Breu, Peru – Guiding his canoe along a jungle-covered river, Fernando Aroni steered toward the water’s edge, switched off the outboard engine, and climbed a muddy embankment to reach a police outpost almost swallowed up by the forest.
Inside, dead bats littered the broken floorboards, and a sign on the wall bearing the coat of arms of Peru, emblazoned with the words “God, Country, and Law,” blistered and peeled off. The outpost is located on the 38th border, a remote stretch of the Amazon rainforest that demarcates Peru’s border with Brazil.
“This checkpoint has been abandoned for more than 10 years. Aroni, the 41-year-old leader of Santa Rosa, an indigenous Amahuaca village whose territory borders this wild border, said smugglers are taking advantage. “We were forgotten by the Peruvian authorities.”
Along the unspoiled edge of Peru’s Ucayali region, the cultivation of coca – the raw material in cocaine – is on the rise. A widespread drug trade, once concentrated in the folds of the Andes, has spread down this area of lowland jungle, threatening the reserves of some of the world’s most isolated tribes.
Drug experts and indigenous communities blame weak state security, whose absence along the border has created “a door wide open” for the growing drug trade.
The Amahuacas are no strangers to state abandonment. They enjoyed few resources in their efforts to survive disease, poverty and territorial conflict, as missionaries and industries such as rubber and logging were pushed into their territory.
Today, as the drug trade spills over this isolated border, the Amahuaca people – along with thousands of other distant Indigenous peoples – are once again subject to invasion.
A spike in coca cultivation
Peru’s carefully crafted global image as a copper producer, emerging cuisine, and cradle of ancient Inca culture conceals a darker reality: The Andean nation is also a prolific coca grower and cocaine producerjust pass Colombia.
From 2021 to 2022, the area under coca cultivation will increase by 18%, reaching record highAccording to recent state data.
Cocaine production has continuously expanded from Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro . river valleysor VRAEM, to the remote forests of Ucayali, where coca acreage has skyrocketed 466% in just five years, according to Peru’s anti-narcotics authorities.
Frank Casas, an expert on Peru’s drug trade, said: “Ucayali has practically wide borders and a strategic location. “Over the past three years, the region has become a highly productive area, not only in terms of coca, but also in terms of cocaine production and commercialization in the international market.”
Much of that production now takes place in Indigenous territory. Last year, nearly 14,000 hectares (34,595 acres) of coca – an area twice the size of Manhattan – were planted on the land of 295 indigenous communities, according to Peru’s anti-drug commission DEVIDA.
The town of Breu is among the affected areas. Cut off from the rest of Peru, with no roads, only river transport, the ramshackle border town has become a transit point along the cocaine trade route.
Smugglers transport products from the upper Ucayali River to Brazil and Bolivia via Breu, where small quantities of raw cocaine are sold to indigenous children who often gather behind local markets to smoke.
Among those struggling with addiction is Fernando Aroni’s 15-year-old son, who started smoking cocaine at the age of 11.
“Children as young as six are becoming addicts. As a leader, as a father, it is my duty to speak out,” said Aroni, who moved his children to Breu to go to school.
His appeals to the regional government were met with death threats. Aroni said that strangers went to the local indigenous federation office where he worked, telling a colleague if he didn’t keep quiet, they would come back to kill him.
“In Peru, when you repel these mafias, you put your life in danger. But I won’t stop. If someone has to die, that’s the way it is. But our children must be protected,” said Aroni.
As the drug trade crept through Ucayali, dozens of indigenous villagers described the growing presence of colonos, or non-native settlers, scouting the territory to expand coca cultivation along the border.
The conversion of coca leaves into cocaine powder, a process that requires kerosene and other toxic chemicals, is also taking place on native land.
Unlike in VRAEM and other coca growing regions, there were very few eradication efforts along this remote border area, allowing criminal networks to proliferate, experts told Al Jazeera.
“These Amazon borders are very vulnerable and are currently being compromised. Casas said wide exit points and a limited country are attracting organized crime from Brazil.
At least two strong people Brazilian criminal organization currently operates within Peruvian territory, overseeing the production and transportation of cocaine, often by light aircraft.
Indigenous villagers in remote communities in the area regularly report seeing small planes flying late at night and flying low to the ground to avoid radar detection. Since 2022, Ucayali’s regional forestry service has identified 63 runways hidden in the forest that are believed to be used for drug trafficking.
The ‘regular’ presence of smugglers
In the remote border village of Oori, several ethnic Asheninka families displaced after decades of armed conflict and drug-related violence have forged a life of self-sufficiency since the early 2000s. But over the past three years, their sense of security has been shattered.
Over a meal of grilled turtle porridge and bananas, Oori’s leader, Edwin Perez, described the “constant” presence of smugglers along his territory. He said they are not only trying to recruit young people in the village to transport drugs, but also ask to rent Oori’s land to transport coca.
“We came here to secure a future for our children, knowing nothing about drugs,” Perez said. “Having experienced violence, I can tell you, we must be prepared because evil always finds its way.”
Oori lies on the edge of the Murunahua Indigenous Reserve, a 4,662 square kilometers (1,800 sq mi) reserve inhabited by semi-nomadic tribes that live isolated from Peruvian society. Along the reserve’s perimeter, illegal coca trees and airstrips are encroaching, and smugglers are now infiltrating the reserve to transport drugs to Brazil.
“Drug traffickers are not afraid. “They entered the reserve armed and we know they shot and violently attacked the people they met along the way,” said Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist who studies Peru’s remote and isolated tribes. “We have evidence of massacres against isolated people in the Murunahua reserve.”
Huertas refers to the Chitonahua people, who clashed with loggers inside the Murunahua reserve in the 1990s, followed by the spread of deadly respiratory diseases that wiped out nearly half of their population. While a group of Chitonahuas still live in isolation on the reserve, most today live as refugees along the banks of the Yurua River.
As drug traffickers continue to invade protected indigenous areas, Huertas fears a similar fate for the estimated 7,000 tribal people still living in isolation in the Peruvian Amazon.
Despite the growing threats to the Murunahua reserve, the Chitonahua leader, Jorge Sandoval, dreams of one day returning to his distant home territory. But he has been warned that, after decades of exposure to the outside world, his own presence could spark conflict and spread disease to his vulnerable loved ones still in isolation.
“I was born in a reserve, along the upper reaches of the Yurua River. We were all born there. My father and grandfather are buried there. That is our home. We want to come back,” said Sandoval.