Sorcery is political. It is profoundly emotional, having to do with envy, resentment, fear, and hate; when sorcery is suspected or alleged, the atmosphere becomes charged, and divisions between individuals and groups become accentuated. Sorcery accusations involve alliances, negotiations, strategies — politics.

—Steve Beyer, Singing to the Plants (2009)

The Announcement
Deputy Minister Vicente Otta

On October 4, 2011, the Peruvian newspaper La Republica reported that, over the preceding twenty months, fourteen shamans had been murdered in the district of Balsapuerto, a small river port near the town of Yurimaguas in Alto Amazonas province. Seven of the victims had been shot, stabbed, or hacked to death with machetes; seven others had been reported missing, but their bodies had not been found, presumably because they had been tossed into rivers to be eaten by piranhas.

All those killed — as well as almost all the members of the communities from which they came — were members of the Shawi ethnic group.

Journalist Roger Rumrrill

On the same day as the newspaper article, Clemente Vicente Otta Rivera, Peru’s deputy minister for intercultural relations, told a press conference that local people had identified all of the victims as curanderos or shamans. Otta said that the murders “cannot remain in a situation of indifference and omission,” and he announced that he would travel to the area personally to monitor the investigation.

Outrage was swift. Shamanist and activist websites urged visitors to send emails of protest to the President of Peru, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, the Peruvian ambassador to the United States, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, and Amnesty International. “Until now the death of fourteen curanderos who are the depositaries of Amazon knowledge wasn’t worth the attention of the press,” wrote Roger Rumrrill, a Peruvian journalist specializing in Amazonian affairs. “That’s an expression of how fragmented and racist this country is — a centralized country that continues to look at its interior with total indifference.”

Doctor Rosa Giove

Gregor MacLennan, Peru program coordinator for the environmental and human rights organization Amazon Watch, said: “The death of these shamans represents not just a tragic loss of life, but the loss of a huge body of knowledge about rainforest plants and the crucial role shamans play in traditional medicine and spiritual guidance in indigenous communities.”

Rosa Giove, biomedical director of the Takiwasi Centro de Rehabilitación de Toxicómanos y de Investigación de Medicinas Tradicionales, agreed. “At the death of each shaman,” she stated, “in addition to the loss of human life, knowledge and experience in the practice of traditional medicine is lost as well… These events go far beyond common crimes, since we are losing our intellectual heritage, our living cultural reserve, which is not recognized and even less protected.”

How could such a thing have happened?

The Accusation

One answer to that question came quickly. The office of the public prosecutor in the district capital of Yurimaguas stated that the murders were allegedly ordered by Alfredo Torres Rucoba, the alcalde or mayor of Balsapuerto, and carried out by his brother Augusto Torres Rucoba, known locally as a cazabrujos or matabrujos, a hunter or slayer of sorcerers.

Mayor Alfredo Torres

The first accusations were made in February 2011 by the families of Marcelino Pizango Lancha and Mariano Apuela Inuma, who claimed that the two shamans had been murdered for being sorcerers. According to his wife, Apuela had been forced out of their home by three men, and had never returned. The mutilated bodies of the two shamans were found on different jungle paths during the next two months. Regional and local news media then began reporting similar cases. In April and May 2011, the Archbishop of Yurimaguas reported the death of seven shamans, whose bodies had not been recovered.

At the end of August, a news story on a Lima television station reported that a man named Solomón Napo Moreno had confessed on a hidden camera to having participated in the killing of Mariano Apuela. He said that he had been promised 5,000 soles — in Balsapuerto, a truly remarkable amount of money — by Augusto Torres, the brother of the mayor. Napo gave two reasons for coming forward at this time. “I cannot stay in hiding,” he told the television crew. And he was angry because he had never been paid.

Solomón Napo Moreno

In addition, there was an eyewitness survivor of an attack. Bautista Inuma Andona — an apu or community leader of the Paradise Shawi — was allegedly mistaken for a shaman and attacked with machetes on a road near his home, where he was shot and had his arm hacked off before he could escape. Inuma identified Augusto Torres as one of the attackers.

