A Religious Sect in the Amazon Has Ties to Deforestation and Drug Trafficking

La Mula
Amazon, Peru
A Religious Sect in the Amazon Has Ties to Deforestation and Drug Trafficking

A Peruvian religious organization is the protagonist of one of the largest migration, colonization and deforestation processes in Peru, as reported in previous reports.

The Israelites of the New Universal Pact are, in addition to being striking for their Biblical clothing, one of the religious groups linked to the destruction of the Amazon forest and drug trafficking. Its congregations have mobilized from the Peruvian coast and mountains to the country's borders with Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia, deforesting tens of thousands of hectares since the 1960s. Reports published in GK, La Mula, and other media report this extensive deforestation. In many of these territories, coca crops prosper to this day. Despite this, their involvement has not been proven beyond the role of simple coca growers. At least until now.

“Our lord and prophet Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal has asked us to come to these lands and wait for what has been announced. In dreams He speaks to us, He guides us. He was our strength when we first arrived. Because of him we stay to produce the land, waiting for the great famine that is about to come…” says Agustina, who lives in Islandia, capital of the Yavarí district, Mariscal Castilla province, in Loreto, the largest department in Peru.

With her hair hidden behind a veil, she wears a skirt that reaches her ankles, and as she speaks she fans herself to withstand the intense Amazonian heat. Born in Cusco, in the southern highlands of Peru, she watches the Yavarí River from the sidewalk of her house as it flows to meet the enormous Amazon. It's been almost 40 years since she started her journey to this border.

A woman from the Israelites of the New Universal Pact congregation on the border / Credit: Victoria Carlos. 

Agustina and hundreds of migrants who are part of the religious movement founded by Ataucusi in the 1950s followed their leader's mandate to prepare for the great drought and subsequent famine, which would mark the beginning of the end for the wicked. Before that time, it was necessary to isolate oneself from the world, in the jungle lands and especially in the border areas. The idea of settling on the borders also comes from Ataucusi's mandate to take "the word" to the four corners of the earth, that is, to take the movement beyond the country. For this reason, the movement has followers in several countries such as Colombia, where an active community has settled in Bogotá itself.

After a long process that began in the 1960s, the Israelites of the New Universal Pact, led by their prophet, began to occupy huge areas that went from being Amazonian forests to fields of cultivation and pastures. Once the land was depleted, they migrated to more isolated areas, leaving behind forestless and almost always unproductive lands.

In 1990, led by Ataucusi, the Israelites settled in Alto Monte de Israel, in the district of San Pablo, province of Mariscal Castilla. While we are traveling in a boat, Don Emilio, who migrated to Islandia 50 years ago, recalls that the Israelis began to arrive in 1996. He says that “whole families arrived in little boats. Since they didn't know how to navigate or swim, many of them sank, many of them have drowned here in the Yavarí.” However, those were temporary limitations. “A couple of years later, you would see them on boats, standing tall. We didn't felt pity for them anymore. They handled the boats well and had already gotten into all the businesses. Go, look at them now, they do not lack money. They have every business.”

Areas of deforestation marked in orange / Credit: Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network.

In Caballococha, Santa Rosa and Islandia (Peruvian towns in Loreto) and in Tabatinga, Benjamin Constant and Atalaia do Norte (Brazilian towns in Amazonas), Israelite migrants are no longer just people dressed as in Biblical times. They are prosperous merchants and haulers, they have hotels, shops, cattle ranches, restaurants, hardware stores and every business you can imagine on the border. There are entire streets full of their businesses. Their boats arrive at the ports loaded with plantains, cassava and other products from their enormous areas of cultivation.

Their prosperity stands out in a place where poverty is commonplace. Since the Loreto Regional Government, under the mandate of Iván Vásquez, currently convicted of corruption, among other crimes, awarded them the lands of Alto Monte in the 1990s, the Israelites' bonanza has only grown.

Satellite image from the triple border / Credit: Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network.

It is no secret that along the triple border between Peru, Brazil and Colombia, drug trafficking is an omnipresent and powerful activity, or that the Israelites have been linked to the planting of the coca leaf, as various Lima and regional media have reported.

What had not been revealed until now is that they play a role in the production chain. The detection of three airstrips in areas controlled by members of the religious organization, investigative work carried out by Carla Limas, a specialist in geographic information systems, is part of the evidence of their greater involvement in illicit drug trafficking.

Images from the Sentinel and Planet satellites used for this report, provided by the Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network, clearly show clandestine airstrips near Alto Monte de Israel, the spiritual capital of the Israelites, and in two other areas closer to the basin of the Yavarí River as can be seen on the map prepared by the specialist. The images included in this report are explicit regarding the existence of clues and their location.

