farming community. “He was a brave man and he never lost his nerve. He said we must organize our own patrol to evict the land invaders because the authorities would not take action.”
Ana Juarez, a biologist working in the area, said the murder was “expected.” She told the Guardian that the murderers are locally known and are also guilty of violently killing three farmers in a neighboring community in October 2016 for opposing their illegal land trafficking practices.
These criminals operate with “absolute impunity," said Heinz Plenge, co-found of the private reserve. He said land invaders are trying to overtake the communal land owned by the campesinos and on which the reserve sits. Community members partially depend on the tourism generated by the park for their income.
The root of the land takeover is an irrigation project announced in 2012. Plenge said that with the announcement, land prices began to soar from US$80 to US$10,000 per hectare.
“These mafias are trying to grab hold of as much communal land as possible and take over peasant communities which can be easily bought off,” Plenge added. “These lands are brought up by small operators, but behind them are politicians and very powerful businessmen.”
Activists said the land invaders and corporations are using violence, coercion, fear and money on the relatively resource-poor community with the aim to take over the reserve and use it for lucrative agricultural production, and they can do so when the government turns a blind eye.
“The absence of an effective government response to environmental crimes exposes local conservationists to intense social pressures, violence and death threats, which are often carried through,” said Noga Shanee, a local conservationist and founder of the Neotropical Primate Conservation organization.
Just last September, land traffickers shot and killed six farmer activists in the Amazon region of Peru hoping to take over their land for large palm production. These six Indigenous leaders also received death threats in the days leading up to their deaths after they opposed the land invaders initial attempts at a deal. Their hands and feet were also bound before their deaths.