The last attack apparently occurred in early September 2011 in the community of Santa Rosa, when fifty-year-old shaman Yume Chanchari Silverio was shot in the back and killed instantly. In the wake of subsequent widespread publicity about the killings, beginning the following month, there have been no further reported murders.

The Investigation
Prosecutor Jorge Guzmán Sánchez

Peruvian law enforcement agencies claim that it is difficult to investigate crimes in remote and insular areas of the jungle. Jorge Guzmán Sánchez, the chief prosecutor of Alto Amazonas, blamed the lengthy process of investigation on “logistical deficiencies and geographical constraints.” Llesenia del Mar, the deputy prosecutor in charge of the investigation, said, “Family members speak of murder, but the Navy has sought the bodies with negative results. I cannot speak of murder without a body. What happens if they are in hiding?“

According to del Mar, the main problem with the investigation is cultural difference and lack of trust. “These people are nativos,” he says. “They are reluctant to cooperate with the investigation, because they have different concepts than those of us who live in civilization.” Of the five official complaints made to the police, three have been closed for lack of evidence.

On February 23, 2012, the family of Marcelino Pizango, one of the first murdered shamans, along with representatives of two indigenous advocacy organizations, petitioned the national prosecutor’s office to reopen his case. The shaman’s daughter, Cecilia Pizango Chanchari, herself an apu or community leader in Balsapuerto, said that two men — Cecilio Mozombite Pizango and Pedro Inuma Tangoa — had confessed to her that they, together with Augusto Torres, had killed her father. Prosecutor Alcides Estela Fernández issued subpoenas for all of the accused to testify before a deputy prosecutor. There are no news reports that the subpoenas were ever served in Balsapuerto, or that the depositions ever took place. There have been no arrests.

The Accused
Augusto Torres

Alfredo Torres has denied any knowledge of self-professed killer Solomón Napo or any responsibility for the killings. He has stated that he himself does not believe in sorcery. Speaking on Radio Programas Peru on October 4, 2011, Torres said that the killings were simply revenge by families of people whom the shaman had unsuccessfully tried to heal. “For many years they have practiced the ancient custom of killing sorcerers,” he said, “holding them responsible for the death of a family member who was receiving treatment from the shaman.” In an interview on Frecuencia Latina television, the mayor again denied any role in the killings. “If anyone has any solid proof, let them show it,” he said.

Torres is an evangelical Christian. He has a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the National University of the Peruvian Amazon. He had run for mayor against an incumbent, Orlando Vasquez Mori, who had been accused of financial improprieties, and he promised to “change the image of the district” — to complete a road from Balsapuerto the district capital of Yurimaguas, to encourage cultural tourism, and to promote the production and marketing of local handicrafts.

Segundo Pizango Inuma

His platform also included a promise to act against “the public danger posed by sorcerers and shamans — all those who kill people at will.” Torres promised to “draw up a blacklist of the most harmful, and mobilize peasant patrols to act against them.” Torres was elected mayor in January 2011, shortly before the first shamans were reported missing.

A petition to recall the mayor has now been circulated by Segundo Pizango Inuma, head of the Federación de Comunidades Nativas Chayahuitas. Torres claims that ninety-five percent of the Shawi community oppose the recall, because the success of his projects has justified his use of public funds. “As for the death of the sorcerers,” he says, “they tried to persuade the people that I am the perpetrator of those deaths. But none of this has been proven against me… My people will say an overwhelming no to the recall.” Torres claims that the recall is being covertly funded by the previous mayor, Orlando Vasquez Mori, who is is simply using the indigenous leader — a long-time opponent of the mayor — in his campaign. A murder attempt was made against Pizango last August, and Pizango claims that he continues to receive death threats. The recall is scheduled for September 30, 2012.

Journalist Roger Rumrrill says the mayor “is a religious fanatic and Protestant fundamentalist who considers the shamans his enemies.” Seeking to boost his political campaign, Torres apparently went from village to village passing out donated medicine, which turned out to be expired and — since it had no instructions — useless, and had to be turned in to the local health centers for disposal. In August 2011, Torres and his two bodyguards beat up a reporter, fracturing the man’s wrist and injuring his ribs, while Torres shouted — perhaps understandably — that he wanted nothing more to do with the press.