Deforestation in the region / Credit: Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network.

“The evidence that we have found in all the places where there are clandestine airstrips is the presence of coca growing areas very close, at a maximum distance of 5 kilometers. Testimonies gathered from various sources indicate that there are airstrips and crops, the processing infrastructure, the coca laboratories, they are very, very close,” says Rubén Vargas, former minister of the interior, specialist in drug trafficking and organized crime and former director of the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (DEVIDA), an official agency of the Peruvian government in charge of designing and conducting the National Strategy to Fight Drugs.

However, traveling along the border and the Yavarí River, the tension between Israelites and Indigenous Peruvians and Brazilians, as well as government officials on both sides of the border, does not allow us to easily delve into an issue that is too dangerous. According to government officials from Peru and Brazil, speaking openly about drug traffickers in this area can cost you and your family your life.

DEVIDA officials who work in Mariscal Castilla and prefer to remain anonymous expressed surprise when we showed them our map with the airstrips. “We heard rumors of the existence of airstrips in the area, but we thought they were just rumors… that is, why airstrips if they have the entire Amazon River to mobilize? This surprises us, really.”

The Israelites arrived in the Yavarí basin between 1995 and 1996. Thus were formed the main settlements of the basin: Santa Teresa, Santa Teresa II, Pobre Alegre and Buen Suceso, all of them in the middle and lower part of the basin. Despite their attempts to colonize the basins of the Cayarú and Erené rivers, tributaries of the Yavarí on the Peruvian side, the native communities of Buen Jardín (from Ticuna people), Buena Vista (Urarina), Nuevo Jerusalén (Ticuna) and Paraíso del Erené (Ticuna) expelled them. However, the Israelites continued going up the Yavarí, approaching the territory of the Matsés people, far from the triple border, where they had settled 10 years earlier. The upper basin of the Yavarí has had Israelite settlements ever since.

Wood houses
Houses in Islandia, capital of the district of Yavarí. Peru is home to a large number of Israelites and also to many Brazilian families / Credit: Victoria Carlos. 

"We come from above, about two or three days by boat," says an Israelite congregant, in Spanish with a strong Andean accent, as she sells food in the port of Islandia. "I wasn't born here, but I feel like I belong here. My children are grown up now... we brought them here with my husband. He is dead now and my children are on the farm. There they produce as the prophet Ataucusi has taught us. My daughter no longer likes the farm and has preferred another life. She has gone to the coast... There is a lot of suffering in the city, here we are calm," she explains.

According to an official of the Economic Development Department of the Municipality of Yavarí, the Israelites are closed-minded: "They don't accept you if it's not convenient for them to talk to you, if they can't make a benefit from the relationship. Most of them are into coca. That's their real business. They are not sanctimonious as we think. When they catch someone, their shepherds come out and say that he is a lost sheep... and that's not true. Most of them are in the dirty business." Indeed, evidence from an earlier report clearly shows the persistent link between the main Israelite settlement and coca cultivation.

The official's strong words are based on concrete facts. The Israelites do not accept the presence of government officials, at any level, on their land and in their colonies. Health and education personnel, including the municipal officials interviewed, are not allowed to enter their settlements. Only the police, and almost by force, have entered their settlements to carry out coca eradication work.

A few months ago, officials from the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI) carried out a district census with the support of the town council; however, the young people in charge of the field work have been prohibited from commenting on any details of what they found.

The maps provided for this report show the extent of coca cultivation identified and eradicated by the Special Project for the Control and Reduction of Coca Cultivation in Alto Huallaga (CORAH). The total number of coca crops eradicated between 2014 and 2021 exceeds 23,000 hectares, of which at least 40% overlaps with land occupied by Israelites in the province of Mariscal Ramon Castilla, especially in Alto Monte de Israel. The persistence of the Israelite colonies in coca cultivation is also evident. The area has had continuous eradication for years and coca replanting has continued. Coca is a source of income that is almost impossible to match and difficult to replace.

"The Israelites don't want any foreigners to enter their area. They pay for their doctors, their teachers, and everything is controlled from Alto Monte de Israel. They control everything that happens in Yavarí from there," a municipal official points out emphatically.  Olver, a resident of one of the Yavarí colonies, corroborated this statement:

"We, with our faith, see our education that is not just anything, it is something according to the teachings of our teacher Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal. He has left teachings that are not given in schools. That is why we prepare our children and young people to serve the Lord and his word."

