“We’re looking for you, dead or alive,” is one of the daily threats that Herlín Odicio receives on his mobile phone.
The leader of the indigenous Cacataibo people in Peru’s central Amazon has been forced into hiding for standing up to drug traffickers trying to steal his land. “We’ve reported coca plantations on our land so many times and nothing has been done,” Odicio said.
He said the threats against his life spiralled after he turned down an offer of 500,000 Peruvian soles (£96,500) for every drug flight leaving from a secret airstrip on his territory. “They’re coming after me,” he said by phone from a secret location in Peru. “I can’t walk freely in my community. [The narcos] are looking for me.”
Indigenous communities in Peru’s central Amazon are experiencing an increase in violence, threats and harassment as drug gangs target their land to grow coca, the plant used to make cocaine. Covid-19 restrictions have made the remote region even more vulnerable by slowing state efforts to protect land and eradicate illegal coca cultivation.
This boom in coca-growing – Peru is the world’s second biggest producer of cocaine after Colombia, according to the UN – has come at the cost of indigenous lives. In February, two Cacataibo leaders, 30-year-old Yénser Ríos and 28-year-old Herasmo García, were found shot dead 12 days apart in the Padre Abad province of Ucayali, an area riddled with coca plantations and clandestine airstrips for transporting cocaine into Bolivia.
The head of police criminal investigations in Peru, General Vicente Tiburcio, said police were investigating if the men’s deaths were revenge killings by coca-growers. Tiburcio said Ríos had been responsible for patrolling his community’s territory and was known to have taken part in coca eradication.
In April 2020, Arbildo Meléndez, a leader from the same Cacataibo indigenous group, was shot dead near the village of Unipacuyacu. He had reported the presence of drug gangs and secret airstrips to the authorities, and had asked the Inter-American commission on human rights to demand the Peruvian state protect him.
These men are three of the seven Amazonians in Peru killed during the pandemic as land grabbers exploit the crisis to seize land to grow coca, as well as for logging and cash crops such as palm oil.
The most recent victim is Estela Casanto, 55, an indigenous Asháninka, who was found dead on 12 March. “Her family found bloodstains in her bed,” said Teddy Sinacay, president of Ceconsec, an organisation of 120 Asháninka communities in Peru’s central Amazon. “She had been beaten, dragged from her house. They took her about 40 metres and threw her in a gully. They then dragged her further, hitting her on the head with a stone.”
Police are still investigating the circumstances, but her death provides yet more evidence of the precariousness of indigenous land claims, and the often deadly consequences of trying to assert them.
Indigenous Amazonians say police and prosecutors are failing to follow up their warnings, and are allowing killers to operate with impunity. In total, nine environmental campaigners have been killed in Peru since the start of the pandemic, but there has been no murder conviction in any case.
Meléndez’s alleged killer was arrested but released on bail on a manslaughter charge after judges and prosecutors accepted his plea that his gun had gone off by accident.
“For the state, we don’t exist,” said Berlín Diques, a native leader in Ucayali. “We are constantly harassed and threatened,” he said.
“We’ve lost trust in the prosecutor’s office and the police,” said Odicio, who received police protection for a few days last year but now has none.
Álvaro Másquez, a lawyer specialising in indigenous rights at Lima’s Legal Defence Institute, said the scales are tipped in favour of outsiders seeking to buy land in indigenous territories. For the ancestral inhabitants, however, acquiring a land title can take decades.
“It’s common practice for drug traffickers, land traffickers and illegal loggers to end up bribing the officials who authorise forestry or agricultural concessions and land titles,” said Másquez.
At the same time, “structural racism in the judiciary and prosecutor’s office” means impunity is the norm for land grabbers, he said.
The territorial insecurity of indigenous people has made them easy targets for drug traffickers who use “established organised crime networks” to exploit their weakness, said Vladimir Pinto from Amazon Watch, which works to protect the rainforest and indigenous people’s rights.
As coronavirus restrictions ease in Peru, coca eradication – which dropped from an average of 25,000 hectares (61,000 acres) of coca a year pre-pandemic to about 6,000 hectares in 2020 – has just resumed in Cacataibo indigenous territory.