It may well be true that Torres is something of a blowhard and bully. But the question remains: Did he orchestrate the murder of fourteen shamans?

A Community in Distress

Balsapuerto is one of six districts of the Alto Amazonas province in the Department of Loreto. It has a total population of approximately 18,000 people, living in perhaps a hundred small village communities. The population is comprised almost entirely of the ethnic group known as Shawi or Chayahuita.

If we want to understand why these killings happened, we have to put them in the context of the Shawi community of Balsapuerto — a community suffering under an almost unimaginable burden of economic and cultural stress.

Isolation
Yurimaguas

It is not easy to get to — or out of — Balsapuerto. The nearest town is Yurimaguas, the district capital, a typical medium-sized jungle town — chaotic, noisy with mototaxis, and with a plaza de armas dominated by a church. The town abuts the Río Huallaga, which is the primary means of travel upriver to Tarapoto in the south or downriver to Iquitos in the north. Yurimaguas is also connected to Tarapoto by a traversable road, at least when it is not raining.

To reach the various communities of Balsapuerto, you can take a mototaxi for about 45 minutes to Nuevo Arica, which is the end of the road; then it is at least a two-day hike through the jungle into the Balsapuerto district. By raft you can reach Balsapuerto district in a day and a half, or by outboard motorboat in about six hours, but at prices ranging from several hundred to more than a thousand soles — far beyond the means of most people in Balsapuerto. A satellite image at the end of this article may be helpful in visualizing this.

A Shawi village

Balsapuerto is not only physically isolated, but culturally and politically isolated as well. Crimes committed here in the jungle have little political resonance even in Yurimaguas, much less far away in Lima. Jungle Indians are chunchos, not worth thinking about. The Shawi are derisively called balsachos by the mestizos in Yurimaguas. They are under great pressure from the dominant culture to abandon their traditional dress, their language, their masato, and, for the women, painting their faces with the juice of the huito fruit.

Inadequate Health Care

According to the Fondo de Cooperación para el Desarrollo Social, Balsapuerto is at the top of the list of the fifteen poorest districts in Peru, with high rates of extreme poverty, lack of basic social services such as health and education, and alarming rates of maternal and infant mortality. As one newspaper report put it, “What the inhabitants of Balsapuerto have is extreme poverty and little attention.”

The road from Tarapoto into Yurimaguas

There is a hospital in Yurimaguas and a network of puestos de salud — health posts or local clinics — in just twelve of the hundred or so Shawi villages, each staffed by a single often poorly trained and overwhelmed promodor de salud and offering only the most basic health services. Because it is so difficult to reach these villages, bad weather often makes the health posts inaccessible, leaving the staff isolated to treat patients as best they can. In the event that local care is not sufficient, it can take two days or more to navigate the meandering Paranapura to the hospital.

According to a September 2010 report by Yrma Quinteras, the governor of Balsapuerto, the district health posts often lack even basic medical supplies. An August 2010 report by the Instituto Nacional de Defensa Civil says that seven of the twelve Balsapuerto health posts “do not have staff, equipment, or infrastructure.”

Loss of Language
Shawi children

More than half the population of Balsapuerto is illiterate. Schools teach only in Spanish, and the instructors most often do not speak or understand Shawi. In many areas of Peru, there is bilingual education in both Spanish and the local language, but not in Balsapuerto. The specialists of the Unidad de Gestión Educativa Local claim that the people prefer education to be in Spanish, in case they have to go to to Yurimaguas. Serafin Cárdenas, principal of a Balsapuerto secondary school, says that entering Shawi students are inadequately prepared for seventh-grade work, perhaps because they have been taught in a language they do not understand.

There is no systematic effort to preserve the Shawi language. Robinson Pinedo, apu of the Shawi village of Fray Martín, remembers the first teachers that came in the 1960s. They were mestizos, who immediately banned the Shawi language from their schools, and forced students who spoke Shawi to kneel painfully on raw kernels of corn. Robinson now goes fishing with his children every night and speaks Shawi with them. His Shawi wife — like an increasing number of Shawi who live near Yurimaguas — speaks only Spanish.