The Brazilian side

Manoel Chorimpa, a member of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja), a Brazilian Indigenous organization that represents the peoples of the YavarI basin on that side of the border, knows about the impact of the migration of the Israelites. According to him and other members of the Indigenous organization, the Israelites move into Brazilian territory to extract wood, hunt and fish, but also to recruit Indigenous youth to become laborers on the coca plantations. "They take the young people, they don't care how old they are, they want them to go for the crops," says one of the members of the organization.

an event
Institutional meeting with Indigenous leaders at Univaja in Atalaia do Norte / Credit: Victoria Carlos. 

An official from the office of the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI) in Atalaia do Norte, capital of the Brazilian Javari, relates how the Israelites settled in this small town. "About 10 years ago they began to settle here. At the beginning, they looked humble, with small, precarious houses. But in a short time they began to build big constructions, things impossible for the local farmers. Here the construction materials are expensive, you can't just build like that. Then they started to set up businesses, some of them big ones. A Brazilian farmer has been working for years and he barely builds his house. They arrived and in three or four years they already have big constructions. There is no explanation for this other than the drug business. These Israelites came from the middle part of Yavarí, from the Peruvian side, from the colonies that they have there and that we know are involved in the drug business... Now these families have Brazilian nationality, but they are of Peruvian origin. They buy large plots of land, they set up businesses, but we all know that the money comes from drugs... The only explanation we can have is that they are either directly involved in trafficking or in money laundering".

In fact, since 2012, Brazilian media reported on coca crops in the border area, indicating, according to police reports, that since 2007 it was known that members of the religious movement were the main suppliers of coca leaf and its derivatives to Brazilian traffickers. In the media, such as O Globo or A Critica, the Israelites indicate that they consider that the people involved in drug trafficking "are no longer Israelites" but are " stray sheep."  The discourse of the last 10 years regarding the relationship between drug trafficking and the religious movement has not changed.

State presence

Peru and Brazil share 2,822 kilometers of border. The Yavarí basin is an important part of this area, which is characterized by its dense Amazon jungle and difficult access. Unfortunately, this area has been subject to movements linked to various criminal activities. There is abundant information about criminal activities in the Yavarí, documented with the support of the Pulitzer Center. Illegal timber, coca and other crimes are present throughout the area.

In 2008, Peru signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Brazil and Colombia to combat illicit activities in border and common rivers by controlling river traffic of vessels suspected of being used to commit crimes and contraventions of international treaties.

wood house
Border Surveillance Police Post in Islandia, Peru / Credit: Victoria Carlos.  

Despite this, the remote location and lack of effective state control in the Yavarí basin have allowed criminal groups and drug trafficking organizations to operate in the region. Like all Amazonian borders in this part of the continent, the Yavarí basin is highly permeable, almost impossible to patrol continuously, with the limited resources available to law enforcement on both sides of the border.

The representative of the Anti-Drug Directorate of the Peruvian National Police (DIRANDRO) in Loreto, Colonel José Rengifo Reátegui, stated that their work does not focus on any type of religious organization, and they have intercepted people of different creeds and nationalities with heavy weapons and even war material. "Here in Loreto the scenario is mainly fluvial, so the coordination with the police forces of Colombia and Brazil is indispensable and continuous," he indicated.

One aspect that impacts the effectiveness of interdiction activities is the synergy with the Specialized Prosecutor's Office for Illicit Drug Trafficking, the support of the Armed Forces and logistics, the Achilles' heel of these operations. Despite this, during 2022, almost 13 tons of drugs were seized in Loreto, about 10% of the region's production.

Colonel José Rengifo Reátegui / Credit: Victoria Carlos. 

Police officers consulted at the Santa Rosa and Islandia posts insist that they do not have the resources to carry out any kind of patrolling. However, the facts linking police officers to illicit drug trafficking reflect the fragility of Peru's state surveillance.

In addition to drug trafficking, illegal mining, indiscriminate logging, illegal hunting and arms trafficking have also been reported in the area. These illegal activities have negative impacts on the environment, security and quality of life of local communities.

Peruvian and Brazilian authorities have carried out joint operations to combat drug trafficking and other illegal activities in the region. These efforts include patrols, eradication of coca crops, drug seizures and arrests of individuals involved in illicit trafficking. But as described, these efforts are insufficient.

Some findings made in this report are undeniable. Repeated cultivation despite eradication, a huge state exclusion zone, the presence of airstrips and the participation of members of the religious movement in drug transport actions. Surely, something else is hidden behind the robes of the Israelites of the New Universal Pact in Yavarí.

Read the original Spanish-language story here.

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Mula on August 8, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A map of the area / Credit: Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network.

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