This worries Diques, who expects there will be reprisals by drug gangs. “The cannon fodder will be us indigenous [people],” he said. “The authorities leave and we will be blamed. We don’t want to cry over more deaths.”
“Egypt is in a difficult state right now,” he wrote before leaving for Cairo, in messages shared with the Guardian by his friend. “The dictatorship is back and until recently it wasn’t clear how brutal it was going to become. It seems that it’s ‘stabilising’ now … this state of affairs is very precarious.”
Regeni is unusual because he was a foreigner, an Italian PhD student at Girton College who moved to Cairo in September 2015 to work on a development studies thesis about independent trade unions.
It was a touchy subject in a country that had seen a huge rise in worker representation during the Arab spring, which swept Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, to power in 2012.
Twelve months later, Morsi was toppled in a coup that eventually installed the former general, Sisi, as the country’s leader, in a return to military rule.
Regeni, who had previously studied Arabic and politics at Leeds University, decided to research his thesis in Cairo from September 2015 to March 2016, with a two-week break at home with his family for Christmas in Fiumicello, north-east Italy.
In October, a month after his arrival, he described trade unions as “the only remaining force in civil society”.
He concentrated on the street vendors, of whom there were about 6 million, who had set up a union to combat government crackdowns. Regeni said the situation in Cairo was “depressing, but not manic like 2013”.
“This doesn’t feel like it’s going to be another 30 years,” he added, in reference to the length of rule of the previous army leader, Hosni Mubarak.
But things took a worrying turn when, at a meeting of union activists, Regeni spotted a veiled young woman taking his picture on her phone, which made him fear he was under surveillance.
He was also getting irritated by vendors hassling him for mobile phones and the head of their union asking for money for family medical bills. When the student said he could not help, Mohamed Abdallah reported him to police, later claiming he thought he was a spy.
In one of his last Facebook messages, Regeni asked for help with his English in a paper he had written.
Five days later he was snatched off the street on his way to an evening out.
Nine days after that his body was found, dumped on the side of the Cairo-Alexandria highway. He had been tortured; beaten, burned and stabbed before his neck was broken after he was struck from behind with a heavy, blunt object.
His injuries were so severe that when his mother, Paola, saw his body she could only recognise him from the “tip of his nose”.
What followed was an apparent cover-up by the authorities. President Sisi, in an interview with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, vowed to track down the culprits. Instead it was then claimed there had been a robbery by a gang, all now dead.
In large part due to eyewitnesses coming forward to say they saw Regeni being interrogated at the National Security Agency headquarters, an Italian judge last month said the four senior Egyptian security officials should stand trial. Gen Tariq Sabir, Col Usham Helmi, Col Athar Kamel Mohamed Ibrahim and Maj Magdi Ibrahim Abdelal Sharif face charges of aggravated kidnapping. Sharif is also being accused of conspiracy to commit murder.
Egypt has closed the case and refuses to extradite the suspects to Italy, so the trial will go ahead without them.
Johannes Svensson shared a flat in Cairo with Regeni while he was working for a UN agency in 2013, at the time Morsi was overthrown.
“He was interested in how this group of street vendors, who you might suspect are quite weak, organises itself in an efficient way and manages to have some political leverage.”
Regeni was an academic, not a political agitator, says Svensson.
In fact, he described Regeni as the “cautious” one when they were together on the streets in July 2013 to witness the celebrations after Morsi’s overthrow.
Since his death, Regeni has become a martyr – or shahid – for the disappeared in Sisi’s Egypt.
“That’s why there’s graffiti of him in Cairo,” says Regeni’s anonymous Facebook friend. “He is a representative figure of that.”
Yemen’s foreign minister Ahmed Awad BinMubarak has a clear message to the European Union: to be united, and to talk to Iran, in order to achieve peace in Yemen.
“I ask the EU to use all the leverage it has to give a message to the Houthis and Iran,” BinMubarak said in an interview with EUobserver.
What that message should be, is accepting the UN’s proposed deal for a ceasefire, reopening the airport in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, reopening the seaport of Al Hudaydah and to restart political talks.
Yemen is going through critical days, as the Saudi-led coalition announced a halt to its military operations – in order to give negotiations by neighbouring Oman a chance.
Unverified sources say Oman may be close to reaching an agreement between the Saudi-supported coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to stop the fighting and let humanitarian aid into the country.