Proselytization
Missionaries with Shawi women

The Shawi have also been heavily proselytized by missionaries, particularly those from Grace Church, with headquarters in Arvada, California, which has “targeted the Chayahuita Indians in the Amazon jungle as our global mission field.” The missionaries preach strongly against traditional Shawi healing and spiritual practices, urgimg the Shawi to “to renounce all practices contrary to the Word of God.” A missionary to the Shawi from the New Covenant Christian Community Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which is affiliated with the Grace Church, wrote in a letter dated April 2, 2012:

This eventually led us to discuss the women’s belief system and what practices they perform to complete their religious obligations. It was revealed that they make sacrifices to Mother Earth, rain, certain trees believed to have power and some other things. As we talked the women told Maria that they don’t sacrifice to the trees anymore since they’ve been hearing the Word of God… I suggested that they gather up all their idols and everything they use to perform the sacrifices and burn them as an act of repentance and commitment to make the Lord their only God.

Anthropologist Jeremy Narby points out that evangelization — even with the best of intentions — creates community stress in two ways: it isolates people from their own traditions, and it can split the community into rival factions. As he puts it, “The people themselves have absorbed the outside ideology, in this particular case, the Evangelical Christian one, which goes explicitly against their own culture… And then communities are divided between those who are members of the Evangelical Church and those who aren’t.”

Sexually Transmitted Disease

The Shawi people also suffer from a very high rate of HIV infection. According to a 2007 study, cited in the 2008 Latin America AIDS Epidemic Update Regional Summary published jointly by the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization, national adult HIV prevalence in Peru has been estimated at 0.6 percent, while HIV seroprevalence among adult Shawl was found to be 7.5 percent, and that of syphilis to be 6.3 percent. According to the report, none of the study participants had ever used a condom, and sex between men appeared to be relatively common. At the current levels of HIV prevalence, the authors conclude, “there is the risk of a negative impact on the survival of the Chayahuita ethnic group as a whole.”

The Cachiyacu Poisoning

Perhaps more immediately relevant to the shaman killings is the disaster of the Cachiyacu river, which took place at the end of August 2011, six months before the first reported disappearances.

Fishing with barbasco

Like many other peoples in the Upper Amazon, the Shawi catch fish using a poison called barbasco, generally made from the milky sap of the plant Lonchocarpus urucu. The active ingredients of barbasco are rotenone and deguelin, which affect gill function in fish, hindering their ability to breathe, and thus causing the fish to rise to the surface where they can be gathered.

Rotenone is classified by the World Health Organization as moderately hazardous. It is only mildly toxic to humans but highly toxic to fish, and for that reason humans can normally eat fish harvested with barbasco. The Shawi had traditionally used barbasco for fishing without incident.

Río Cachiyacu at Balsapuerto

But in August 2011 two things went wrong. An unusually large amount of fish poison was put into the Río Cachiyacu for fishing — apparently with the permission of Yrma Quinteras, the governor of Balsapuerto — just at the time the water level in the river was dropping rapidly, causing the river to stop flowing and leaving pools of water where the rotenone had become concentrated. Thirty-five children from eight Balsapuerto communities in the Cachiyacu valley developed acute diarrhea from drinking this water, including at least two, ages eight and twelve, who died under the care of local shamans.

It appears from the report issued by the Red de Salud de Alto Amazonas that part of the disaster was that the health posts in these communities did not have any antidiarrheal medications on hand.

Killing Sorcerers
Shawi men

Mayor Alfredo Torres, in denying any responsibility for the killings, claimed that the murders had been carried out instead by the families of patients who had died under the care of the slain shamans, presumably as a result of the shaman’s own sorcery. Such a position is, in fact, not implausible. Accusations of sorcery and the killing of accused sorcerers is widespread in the Upper Amazon. “Sorcerers are still murdered in the Upper Peruvian Amazon,” writes anthropologist Françoise Barbira Freedman. Two Lamista suspects were recently killed in revenge, shot dead at night: “‘People got tired of their evil doings,’ I was told.”

In 1978, anthropologist Jean-Pierre Chaumeil did a survey of Yagua shamans in eastern Peru, including which shamans had died during the preceding decade. All eleven deceased shamans reportedly had been killed, either by other shamans, using sorcery, or by villagers, in reprisal for sorcery of their own. Yagua shamans, he writes, are often blamed for the suffering of others, and may be attacked at any time by the relatives of a victim or by a rival shaman. The shaman must constantly be on guard to prevent and to be instantly aware of this type of attack.

