2 timber executives, 3 loggers charged with 2014 killings of anti-logging activists in Peru

Five men who worked in the timber industry in Peru have been charged with the 2014 murders of four indigenous activists who had battled illegal logging in the Amazon jungle.

Illegal logging and associated attacks are often overlooked by authorities

Ashaninka Indian men, identified by locals as illegal loggers, tie tree trunks together to move them along the Putaya River near the hamlet of Saweto, Peru, in September 2015. Ashaninka activist Edwin Chota, a vocal foe of illegal logging, and three other men were slain nearby in 2014. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

Five men who worked in the timber industry in Peru have been charged with the 2014 killings of four Indigenous activists who had battled illegal logging in the Amazon jungle.

Two timber executives and three loggers have been charged with the shooting deaths of the activists, prosecutor Otoniel Jara told The Associated Press Wednesday.

Environmentalists say the case is unprecedented in Peru, where years of illegal logging and, on occasion, suspected attacks by those carrying it out have often been met with an ineffectual response from authorities.

"We hope that the legacy of the victims of this massacre can lead to justice," said Tom Bewick, of Rainforest Foundation US, a group that funded efforts to bring the alleged killers to justice.

Bewick said he hoped the case will "set an example for other Indigenous environmental defenders across the world."

The Putaya River, in Peru's Ucayali department, where illegal logging is carried out. Environmentalists are calling the charges against the timber industry workers unprecedented. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

The Indigenous group's leader, Edwin Chota, along with Jorge Rios Perez, Leoncio Quinticima, and Francisco Pinedo, were found dead on Sept. 1, 2014.

Authorities say the men were killed by shotguns in the Upper Tamaya-Saweto Ashaninka Indigenous territory along Peru's border with Brazil.

The activists had defended the forests, travelling by canoe for three days to the regional capital city, Pucallpa, to file complaints and urge forestry officials to take action. They urged prosecutors to stop illegal logging, presenting photos and sketches they made of destruction they found.

Prosecutors say the five suspects could each face up to 35 years in jail if convicted. Timber executives Jose Estrada and Hugo Soria are accused of ordering the killings, which were allegedly carried out by loggers Eurico Mapes, Josimar Atachi and Segundo Atachi.

Former prosecutors abandoned the case

The Associated Press was not immediately able to reach the suspects or their attorneys for comment.

During the five-year investigation, the men have publicly denied the charges. They remain free and are believed to be living in the remote jungles of Peru.

Jara, the prosecutor, said prosecutors who were assigned to the case before him had abandoned it.

Jara said the three loggers had been in the area where the bodies were found, while the two businessmen had lost revenue after the Indigenous activists accused them of illegal logging.

On one occasion, Estrada, one of the timber executives, allegedly referred to Chota, telling witnesses: "I'll pay whatever... I want his head," according to documents filed by prosecutors.

The bodies of Chota and Quintisima were found, while those of Rios and Pinedo are still missing.

Global Witness, an organization that investigates corruption and environmental abuse, has said 164 environmentalists were killed worldwide in 2018. About half were killed in Latin American nations including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Guatemala.

Mauro Pio, an Indigenous environmental leader who sought to protect Peru's Amazon region, was shot dead in 2013. No suspects have been charged.

Relatives of the four Peruvian activists killed in 2014 say the jungle territory of their community remains vulnerable. But they welcomed the charges, hoping they signal a shift toward more robust protections for Indigenous groups.

"This is good," said Ashaninka Diana Rios, daughter of Jorge Rios, one of the slain activists. "This is not going to be filed away and forgotten."