However, any ceasefire is still uncertain, as the Houthis raise the stakes before agreeing to their participation to new political talks.
On Sunday (13 June) a Houthi drone crashed into a school in Saudi Arabia, although without casualties.
“The international community always talks to [Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif. He always says he supports peace,” he said, adding that “the reality on the ground in Yemen is different, as there it is people from the Quds forces running the show.”
BinMubarak also said that the Yemeni government has found ships full of arms being transported from Iran to the Houthis in Yemen.
Therefore, he concludes “Iran has the key. The EU should pressure the Houthis and Iran – without making a link to the nuclear deal.”
Europe, the United States, Russia and China have been trying to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by which Iran would not be able to go further with its nuclear arms programme.
Asked about the role of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the conflict, the Yemeni foreign minister said that they only entered the war after the Houthis entered Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes in Yemen by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations.
World’s biggest humanitarian crisis
The war in Yemen, lasting more than six years now, has brought the country to total collapse.
According to Unicef, “Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.”
More than four million people have fled their homes, and are mostly displaced inside the country.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “approximately 66 percent of IDPs [internally-displaced people] in Yemen live in dangerous locations, characterised by widespread food insecurity and lack of water, healthcare and sanitation services.”
“Their situation has become even more challenging since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of a looming famine in the country,” the UN agency says.
Despite this tragic situation, Yemen itself is still hosting more than 135,000 refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia.
BinMubarak told EUobserver he was visiting Brussels to correct some wrong perceptions about the war in Yemen.
“The conflict in Yemen is not one between regional powers. Neither is it a sectarian war. Many in the EU forget the national factor in the conflict,” he said.
“Also, the humanitarian crisis is not just a result of the war, it is man-made. As one of the most important contributors to humanitarian aid in Yemen, the EU should be more aware of this,” he added.
The EU has funded Yemen with €648m in humanitarian aid since 2015, and €95m in 2021.
However, according to BinMubarak, the aid is not reaching the people that really need it. “80-percent of the aid comes through the port of Hudeida, controlled by the Houthi rebels. People who are suffering the most, don’t receive anything.”
“Therefore,” he added, “we need fix the real problem. We have to break the circle. We need to end this war.”
‘We lived in their tents’
Since the Arab revolution in 2011, Yemen has ricocheted from one crisis to another.
The Arab Spring lead to the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of North Yemen from 1978 to 1990, and president of Yemen from 1990 until 25 February 2012.
He was succeeded by his former vice-president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, following an agreement made at the National Dialogue Conference, held between March 2013 and January 2014.
BinMubarak himself was secretary-general of the National Dialogue Conference, arguing he knows the Houhtis well.
“We lived with them in the same tents at Tahrir Square during the uprising,” he said.
According to BinMubarak, the Houthis were constructive during the national dialogue – but that has now changed, under the influence of Iran.
President Hadi, as well as the government of Yemen, lived in exile in Saudi Arabia, but since December 2020 operate out of Aden.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – Congratulations continue to pour in from foreign leaders and senior officials as Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid were sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister and foreign minister, respectively.
“On behalf of the UK, I offer my congratulations to @naftalibennett and @yairlapid on forming a new government in Israel. As we emerge from COVID-19, this is an exciting time for the UK and Israel to continue working together to advance peace and prosperity for all”, Johnson tweeted.
President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visit during a bilateral meeting ahead of the G-7 summit, Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Carbis Bay, England
Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides addressed the congratulations to his new Israeli counterpart, Lapid.
“Warmest congratulations to @yairlapid on assuming his duties as Alternate PM & FM of #Israel. Wish him every success & look forward to working closely together to drive forward Flag of Cyprus-Flag of Israel rich #bilateral agenda & #regional coop,” Christodoulides wrote on Twitter.
More wishes came in from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who congratulated Lapid on his appointment.
“Israel is a true friend of Ukraine, and I look forward to working together on further strengthening our partnership”, Kuleba tweeted.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and some of his government attend its first cabinet meeting in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem June 13, 2021.
Congratulations to Bennett and Lapid were earlier voiced by Austria, the United States and the European Union, whose high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, has already held talks with Israel’s newly-appointed top diplomat.