Shuar shaman Alejandro Tsakimp describes the murder of a shaman named Tséremp, who boasted of his power to kill and was suspected in the illness of a relative:

Then we went to see where they killed him — they killed him in his own bed! Everything was shot up! And my uncle, my father’s own brother, Pedro, had cut Tséremp in the chest with a machete. The shotgun hadn’t killed Tséremp, so Pedro cut until the machete penetrated the heart.

Tséremp was a powerful shaman, Alejandro concludes, but he fell because of the many bad things he had done

A Shawi shaman

Among the Shuar, when a person in the neighborhood falls ill, the shamans are the first to be blamed. Moreover, because shamans control spirit darts, people fear that shamans may be tempted to use the cover of healing as an opportunity to bewitch their own clients for personal reasons. The clients therefore expect results; and, if such results are not forthcoming, the shaman may be suspected of sorcery, and punished for it. If the shaman declines to treat people, if the shaman is reluctant to work hard at healing, if too many patients die, the question arises: Is the shaman really a sorcerer? Is the shaman pursuing sorcery under the guise of healing?

The Amazonian shaman is thus, in the words of anthropologist Pierre Clastres, a person of “uncertain destiny” — a holder of prestige, but at the same time responsible in advance for the group’s sorrows, and held accountable for every extraordinary occurrence.

Every shaman, then, is in a precarious position. As anthropologist Steven Rubenstein reports among the Shuar, when the veteran shaman Tséremp would not — or could not — heal Chúmpi’s son, Chúmpi concluded that Tséremp was a killer — a conclusion that led finally to the murder of the shaman, described above. And when Alejandro Tsakimp, as a novice shaman, was asked to perform a healing, Tsakimp could not refuse; although he was terrified of failing, Rubenstein writes, he was more afraid of saying no.

Shawi mother and child

Similarly, among the Desana of the Upper Río Negro, a shaman will never propose to attempt to heal a sick person, lest the shaman be suspected of intending harm — indeed, will claim not to know what the illness is or how to cure it, even to the extent of letting the sick person die. If asked, however, the shaman cannot refuse, and then, after the curing session, will explain in some detail exactly what was done and used to heal the sickness — again, to protect against suspicions of sorcery in case the sickness gets worse. As shamans get older and their occasional therapeutic failures accumulate, they find themselves increasingly vulnerable to suspicions of no longer being willing to heal or of causing sicknesses themselves.

The same is true among the Shawi. Anthropologist Aldo Fuentes Chacón lived among the Shawi for years, married a Shawi woman, and wrote a classic ethnography about them, entitled Porque las piedras no mueran: Historia, sociedad, y ritos de los Chayahuita del Alto Amazonas, published in 1988. He commented on the recent killings: “In this area, epidemics occur due to lack of health care, and hundreds of children die each year. So people think that the deaths are caused by the revenge of shamans. They hold this ancestral belief that they have held for centuries.”

But note the converse. Accusations of sorcery become potent weapons in personal, political, and territorial disputes. If your enemy is also a shaman, that just makes the accusation more difficult to deny.

The CORPI Interviews
Mamerto Maicua Pérez

In February 2012, the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service — commonly known as ICEERS — sent a small team to Yurimaguas to investigate and make a photographic record of the killings and to see how the affected communities could be supported. In the course of this project, photographer Preyer Huamán Torres had the opportunity to speak with representatives of the Coordinadora Regional de Pueblos Indígenas, or CORPI, an organization whose function is to protect the rights of indigenous people, their territories, and their natural resources. According to the final report, compiled and written by medical anthropologist Rosario de Pribyl, what these representatives told Huamán — probably very much to his surprise — was that the people murdered had in fact very likely been sorcerers, and that they had gotten pretty much what they deserved. Mamerto Maicua Pérez, the current head of the organization, told Huamán:

We have to take into account the difference between shamans and sorcerers… Sorcerers are bad, harm people, people seem to die from nothing, fall ill unexpectedly in a moment. People know who they are and are afraid because they are powerful… And it is just this sort of person who is disappearing. In this area, executions of this sort are normal. It is the way things are resolved if someone in a family has cursed someone, and someone in that other family identifies him and kills him — if so the problem is over and normal life resumes.

