Police in Peru were last night preparing a series of arrests over the lynching of a Canadian man accused by villagers of murdering an 81-year-old medicine woman.
Sebastian Woodruffe’s body was found in a shallow grave on Saturday in a remote village in the Amazonian region of Ucayali.
The 41-year-old had been accused by locals of the murder of Olivia Arevalo, a traditional healer of the Shipibo-Conibo tribe. She was shot twice and died on Thursday near her home, said Ricardo Palma Jimenez, the head of a group of prosecutors in Ucayali.
Arevalo had been working with traditional plant medicine since the age of 15, and came from a long line of healers, according to the Temple of the Way of Light centre, where she worked. The centre published a YouTube video that shows her singing one of her curing songs.
Ricardo Franco, Arevalo’s nephew, described her to a Peruvian TV station as “the mother that protects the Earth in the jungle”.
He said she was “the most beloved woman” in the tribe.
Woodruffe was believed to have been one of her clients, and some reports on social media suggested that she was killed for refusing to perform an ayahuasca ceremony – a hallucinogenic spiritual ritual increasingly popular with Westerners. Other reports indicated a row over debts.
Arevalo’s sons disputed both versions, however, saying that she had stopped performing ayahuasca ceremonies due to her health.
Locals told an indigenous news outlet that witnesses saw Woodroffe shoot Arevalo multiple times after she sang an ikaro, or curing song.
He then fled, local residents alleged, prompting Arevalo’s family members to post a “wanted” bulletin online and on Facebook, showing Woodroffe’s photo, identifying him by name and nationality, and offering a reward.
Distressing mobile phone footage, shared on social media, showed the attack on Woodruffe. He is seen in the film groaning in a puddle near a thatched-roof structure, as another man puts a rope around his neck and drags him, with others looking on.
Mr Jimenez said the footage was being studied, and Peru’s ministry of the interior said in a statement issued on Monday that they were close to making arrests in the case.
“The prosecutor is concluding his file soliciting the preliminary arrest of the person seen in the video,” a ministry source told Peruvian newspaper El Comercio.
Canada’s foreign ministry said they were investigating.
"Canada extends its deepest condolences following the reported assassination of Olivia Arévalo Lomas, an Indigenous elder and human rights defender," said Global Affairs Canada, which manages Canadian foreign relations, in a statement.
"We are also aware that a Canadian was killed in a related incident. Consular services are being provided to the family of the Canadian."
Woodruffe, who is the father of a nine-year-old boy, grew up in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island.
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His friend Yarrow Willard told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Woodroffe worked odd jobs in recent years and did some professional diving.
Woodroffe said in a YouTube video in 2013 that he decided to leave his job and leave his home in Canada to study plant medicine in Peru. A relative’s battle with alcoholism had inspired him to “fix the family’s spirit” and pursue a career as an addictions counsellor, he said.
Woodroffe began raising money for an apprenticeship with traditional healers in the Amazon, writing on his fundraising page that he felt a responsibility to “support this culture and retain some of their treasure in me and my family, and share it with those that wish to learn.”
But Mr Willard said Woodroffe had become more distant after trying ayahuasca in Peru in 2016, and came back “troubled” from his retreats there.
He described Woodroffe as a person “who likes to poke, and likes to test the boundaries of people’s beliefs, but is very much a gentle person underneath all that.”
He found it hard to believe that his friend would ever be involved in a violent crime.
“He had a beautiful spark to him that people respected and loved.”
He added: “This man has never had a gun or talked about anything along that line,” suggesting that Woodroffe may have become a scapegoat for Arevalo’s murder.
Arevalo’s murder prompted outrage in Peru following other unsolved murders of indigenous activists who had repeatedly faced death threats related to efforts to keep illegal loggers and oil palm growers off native lands.
Policing is scant over much of the Peruvian Andes and Amazon and villagers in far-flung provinces often punish suspected criminals according to local customs and without the involvement of state police and prosecutors.
“We’ve just been in shock,” said Mr Willard. “It just felt like a scam because there is no way this person is capable of that.”
Woodroffe becomes the second Westerner to die at a Peruvian retreat.
In December 2015 Joshua Andrew Freeman Stevens, 29, killed 25-year-old Briton Unais Gomes after Gomes tried to stab him at a ceremony involving the hallucinogens.
Mr Freeman Stevens’ actions were ruled self defence and he returned home to Canada.
Mr Jimenez said that an autopsy showed Woodroffe died of strangulation, after receiving several blows to his body.
"We will not rest until both murders, of the indigenous woman as well as the Canadian man, are solved," he said.
“We want the people of the Amazon to know that there is justice, but not justice by their own hands.”
A Peruvian vice minister visited the community at the weekend to reassure locals that they would find the truth behind both murders. But the villagers were sceptical.
“There is justice for those with money,” one local resident, Alder Rengifo Torres, told TV Peru.
Another local woman was captured on Peruvian television telling the minister: “A foreigner can come and kill us, day after day, like dogs or cats, and nothing happens. The state does nothing.”
A Peruvian ombudsman wrote tweets condemning the killing of Arevalo, “a promoter of the cultural rights of the Shipibo-Conibo indigenous people.” He urged the government to protect indigenous people “in the face of an increase in illicit activities that put their lives at risk.”
But the ombudsman’s office also expressed its “resounding rejection of the lynching and murder of the alleged perpetrator” of Arevalo’s killing, adding: “We ask the authorities for an in-depth investigation."