It was a cloudy, hot, and humid morning in the Peruvian Amazon, several weeks before the rainy season. Aubin Marseilles, an 18-year-old Frenchman, had been in Nueva Betania, an Indigenous Shipibo village, with his mother for two days. He arrived unannounced seeking to overcome a drug dependency with the use of ayahuasca, a DMT-containing vine mixture and sacrament of the Shipibo nation. He was advised by Don Pedro Sinuiri, a 76-year-old ancestral healer and community leader, to undergo a detox regimen consisting of non-psychedelic plants, or dieta, before the possibility of consuming ayahuasca.
Marseilles struggled to settle into his new environment at Rao Kaibo (Rao Kaibo means “House of the Medicine” in Shipibo), a small, family-run healing operation by Don Pedro. He reportedly asked members of the community for cocaine before calling Don Pedro out of his home at around 7:30 am on 11 Oct. 2023.
In an inexplicable frenzy, Marseilles proceeded to stab Don Pedro six times with a knife in the abdomen, shoulder, and leg. The curandero almost died. He underwent life-saving surgery in the city of Pucallpa two hours away, where he was rushed to by boat as his relatives worked to stem the bleeding, and stayed in a clinic for five days.
“The specialists said that if the wounds were a millimeter to either side, then something awful could have happened,” says his son Jheison Romulo Sinuiri, president of the Oni Xobo Intercultural Organization, which works to preserve Shipibo culture. “I have no words to express my gratitude. Losing a wisdom keeper, my father, like this would be an attack on all of our hearts.”
Don Pedro, born in the 1940s when his community in the rainforest had minimal contact with the outside world, is continuing to recover at home with his family. It is unclear whether there will be any long-lasting physical effects due to his age, but the doctor has since cleared him, advising two months of rest. A couple of people have since traveled to Nueva Betania to diet with plants and drink ayahuasca with Don Pedro, but he is not at full capacity. (You can donate to Don Pedro’s GoFundMe here. The fund aims to cover legal and medical bills, and time off of work for six months.)
Following the attack, Marseilles was swiftly apprehended by police who traveled by boat to the village. He received a nine-month pretrial sentence to prevent him from fleeing the country and could be jailed for years if convicted of attempted murder. He will be subject to a psychiatric evaluation that could mitigate the severity of his prison sentence, however.
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Blood tests reportedly show that there was cocaine in Marseilles’s system, although it remains unclear as to when he consumed it after arriving in the jungle. We can safely assume he ingested some, however, because cocaine is detectable in the blood for up to two days after usage. Local news reports alleged that the consumption of ayahuasca led him into a paranoid frenzy. But Jheison, Don Pedro’s son, said Marseilles was advised to undergo a dieta and had not consumed the powerful psychedelic tea.
Growing numbers of people from across the world are turning to psychedelics to address substance and alcohol dependencies. Over the past two decades, thousands of Westerners have undertaken pilgrimages to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca and work with other plants to address the traumas that underpin their self-destructive patterns. The Shipibo tribe has consumed ayahuasca as a sacrament for centuries—if not millennia—and today, they are one of the two largest Indigenous groups in Peru offering ceremonies to foreigners. Despite concerns about inequalities between, and sometimes within, specific Indigenous communities, the rapidly growing psychedelic tourism industry has allowed tribes to develop infrastructure, purchase boats, and afford other services that would have previously been unattainable.
But Miriam Volat, director of the Indigenous Medicine Conservation (IMC) Fund, which is supporting Don Pedro and his family, says that the incident was a reminder that the psychedelic community needs to do more to prevent harm in ancestral communities.
“This tragic episode, yet again, underscores the risks to Indigenous healers and the urgent need to support them in their efforts to protect and preserve traditional medicines,” she says. “As the psychedelic community really begins to address safety, efficacy, access, and equity, we unequivocally need to attend to the impact that this healing movement is having on Indigenous traditional medicine-holding communities.”
Don Pedro, who sits in a line of Onanyas (which translates to “those with knowledge”) that goes back at least five generations, has worked to provide medicine to thousands of local people and foreigners for decades.
“Pedro’s destiny as a medicine man was therefore determined at birth by his grandfather, and so with [a] strict diet from the outset, the infant Pedro was initiated into a lifetime of healing,” says his bio on the Rao Kaibo website, which is run by students of Don Pedro to direct patients to him. “He also continues to tirelessly serve patients in need from the community and the surrounding villages, regardless of their financial means (in this latter case, all methods of payment are accepted: Those without any money may instead bring Don Pedro a chicken, fish, bananas, or yuca!).”