Marcos Sánchez, former head of CORPI, agreed, saying that the execution of sorcerers is traditional in Balsapuerto villages.

In our villages people are dying every week, become sick quickly and die… Each time those sorcerers appear in the villages, one or two a year, they are seen and known, because people die for no reason, they are walking home and fall down in a faint… Rare incurable sicknesses appear, which had not been seen in the area. They go to the health post and they do not know what to do. Of course, the health post is also very limited, sometimes there are no doctors there. So the families of those harmed eradicate them, kill them.

And he added: “If you have a snake that comes into the village and bites people, you have to kill it. This is the same. Kill him and the problem is finished.”

A Shawi kitchen

Sánchez said that he had reviewed the records received by CORPI about the Balsapuerto killings, made his own observations, and corroborated information that had been gathered by others. On that basis, he said, it is without doubt true that those who were killed were in fact sorcerers. Indeed, Sánchez said that he had talked with Cecilia Pizango Chanchari, the daughter of Marcelino Pizango, one of the first victims to disappear. Pizango had been accused of being a sorcerer; the press had called him a healer. But his daughter had admitted to Sánchez that her father had in fact been a sorcerer — someone, she said, who “was in those dark places.”

The Theories

Indigenous activists have focused their blame for the killings on outsiders, foreign entities, strangers — evangelical missionaries, pharmaceutical multinationals, the timber and oil industries. Journalist Roger Rumrrill has blamed “the capitalist materialism of global cultural uniformity.”

Traditional clothing and huito-juice face painting

A significant part of this drive to global cultural uniformity, according to Rumrrill, are the evangelical missionaries who had converted mayor Alfredo Torres. Deputy Minister Vicente Otta, too, pointed to the accused mayor and his brother’s evangelical affiliations as a motive for the killings. “For these protestant sects,” Rumrrill wrote, “the shamans are people possessed by demons, so they have to be killed.” Rumrrill claimed that the mayor ordered the killings on hearing that the shamans planned to form an association to share their knowledge collectively. The mayor is an evangelist, Rumrrill said, “and when he learned that an association of healers was forming in Balsapuerto, this sparked his anger.”

Segundo Pizango Inuma, president of the Federación de las Comunidades Nativas Chayahuitas, poses the issue in terms of the ongoing conflict between indigenous wisdom and religion on the one hand, and, on the other, economic and political interests, primarily of multinational pharmaceutical companies. These companies, he believes, systematically kill shamans — with the collusion of the authorities, who “dislike shamans because of their power” — because “their plant recipes replace medications in the pharmacy.”

Alberto Pizango Chota

Alberto Pizango Chota, Peru’s top indigenous leader and president of the country’s most powerful indigenous organization, the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, and himself a Shawi shaman, blames cash and pressure from legal and illegal industries in the Amazon who poach natural resources from indigenous lands.”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. “What is happening now in my community is organized crime,” he said. “The bottom line here is that there’s a purpose… a political purpose.”

Pizango explained that Shawi tradition used to allow sorcerers to be killed by others in the community. Now, he said, a bad interpretation of that tradition has been used to cover up corruption and greed. “These industries get away with killing because they accuse their victims of being sorcerers. That was ancestral justice,” he said. “Now it is just organized crime.”

But it is not at all clear that there was a single plan behind all the killings. According to the list provided by the prosecutor’s office in Yurimaguas, the shamans were killed in different villages, their bodies were found in different places, and they were killed by different means — by shooting, by stabbing, by hacking with machetes. Nor was there necessarily a single motive. Although international outrage has focused on the killing of shamans, it is also true that some of those killed during this period were not shamans, and also that shamans have political and economic lives of their own.

Making masato

Indeed, when the murders were first reported, Deputy Minister Otta voiced suspicion that religion or tradition were mere cover for family and political disputes in the area, as well as political differences with Mayor Torres. He acknowledged that there are several possible explanations, including jealousy among shamans and land disputes. One of those killed was a former mayoral candidate; there was the attempted murder of activist Segundo Pizango, and the beating by unidentified persons of teacher Adán Cervantes, both of whom opposed the mayor’s administration.

