British Columbia·In Depth

Peruvian lynching death underscores risk of journeys into the jungle — and the mind

The lynching of a Canadian in a Peruvian jungle town highlights the dangers associated the unregulated growth of the ayahuasca healing industry.

The promise of enlightenment can turn tourists into targets for unregulated ayahuasca industry

This Wanted poster circulated in the hours before Canadian Sebastian Woodroffe was lynched in the tiny community of Victoria Gracia. (

The poster started making the rounds after the old woman's death.

"Se Busca." Wanted.

Sebastian Woodroffe's name was spelled incorrectly, but the pictures clearly identified the 41-year-old Canadian as the man Olivia Arevalo's son was looking for in connection with her murder.

In a tiny village in the Peruvian jungle, where anger and grief ran high in the wake of the death of Arevalo, a highly respected elder, did the public announcement amount to a death sentence for Woodroffe?

Peruvian healer Olivia Arevalo Lomas was killed by an unknown assailant. Sebastian Woodroffe was targeted after a poster alleged his involvement. (Temple of the Way of Light/YouTube)

Indeed, Woodroffe was lynched by a crowd in the hours that followed.

The poster — which circulated on Facebook — offered a reward for information and a phone number. No one has answered repeated calls to that number from CBC News.

In the days since Woodroffe's killing, the questions surrounding his death have only intensified.

Right place, right people

Described as a gentle soul, Woodroffe was in South America pursuing a path of enlightenment and a dream of working as a healer through the use of ayahuasca.

The Amazonian plant medicine induces visions and is believed by many to be a means of treating emotional and physical trauma as well as addiction. But it's not for everybody.

Dr. Gabor Maté is an author and retired doctor who has worked with ayahuasca. He says its use requires support and possible counselling. (Gabor Mate)

Woodroffe's death highlights the dangers associated with a burgeoning industry of ayahuasca seekers invading a desperately poor region with little understanding of potential problems.

"You really have to go to the right place and work with the right people," says Dr. Gabor Maté, an author and retired physician with an expertise in addiction treatment.

"In the ayahuasca world, like in any world, there are practitioners with integrity and practitioners who may be very powerful healers, but for whom Westerners are a source of income and sometimes even sexual exploitation."

Maté says he has worked with ayahuasca for the past 10 years and has seen powerful transformations in the lives of people overcoming trauma, addiction and anxiety.

But he says it is not to be taken lightly. Anyone using it needs support, counselling and help coping with after-effects.

'Predatory shamans'

The tragedy has sparked an outpouring on social media from people in the ayahuasca community looking for answers to a mystery compounded by distance and confusion.

The elderly shaman was revered. But people posting comments have warned against a rush to pin her death on Woodroffe.

Police and residents cited in Peruvian news reports have said tensions had risen in previous months between the Vancouver Island man and Arevalo's son, because the Peruvian allegedly owed Woodroffe about $5,000.

Tests are expected to determine if the Canadian fired a weapon before he died, or if he was intoxicated.

Police have also said that two men sought for arrest in the case appear to have fled the area.

Sebastian Woodroffe was killed in Peru after he was accused by villagers in connection with the death of a revered shaman. (Sebastian Woodroffe/CBC)

One Peruvian business owner contacted by CBC said he hopes the tragedy might provide a catalyst to improve safety for tourists who are the targets of growing rates of theft and assault.

Last year, New York Magazine's The Cut looked into stories of sexual abuse connected to ayahuasca tourism. An anthropologist described the actions of "predatory shamans" who abuse the trust of women who treat them like gods. 

Toronto-based journalist and author Guy Crittenden wrote a book about his own ayahuasca use called The Year of Drinking Magic. 

He says travellers need to know what they're getting into: experiences can range from supported treatments in four star lodges to getting high with one shaman in an outback hut.

Crittenden started a GoFundMe page for Woodroffe's family after hearing about his death.

'What is a shaman?'

Ingeborg Oswald knows what awaits Woodroffe's relatives.

The California woman travelled to Peru to seek answers after her 18-year-old son died during an ayahuasca session in a remote corner of the jungle in 2012.

A healer measures a dose of ayahuasca in preparation for a healing ceremony. People travel from around the world to experience the effects of the Amazonian plant. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images)

Kyle Nolan was initially reported missing.

But it later emerged that a panicked shaman and two other men buried his body. The shaman was eventually jailed for homicide and lying to authorities.

"What is a shaman?" she asks. "They're out in the middle of the jungle. My son was left totally alone. No one to watch him. Out in the jungle in this little hut and they just left him there."

Oswald says people who are interested in ayahuasca can find therapists and psychologists to help them. But a trip to the jungle — not to mention a journey into the depths of your own mind — is fraught with risk.

"It's completely unregulated. It's just the wild wild west down there," she says. 

"It's people setting up these potential therapeutic centres where you can heal yourself, and you don't don't know what you're getting into. You really don't. I don't encourage anyone to go down there and experience that."