"The Ataucusi are the new drug lords at the border. I've seen it with my own eyes," said a cargo handler, who declined to give his name, onboard an Amazon River ferryboat heading towards the Triple Border region, where Peru meets Colombia and Brazil.
The Ataucusi are a fundamentalist religious group that follow a 20th century prophet named Ezequiel Ataucusi. Its members dress as though they walked off the set of the 1956 biblical epic The Ten Commandments.
They claim a divine right to the Amazon Basin, where they say Peru will survive the coming Apocalypse and become a sort of new Incan Israel, an agrarian powerhouse in the middle of the jungle.
"They have armed men defending their operations," the cargo handler insisted. "They have built fine houses away from sight."
The Ataucusi, who call themselves Israelites but are regarded as a sect by government officials, are a peculiar Peruvian phenomenon that live an ascetic lifestyle separated from society. A reclusive community, they've brought agriculture to the Amazon since their arrival in the mid 1990s.
Access to their spiritual capital in the jungle, Alto Monte, took more than two years for VICE News to acquire — and even then, once we arrived with a full crew, it remained uncertain. To this day, less than a handful of anthropological papers have offered reliable information on the group's spiritual outposts deep in the Amazon.
Then, in February 2012, Sergio Fontes, a Brazilian federal police superintendent, said the Ataucusi had become the main coca growers in the Triple Border region, and that the coca leaves they grew were being used exclusively for cocaine production.
That means the sect could be sitting on a game-changer in the global drug market, by proving that coca leaves can be grown in lower tropical climates — such as in Mexico — and still be potent enough for production as cocaine.
Could other subtropical rain forests around the world follow suit?
(Photo by Lali Houghton)
"To understand the Israelite Congregation of the New Universal Pact, you first need to study their founder [Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal]," Peruvian anthropologist Juan Ossio, who has been following the group's rise since the 1980s, said in an interview.
Ezequiel was born in 1918 to a peasant family in southern Peru. While working as a shoemaker in the 1950s, he converted to Seventh-day Adventism, though he was quickly expelled after claiming to receive divine revelations.
As he saw it, Ezequiel ascended to the "Third Heaven," past the sun, moon, and the stars, to the dwelling of the Holy Trinity. There, he was re-assigned the Ten Commandments.
According to Ossio, Ezequiel's arrival and stature grew at a time when many Peruvians sought salvation amidst the chaos of economic crisis and an internal war with Maoist rebels, called The Shining Path. Some found answers through armed struggle, while others did so in biblical texts.
Their belief system as a whole is a syncretic amalgamation of Adventism, Judaism, Inca Messianism and Maoism. They paraphrase sections of the Bible that make reference to the City of the Sun, which they interpret to be Cusco, the ancient Inca capital.
'We have been footballers and prostitutes —until we found God.'
In 1992, Ezequiel told his followers to become "fronteras vivas," or living borders of Peru, and to prepare for the Apocalypse. Thousands answered his call, enduring hardship and isolation while settling mainly in the forgotten Peruvian region known as Mariscal Ramon Castilla, cradled between Brazil and Colombia.
Today they make up over half the population of Mariscal Ramon Castilla with over 20,000 Israelites spread across different settlements, all of which have biblical names such as New Jerusalem or New Mount of Olives.
"We have been footballers and prostitutes — until we found God," said Javier Torres, the Alto Monte community president.
Unlike the first settlers, Torres arrived after the death of the prophet, but like many others, he said he converted after Ezequiel manifested in his dreams. He is in charge of agricultural affairs, overseeing the community's production of maize, rice, yucca, and other products. It was perhaps not the best moment to ask him about coca yet.
Flavio Mirella, the chief of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Peru and Ecuador, told VICE News that the region of Mariscal Ramon Castilla is the fastest growing coca-producing region in Peru, with an approximate 400 percent increase in the last five years.
"The Ataucusi are Andean farmers and organized, unlike the local indigenous population," Mirella said.
At the height of his glory in 1990, Ezequiel ran for president of Peru and captured more than 200,000 voters. In 2000, during the Israelites' Pentecost, Ezequiel Ataucusi suddenly died. He failed to resurrect after three days, as promised, leaving many of his followers disgruntled.
(Photo by Lali Houghton)
Seen from a floating distance, Alto Monte, the spiritual jungle capital of the Ataucusi, is but a small muddy port with a massive tin church.
In order to determine if we could shoot film and conduct interviews, Brother Javier called a meeting with the local governing council, the Evangelical Mission Association of the Israelites New Universal Pact, or AEMINPU.
Up a flight of stairs, on a rickety shack on stilts, sat a table with seven robed men with long beards, serenely observing our every movement. Framed photographs of Ezequiel Ataucusi and his son Jonas adorned the wall.
Calls were made to the main church in Cieneguilla, a district in the outskirts of Lima, where the prophet is buried. Leaders there said the local AEMINPU should make a decision itself.
Five hours later and after much wrangling, we were allowed to film the religious rites and the community's daily life. Their only condition was that we present ourselves at their weekly service in front of the whole town.
(Photo by Lali Houghton)
With about 7,000 inhabitants, Alto Monte is an austere settlement, with no running water, sewage system, or footpaths. It is untouched by the state.
Communication is difficult as there is only one telephone booth. All incoming calls are announced over a community loudspeaker. A few bodegas offer limited products such as canned foods, soft drinks, and basic medicine.