Political alliances and enmities are complex in the Upper Amazon. During the first month of his administration, Torres began to keep at least one election promise — building a road from Balsapuerto to Yurimaguas. Together with apu Cecilia Pizango Chanchari — daughter of shaman Marcelino Pizango Lancha — and representatives of two indigenous activist organizations, Torres met with Alto Amazonas officials and agreed to allow a technical team from the regional government of Loreto into their territory, to begin surveying the route for the missing road section between Nuevo Arica and Balsapuerto. Less than a month later, Marcelino Pizango disappeared, accused of being a sorcerer. Was the murder of Marcelino Pizango somehow directed against his daughter? Was Cecilia Pizango an ally or a rival of Alfredo Torres? Or was the sorcery accusation based on something else entirely? Who else had Marcelino Pizango allegedly harmed?

Anthropologists Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern, in their book Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip, write that

the idiom of witchcraft or sorcery is used in all cases as a persuasive way of explaining sickness or death, relating these to the patterns of jealousy and distrust between people. It is always some misfortune that triggers accusations. Whether someone is a witch or not does not matter until people cast around for explanations of misfortune. When they have suffered some setback, people at once begin to generate or to tap into the mills of gossip. Sickness (physical or economic) in particular may set these mills rolling in the absence of other convincing explanations of it, or even in spite of them. The same human envies and jealousies feed into gossip generally and witchcraft accusations in particular.

Making traditional pottery designs

Thus, the various theories put forward to explain these killings themselves function essentially as accusations of sorcery. On the one hand, they accuse large, vague, foreign entities which have obscure or hidden motivations. On the other hand, they blame Alfredo Torres as the tool of these entities. He certainly was easy to accuse, and the larger world was quick to accuse him, perhaps because he seems to be something of a blowhard and a bully, or because of his position of authority — an attempt, in a situation of stress, when the unthinkable has happened, to single out that one person who can be blamed, the sorcerer who is responsible for the community disaster.

What these theories do not blame, I think, is what is actually found at Balsapuerto — disease, poverty, isolation, illiteracy, loss of cultural identity, a tradition of sorcery accusations, and a lack of access to justice.

The Shawi community in Balsapuerto has a shockingly high rate of maternal and infant death. The health posts are ill-equipped and understaffed. Sick people turn to the shamans for healing, and then — just like the children poisoned by barbasco in the Cachiyacu — they die.

Children had died uselessly from a disastrous contamination, a failure of both institutional health care and shamanic healing. There were pre-existing disputes over property and politics. Old scores, some long-standing, were waiting to be settled. Perhaps the election of Torres, with his platform explicitly attacking sorcerers, engaged the people’s anger and despair at the death of their children. In a deeply stressed community with a tradition of sorcery accusation and the killing of sorcerers, perhaps all it took was a trigger for all hell to break loose.

Balsapuerto (A) is on the Río Cachiyacu, and Yurimaguas is on the Río Huallaga, connected by the Río Paranapura; the dirt road heading west out of Yurimaguas, indicated by a yellow line, ends at Nuevo Arica. The white dashed line is the boundary between the regions of Loreto and San Martín. Route 8 connects Yurimaguas to Tarapoto, Moyobamba, Chachapoyas, and Cajamarca.
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8 Responses to “Fourteen Dead Shamans”

  1. Simon says:

    Thanks, Steve, for making this well documented summary of this issue. I was recently speaking with Dr Giove’s husband about this very issue and hes suggested that the difficulty is that, within Peru at least, the difficulty in examining the issue is the inherent personal danger for the investigator. As you point out, East of Yurimaguas law enforcement gets, shall we say, somewhat informal. My own experience in speaking with those who work in these regions [I recently had a meeting with a church employee who works 15 days by peke-peke upriver from Yurimaguas for example] leads me to feel that the perspective of Alberto Pizango Chota is perhaps closer to the mark than the religious persecution/rivalry angle, but I know very little other than it is a travesty and a tragic loss for our common human patrimony.

  2. Avi says:

    Leave it to an Evangelical Christian to see true spirituality and truth as a threat worthy of brutal murder.

