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  • Editors' Opinion
  • Murder of the indigenous healer Olivia Arevalo and lynching of Canadian citizen Sebastian Woodroffe
Olivia Arevalo, a highly respected traditional healer and indigenous rights activists, was killed and Sebastian Woodroffe, a Canadian blamed for the murder, lynched by an angry mob; photo: andina

Murder of the indigenous healer Olivia Arevalo and lynching of Canadian citizen Sebastian Woodroffe

A critical view into the events that happened last week near Pucallpa in the Peruvian Amazon rain forest

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Sunflower - Last Update: May 03, 2018

Last Thursday Olivia Arevalo, 81-year-old indigenous healer, spiritual leader and wise woman of the Amazonian indigenous Shipibo-Konibo community was shot dead in front of her house in the intercultural community “Victoria, Garcia” in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon rain forest near Pucallpa by an unknown person.

Later a video emerged on social media showing Canadian citizen Sebastian Woodroffe muddy, bloody and crying on the ground. While a group of people from the Shipibo-Konibo community, including two children, watch, a rope or plastic hose is placed around Woodroffe’s neck and he is dragged along the ground until he falls silent and goes limb.

He is dead. He was lynched and later found buried in a shallow grave because some of the indigenous villagers accused the Canadian of murdering Olivia Arevalo.

Olivia Arevalo was a fierce defender of the cultural rights of the Shipibo Konibo people and an environmental activist. Like many other indigenous rights activists who try to protect not only the traditions and knowledge of their ethnic group in Peru, but also their ancestral lands from oil and gas exploitation, (illegal) land trafficking, (illegal) logging and (illegal) mining, Arevalo as well was repeatedly threatened with violence and even death. There are additionally a number of unsolved murders of indigenous activists in Peru. So, the list of possible suspects might be long.

However, some family and community members immediately accused the Canadian of killing their beloved sister and, not trusting the Peruvian police as many crimes against them go unpunished, went on a manhunt after putting wanted posters all over the area with the help of a local NGO.

Even though there have been eye witnesses of the killing of Olivia Arevalo, under these circumstances identifying the murderer 100% is difficult and rumors and different versions of what happened and why spread like a wildfire.

Initial reports stated that two or three men on a motorbike arrived at Arevalo’s house on Thursday around noon, one jumped of, shot the wise woman 5 times in the chest and then disappeared; others say she was murdered during a healing session. Members of the family and community told police that Woodroffe was violent and threatened the healer numerous times, because her son owed him money.

Other sources reported the story a little bit differently. He had loaned money to one of Arevalo’s family members and not only never saw it back, but got belongings including his passport stolen and went back several times to get his stuff back but was already then beaten and run out of the village. At one point he presumably bought a weapon and snapped. Where the truth lies, might never be completely determined.

The 41-year old Canadian from Vancouver Island, who is the father of a 9-year old son, came to Peru not for the first time to learn more about medicinal plants of the Amazon rainforest and the usage and healing properties of a wide range of traditional plant medicines. He is said to have been an unstable person looking for ways to live a spiritual life. Some say he was a patient / client of Olivia Arevalo, others that he was or sought to be her apprentice. He rose money to travel to Peru using the crowdfunding website Indiegogo to study plant medicine and return with this new knowledge back home to help drug addicts.

Yarrow Willard, a friend of Woodroffe, told CBC that even though Woodroffe came back from a previous South America trip where he tried ayahuasca, troubled, he feared his friend was a scapegoat and expressed disbelief that Woodroffe could commit the murder. "He is a little bit of a, I'll call it a s--- disturber. One of these people who likes to poke, and likes to test the boundaries of people's beliefs, but is very much a gentle person underneath all that,” Willard said about Woodroffe. “This man has never had a gun or talked about anything along that line."

While countless Peruvian officials, indigenous activists and many Peruvians and foreigners in general condemn the murder of the indigenous elder, and rightly so, when it comes to Sebastian Woodroffe the lynching is often justified or dismissed with empty phrases.

The leader of the Shipibo-Konibo community Ronald Suarez for example simply said that the men responsible for the lynching acted in a mad rush and resorted to traditional justice. Peruvian Congress held a minute of silence honoring Arevalo, but otherwise just stated that they are in contact with the responsible authorities to get the facts straight as soon as possible. Peruvian officials however backed away from earlier statements that Woodroffe was the main suspect, but only commented further that they won’t rest until both murders are solved.

At least the Peruvian human rights Ombudsman’s office expressed "a complete rejection of the lynching and murder of the alleged perpetrator of the murder of indigenous leader Oliva Arévalo".

And even the Canadians extended their deepest condolences of the assassination of Olivia Arevalo, but only stated that they are aware that a Canadian was killed in a related incident. Even though neither the progression of events nor a possible motive are clear at this point, the Canadian is already pre-judged by many. On social media you can read quite often sentences like “He went ballistic and killed her”, “I’m sure, he did it” or “He deserved it”. Wow, really? It seems the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t exists anymore.

Additional, as far as I’m aware Peru abolished the death penalty already in 1979 (except for treason in times of war) and people usually don’t resort to brutal lynchings. Yes, Peruvian police surely isn’t the quickest or the most conscientious or the most efficient and unfortunately highly corrupt with a low detection rate especially where indigenous people are involved. But right now it is still not proven that Sebastian Woodroffe murdered the traditional healer; and even if he did, does this justify his barbaric lynching?

This violent and cruel practice should be condemned by every community and everyone living in the 21th century. Ronald Suarez said that the Shipibo-Konibo people are a peaceful community living in harmony with nature; but still some of them brutally killed another human being without proof of his guilt, filmed the lynching and published it on social media for everyone to see. This is hard to digest. Let’s hope they didn’t kill an innocent man.

Let’s further hope that the Peruvian investigators solve both crimes and the people responsible are brought to justice, 21st century justice with evidence, a trail and a sentence.

Update on the Arévalo murder / Woodroffe lynching May 3, 2018

The Public Ministry of Ucayali today confirmed that the Canadian citizen Sebastian Woodroffe shot Olivia Arévalo on April 19, 2018.

According to the head of the prosecutor’s office of Ucayali, Ricardo Jiménez, all the evidence indicates that Woodroffe was the shooter; gunshot residue was found on his clothes and bullet casings that were found next to the body belong to a Taurus 38 handgun, the same make and model which the Canadian bought at the beginning of April from a local policeman.

His motive however remains a mystery.

On the other hand, arrest warrants were issued for the two men, José Ramírez and Nicolás Mori, that allegedly lynched Woodroffe. They are on the run and a reward for information leading to their arrest is offered.

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