Brutal murders in Peru put spotlight on tourism boom linked to hallucinogenic brew
The murders of a traditional healer and her Canadian alleged killer come amid intense interest in the West about ayahuasca and its shamanistic uses
All traces of blood have been scratched from the dirt under the palm tree outside Olivia Arévalo’s clapboard home in a remote hamlet in the Peruvian Amazon. A week later, it is as if the villagers want to rub out all signs of the shocking outbreak of violence that erupted here.
Arévalo, a traditional healer, was shot twice under a midday sun on April 19. Witnesses say she collapsed to the ground, gasping: “They’ve killed me! They’ve killed me!” as her daughter Virginia ran to cradle her dying mother’s head.
Within minutes, anguish spilled into uncontrollable rage: Arévalo’s neighbours seized and lynched the alleged perpetrator, a Canadian man named Sebastian Woodroffe who had travelled to the region to learn about indigenous medicine.
The horrific double murder has cast a harsh spotlight on the unregulated world of ayahuasca tourism. Ayahuasca, a plant brew that contains the hallucinogenic drug dimelthytryptamine (DMT), has attracted to Peru thousands of western tourists seeking to cure everything from spiritual anomie to drug addiction through traditional shamanic ceremonies.
The boom has brought a welcome income for some of Peru’s most marginalised communities, but it has also been implicated in a number of deaths – and provoked accusations of cultural appropriation and profiteering.
Arévalo, 81, was considered the spiritual mother of the Shipibo-Konibo, Peru’s second largest indigenous Amazon tribe, known for its rich artistic tradition based on a cosmovision inspired by the shamanistic use of ayahuasca.
In the village of Victoria Gracia, Arévalo was known as Iyoshan, or grandmother – a term of affection and respect for the woman considered a walking encyclopaedia by the 40,000-strong indigenous group.
An hour’s ride in a motorised rickshaw from the regional capital Pucallpa, along dirt tracks and rickety wooden bridges, the village now hovers between a tense calm and simmering indignation.
“Do you think a police officer has ever come to this remote place before? Never!” spits out Becky Linares in the village’s tree-shaded plaza. “But when this Canadian died this place was full of them.”
“There had to be a death for this happen, but it was not because of the grandmother who was murdered, but because of the gringo,” she said to a burst of applause and cheers of agreement.
Canada has warned against all non-essential travel to Peru following the killing of Woodroffe, 41. Graphic cameraphone footage of what were probably his final moments was posted online soon after his death, and appeared to show him appealing for mercy as a crowd, including several children, surrounded him.
A judge has ordered the capture of two men identified in the video. José Ramírez, the community’s leader, and another villager, Nicolás Mori, could face between 15 years to 35 years for aggravated murder. Both have gone into hiding under the protection of Shipibo-Konibo communities deeper in the jungle.
Villagers claim that before the murders they had taken Woodroffe to the police station on three occasions after he showed up at the village acting strangely, apparently under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“He never spoke, he never explained what he was doing here,” said Miluska González, a village leader. “All he would do was open a can of beer and start drinking,”
Woodroffe, from Courtenay in British Columbia, had lived in Peru on and off for about five years. In a posting on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, he said he was seeking to treat addiction by learning about traditional medicine. Woodroffe’s family declined to comment when approached by the Canadian Press.
It remains unclear what role – if any – ayahuasca may have played in the double murder but the impact has prompted the Shipibo-Konibo’s principal leader, Ronald Suárez, to call for its use to be controlled.
“We believe [ayahuasca] is an opportunity for our indigenous brothers because it generates an income, but after what happened it should be regulated,” Suárez told The Guardian.
Ayahuasca is legal in Peru but Suárez, the president of the Shipibo-Konibo and Xetebo Council, argues that foreign visitors training to be shamans are committing a kind of cultural theft. He is pushing for a parliamentary bill to see it regulated by the country’s Institute of Traditional Medicine.
He never spoke, never explained what he was doing here. All he would do was open a can of beer and start drinking Miluska González, village leader
Many come away from ayahuasca jungle retreats having had enlightening or life-changing experiences.
Ayahuasca has been used successfully to treat PTSD and drug addictions, but there is a darker side. Charlatans pretending to be traditional healers have used ceremonies to sexually assault women.
It has been implicated in several deaths: in 2015, another Canadian, Joshua Stevens said he was forced to kill a Briton, Unais Gomes, in self-defence after he attacked him with a knife while taking ayahuasca.
Woodroffe initially made contact with Arévalo as she was one of the Shipibo-Konibo’s most respected and powerful onanyas, or plant medicine healers.
But prosecutors in Ucayali province say the probable motive for the murder was that Arévalo’s son Julían allegedly owed him about 14,000 Peruvian soles (US$4,324).
Two days after the murders, police found Woodroffe’s body in a shallow grave. On Thursday, they discovered the suspected murder weapon: a silver-coloured Taurus .380 semi-automatic pistol. Wrapped in a plastic bag, it had been dumped close to the cemetery in San Pablo de Tushmo, where Arévalo was buried on Sunday. Woodroffe’s dismantled motorcycle was found nearby, prosecutors told The Guardian.
Woodroffe had bought the weapon from a police officer on April 3, a fortnight before Arévalo was murdered. The gun sale was legal but Woodroffe was not licensed to own the weapon.
The chief prosecutor in Ucayali province told the country’s RPP radio Monday that forensic experts had found traces of gunpowder on clothes worn by Woodroffe.
Prosecutor Ricardo Jimenez said that the powder, witness accounts and gun purchase records make it “very likely” that Woodroffe shot the indigenous woman.
Back in Victoria Gracia, women dressed in pastel blouses with skirts decorated in the distinctive geometric style known as Kené sat around a huge cooking pot as smoke drifted up through the tree branches.
After the shock of the murders, people are starting to open up.
Hilario Díaz was teaching in the village school when he heard three shots ring out. He told the children to stay put and ran to see what had happened.
“I saw the grandmother lying in a puddle of blood and – I reacted like any human being – I slapped [Woodroffe], but seeing that the mob were taking it further I took a motorcycle and went to look for the police,” he said.
“I’m not in favour of how he died,” he said. “But he who kills has to die, that’s the Indian law.”
Adding insults to the villagers’s raw grief, local MP Carlos Tubino called them “savages” in a tweet blaming the deaths on local shamans who turned ayahuasca “into a business with foreigners”.
He later apologised. But for the villagers, Tubino’s words betrayed the underlying racism of Peruvian society and a question over their future: can they make money from ayahuasca tourism without putting their culture at risk?
“You journalists are not here because of crime against a poor, defenceless old woman,” Becky Linares told reporters in Victoria Gracia. “That’s the saddest part. That’s why we’re still full of rage.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press