  3. Marco says:

    Hi Steve,

    I was looking forward to this article, knowing how good a researcher you are, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is thorough and tight at the same time.

    I have never been to Peru and have no firsthand knowledge of the topic. Simply based on your coverage and the photographic material (I love looking at faces), I would say Mayor Torres is in on it. If I had to cast for a movie the perpetrator of what he is accused of, he would be fabulous in that part. Add a lot of circumstantial evidence, a killing rate too high to blame genuine sorcery revenge and a wealth of plausible motives — newly Christian zealotry, high bribability, political insecurity, even real fear of sorcery with more to lose than the average resident — as they used to say on NYPD Blue, I like him for it. As for the variety of time, place and m.o., he and his brother used different guys, each for a fistful of soles. That would have been the safest way. And yes, I suspect industry money, like several of the people quoted.

    Not trying to make light of this horror — just to sort out the info.

  4. ROBIN WRIGHT says:

    Steve:
    has this area been been affected at all by Sendero Luminoso or is it distant from their
    and/or other guerrilla activities ?

    • Steve Beyer says:

      I have seen nothing that would indicate that Sendero Luminoso was active in this area or implicated in the murders. Sendero Luminoso was active primarily in the coca-growing regions in the mountains, although apparently, between 2010 and 2012, remnants were still active as close to Balsapuerto as the coca-growing Upper Huallaga valley. As I recall, too, the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru was primarily an urban revolutionary group, and had pretty much disappeared long before the murders. I would be very interested if anyone has any information to the contrary.

  5. KnowAndThink says:

    Spirit of the rainforest, a book on amazon,
    tells a similar true story.
    Little known – a discovery worth your while, though.
    Don’t read it in the dark or at night! :-)

  6. K.J.B. says:

    Thank you Steve for publishing all your informative articles. I just returned from a four month journey in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. I am currently writing a book on sacred plant medicine applications. My purpose in travel was research for this book. In my last days in Bogota I met a man that had been kidnapped by a indigenous group who drug their hostages(using Ayahuasca and Yopo ) to keep the victims in a comatose state while bleeding them to death before removing their organs, which they then sell to government organizations in Brazil, Spain and the USA. This person is presently involved in a court case in Bogota with two families whoes sons are missing and allegedly, according to this source, were murdered for their organs by this or other affiliated groups. It was hard to denie this persons accusations in the level of passion that it was expressed. He also expressed that the remains of the victims were then ingested by the indigenous group, of which he had a photos of the human ribs and remains before they were cooked for consumption. He told me that all the governments were involved in this “organ stealing” and that they are doing everything in their power to shut him up. I was sceptical when hearing his story until he emailed me all the information he had in my pressence……and then I never received the mail! He told me the information has been published on Interpol. He also told me that several of the missing people were Americans and that he contacted the FBI and they do not respond. Have you heard or do you know anything about this?

    • Steve Beyer says:

      Stop and think about how unlikely this story is. These Indians, your friend says, kidnap people, drug them with substances that have mostly unknown effects on major body organs, starve the organs of oxygen, remove the organs without anesthesia using — what? machetes? — and then ship them in — what? baskets? — through miles of hot, humid, and very dirty jungle… to whom? Who could use such an organ? Even if it was possible for these indigenous people to kidnap someone, anesthetize him, and remove one of his organs with enough skill that it was viable for transplant, and then transport it to a place where it could be shipped via rapid air transport, they would still need a recipient, and the recipient needs to have a matching blood group, tissue group, and HLA-typing. How would these indigenous people determine all this in time for a donor to be found and the organ still be fresh enough to transplant? And how could they know that the person they’ve snatched is even a suitable donor, and not suffering from hepatitis, or nephritis, or cirrhosis, or HIV?

      Of course there is a market in human organs, but it is one that exploits the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable — cadaveric organ procurement without the consent of the bereaved relatives, say, or the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners, or even the sale of organs by the desperately impoverished. But that market requires the cooperation of hospitals and doctors and rapid air transport. On the other hand, the story you repeat, it seems to me, is another attack on indigenous people, who have enough untrue stories told about them already, and do not need there to be another excuse for governments to attack them as savages in need of control and supervision.


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