“Our culture wants to help and heal human beings, whether they be friends or strangers,” adds Jheison. “There are always risks to overcome. I hope that we can reflect upon this and heal consciously.”
It’s not the first time an Indigenous healer has been attacked by a Westerner in Peru. In 2018, Olivia Arévalo, an 81-year-old curandera from the Shipibo-Conibo people, was shot twice and killed by Sebastian Woodroffe, a Canadian who was visiting the region. Although he was not on ayahuasca at the time of the incident, he had consumed the vine mixture on several occasions in the past and was reportedly left destabilized by the experiences. “Once he had seen beyond the curvature of his own earth on a number of occasions, [it] challenged maybe the mental paradigm he had previously believed in,” said Yarrow Willard, a herbalist and friend, to CBC. “[It] created a little bit of conflict and instability within himself … There is a real cautionary tale here — to not mess with your spiritual self.”
Woodroffe was lynched by two men from the community soon after killing Arévalo. She was a “walking library of our traditional knowledge, the maximum expression of our culture,” Ronald Suárez, a Shipibo-Conibo leader, told The Guardian. The men had “acted on the spur of the moment and resorted to traditional justice,” he added.
Engaging with traumatic events in one’s past can be extremely challenging, says Dr. Leor Roseman from Exeter University’s psychology department, and it is common for people to experience social fears in ayahuasca ceremonies. Academics evaluated 2,751 individual experiences with ayahuasca last year. They found that hundreds experienced feelings of paranoia, fear, and insanity during their trips. “People get paranoid thoughts that they’re being brainwashed into a cult,” adds Roseman. “They don’t trust the leaders of the ceremony.”
This phenomenon is rooted in social anxiety and an everyday mistrust of people that can be amplified during psychedelic experiences, according to Roseman. It points to the importance of set and setting. “Some people in certain settings can have nightmare experiences, while for others, it’s the most comfortable setting in the world.”
Trust is key: in oneself, the facilitators, and the safety of the ceremonial container. A study co-written by Roseman found a negative correlation between paranoia and group bonds. “If something reduces the trust, or the facilitator is not empathetic enough and doesn’t create a strong relationship before you go into the experience, or there are issues with the group you’re with, challenging experiences might occur,” Roseman warns. He adds that they can be beneficial and present opportunities for growth, but can also be destabilizing. “They shouldn’t be idealized.”
Some challenging psychedelic experiences, more commonly known as “bad trips,” can lead people into crazed states. In 2016, Unais Gomes, a British man, was fatally stabbed by Joshua Stevens, a fellow ayahuasca ceremony participant in Peru. The incident occurred after Gomes tried to attack Stevens and two other workers at the retreat center with a butcher’s knife.
“It is not our responsibility to heal people, but we can,” Jheison says.
Stevens, who had not drunk ayahuasca that night, was not charged by police after it was established he acted in self-defense. “Unais was a good man. We spoke for four or five hours a day about philosophy, health, and world politics,” Stevens told Dazed. “I thought we would be lifelong friends. But that night, all I could sense from him was evil. His eyes had an empty rage. He was possessed.” In a separate interview with The Guardian, Stevens said, “I really thought I was going to die. I was saying to myself, ‘If he gets this knife back, he’s either going to kill me or the other two men here.'”
Instances like these are exceptionally rare. When they do occur, the media often covers them extensively. It’s important to note that the latest assault by Aubin Marseilles didn’t happen while he was under the influence of ayahuasca. He also had not been subject to any screening before his sudden arrival at Rao Kaibo, nor is it known if he had previously undergone any mainstream detoxes or spent time in rehab. (Don Pedro’s students explain that they are working with the curandero to improve his screening process.) The fact that an 18-year-old traveled to an ayahuasca retreat center in the Amazon—with his mother—on a whim to overcome substance dependency, but then attempted to murder a curandero, is a story that won’t soon be forgotten. Understandably, Rao Kaibo may be more discerning about who they allow to stay in the future.
“It is not our responsibility to heal people, but we can,” Jheison says. “So we ask people who come to be conscious and to respect where they are coming. Alcoholics and drug addicts sometimes arrive in our village in a state of despair. We must be very careful in the future.”
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