The mayor of an indigenous community in the Amazon is suspected of being behind the slaying of 14 folk healers over the last 20 months, Perú's deputy minister for intercultural relations said Monday.

Vicente Otta told a press conference that the murders in the Shawi Indian community "cannot remain in a situation of indifference and omission," the reason why he announced that he would travel to the area this week to monitor the investigation.

The deaths of the healers, well-known in Perú as depositories of ancestral knowledge, were reported months ago to authorities in the Loreto region.

"During the course of the last 20 months...from 2010 to the present, 14 healers have been murdered, seven of which are officially recognized by the prosecutor's office and seven others that are not legally recognized" because the bodies have not been found, Otta said.

He said he received a report from prosecutors in Yurimaguas, the closest city to the scene, in which they reported the murders of seven men, identified in the town as healers or "warlocks," and who were shot, stabbed or hacked to death with machetes.

Authorities also acknowledged the testimony of a survivor, Bautista Inuma, who was shot many times and suffered the amputation of an arm, and who said his attackers had confused him with a warlock.

Inuma said that the mayor of Balsa Puerto, Alfredo Torres, and his brother Augusto Torres had tried to kill him.

The deputy minister said that there had been family and territorial disputes in the area, as well as political differences with Mayor Torres, "whom they accuse as one of the instigators of the killings."

The killers sought to "legitimize the murders (of the healers) in the community" by attributing the high index of infant mortality due to bronchial or endemic illnesses to the healers, Otta added.

The mayor "is an evangelist and when he learned that an association of healers was forming in Balsa Puerto this ... sparked his anger," said Otta's adviser, Roger Rumrrill.

"For the Protestant sects, the healers are individuals who are possessed by the devil, which is a completely sectarian, primitive and racist concept," Rumrrill said.

Otta said his office will work to ensure that the legal mechanisms are carried out so that "the healers are authorized to make up part of the health system, such that they may enjoy legal recognition and the protection of the state."

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