José Alvarez, wildlife and forestry director at Peru's Ministry of Environment has been studying the region for over 30 years. He told us the slash-burn farming techniques used by the Israelite communities is not suitable for Amazon soil and is causing irreversible damage to the rainforest.
Brother Javier took us for a hike along wet paths to see the Ataucusi agriculture in the far-flung reaches of the community. The expansive, muddy tracks were a testament to a settler mentality that has also exposed the fragility of the rainforest.
Walking back, the sunset produced a unifying and tranquil effect on the village. Farmers and their wives rode horses saddling something from the days hard labor. Ataucusi teenagers played football, while a few of the less devout youth listened to alternative music on cellphones as young kids would in any other town in Peru.
"Ezequiel taught us the destiny of man, and how, through agriculture, we would liberate ourselves from poverty," said Brother Javier.
The collective nostalgia and unerring loyalty for their founder compels the Ataucusi to continue and persevere, even though they may never achieve Ezequiel's prophecy. Yet the Ataucusi farmers have established themselves so well, they now supply the majority of local produce in the Triple Border hub cities of Leticia, Colombia, and Tabatinga, Brazil.
While overseeing a maize field, Brother Javier appeared downhearted.
"His plan isn't being achieved in the way we are working now," he said. "He envisioned a bigger picture, whereby groups within the community would convert themselves into self-sustaining businesses. He didn't dream of one or two hectares per group, but hundreds, so that the hermanos would progress as a people."
(Photo by Lali Houghton)
Today Ezequiel Ataucusi's Agricultural People's Front of Peru Party, or FREPAP, is largely silent on national affairs, preferring to avoid the maelstrom of Peruvian politics.
Some of its members remain active in regional politics, such as Marino Chavez, a former mayor of the largest town in Mariscal Ramon Castilla, Caballococha. He agreed to speak with VICE News in what is considered a center of operations for drug trafficking in the Triple Border region.
"People know it's wrong, but necessity drives them into coca production," Chavez said. "This is a clash between Peruvians. The ones who eradicate, and those who have to continue growing it because of poverty."
In October 2014, Peru increased its efforts of coca eradication in Mariscal Ramon Castilla, clearing 3,000 hectares. But so far, efforts to establish sustainable alternative crops in the area have failed to take hold.
Brazilian federal police superintendent Mauro Sposito, an expert with more than 30 years experience in the Triple Border region, told VICE News that the Ataucusi are heavily involved in the region's coca trade.
"We have satellite pictures showing coca plantations on Ataucusi land and pictures of them being arrested transporting cocaine," he said from his desk in Tabatinga.
"Not all of them grow coca," he said, but "some of them."
"My impression is that their leaders are involved," Superintendent Sposito added. "Because in order for drug trafficking to flourish, it needs a similar system much like there was in the time of the rubber boom" in the Peruvian Amazon region.
(Photo by Lali Houghton)
At some point, of course, we had to confront the Ataucusi leaders with the evidence, gather their response, and include it in our report.
The prospect gave us a certain dread. How would an apocalyptic religious order respond to allegations of coca and drug trafficking? Could the church be aware, but be turning a blind eye? Standing fully robed with his Israelite identification in hand, Dante Jiménez, the Israelite defense secretary in Alto Monte, agreed to answer questions.
"For the last six years we are dealing with the growing problem. The neighbouring villages are the culprits," Jiménez said. "We get offered to grow coca, but it is not in our doctrine."
Brother Dante went on to explain that he had personally been offered $100,000 to grow coca, but said he had declined the offer.
"If there are coca farmers or drug traffickers among us they are not hermanos," he told VICE News. "They may dress like us but they're not legitimate. It would only be a facade."
After his death in 2000, Ezequiel Ataucusi's son Jonas, now 42, was chosen to lead in his father's footsteps and fulfill his mission.
However, Jonas has rarely made any public appearances and is kept present in believers' minds via a few rare YouTube videos. Jonas Ataucusi has neither the charisma nor the abilities of his father, Ossio said.
In 2002, the newspaperLa Republica reported Jonas Ataucusi was detained along with three followers at a highway checkpoint near the coastal city of Ica. The men were reportedly carrying two revolvers, an automatic pistol, and two assault rifles. The congregation later stated Jonas carried the weapons for self-defense.
Church leaders declined several VICE News requests to interview Jonas Ataucusi.
Back in Alto Monte, we were allowed to film a ceremony the Israelites refer to as the "Holocaust," a ritualistic animal sacrifice performed as an offering to God, accompanied by soaring vocal music.
The order of sacrificial animals is: pigeons, goats and cattle, followed by bulls, the most prized offerings. The animal is chosen a week before, in perfect condition. The offerings are prepared, slaughtered, and set in flames before the praying and singing onlookers.
The procession moved into the church and began singing the proud hymn of "Fronteras Vivas":
"Great is Israel, worthy of praise / [...] / Through agriculture / you will save from hunger / This project will join all nations, together we will work the land / Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and all the other countries."
Follow Lali Houghton on Twitter @lalicienfuegos.
Topics: americas, peru, amazon, ataucusi, coca, cocaine, south america, crime & drugs, religions, religion, ezequiel ataucusi, jonas ataucusi, coke, drugs, amazon river, mariscal ramon castilla, triple border, brazil, colombia, leticia, tabatinga, deforestation, agriculture, seventh day adventists, mexico