Peru has the second largest number of Mexican prisoners of any country after the United States, the vast majority of whom are held on drug charges, an indication of Peru’s growing international role in the drug trade and its importance for Mexican drug cartels.

According to figures from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry (SRE), as of April 2014 there were 191 Mexican nationals imprisoned in Peru, 97 percent of whom either faced or had been convicted on cocaine trafficking charges, reported El Universal.

Judging by their relatively brief sentences, many of the Mexicans detained in Peru likely served as so-called “drug mules” — individuals who transport small quantities of drugs in their luggage, under their clothes, or ingested in capsules — or as low-level cartel operatives. Seventy-five percent of those who had been sentenced received terms of between four and 15 years. The remaining 25 percent were sentenced to more than 15 years in prison, a length of time typically given to higher-level cartel operatives, who may have organized or financed drug shipments.

The figures show a drastic increase in the number of Mexicans detained in Peru in recent years. Between 2001 and 2009, the Mexican Embassy recorded an average of 10 Mexicans detained annually in the country, according to La Republica, but between 2010 and April 2014 that figure rose to 37.

According to the newspaper, close to half of the Mexican prisoners detained in Peru were between 18 and 35 years old. A survey conducted by Mexico’s Embassy in Peru found that 85 percent of detained respondents said they had traveled to Peru because of unemployment, debts, or other economic difficulties. A small number reported making the trip because of threats or extortion.

According to Foreign Ministry figures published in January 2014, Panama and Colombia had the third and fourth highest numbers of Mexican prisoners after Peru. In Panama, close to 96 percent of the country’s 94 Mexican prisoners had been detained on drug charges, while 92 percent were behind bars for the same reason in Colombia (see map). Japan, Costa Rica, and Spain also held significant numbers of Mexican prisoners.

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InSight Crime Analysis

Although the number of Mexican prisoners detained in Peru pales in comparison to the number locked up in the United States — which was at 35,734 in September — Peru has nearly twice as many Mexican prisoners as the third and fourth countries on the list. The sharp increase in the number of Mexicans imprisoned in Peru in recent years and the fact that the vast majority are accused of drug trafficking indicate that foreign nationals are being drawn in as Peru takes on a growing role in the regional drug trade.

Peru has become a major source country for Brazilian-bound cocaine, which is typically transported in planes to Bolivia en route to Brazil. A portion of that cocaine feeds the domestic market, while the rest is sent on to Europe and Asia. An investigation by a Brazilian journalist found that traffickers from Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay had over the last 14 years formed the most powerful drug trafficking alliance in the world, which he dubbed “Narcosur.” This phenomenon is propelled by significant domestic drug markets in South American countries such as Argentina and Brazil, and lucrative markets in Europe and Asia, accessed via trafficking routes from South America.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profiles

Peru is currently the world’s largest coca and cocaine producer, driven by corruption and the presence of transnational criminal groups. Increased law enforcement efforts in Mexico and Colombia have pushed criminal groups to expand operations into Peru, where the risk of interdiction is lower and corruption is rampant.

One of the groups that appears to have taken root in Peru is Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. A 7.6 ton cocaine shipment seized in the Peruvian province of La Libertad in August was attributed to the group, leading to the arrest of two alleged Sinaloa operatives working in the country. According to Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, as of 2012 the Tijuana Cartel also maintained a presence in the country. In addition, US investigators have uncovered links between Peruvian criminal groups and Mexico’s Zetas.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles

Peru’s status as the world’s number one cocaine producer has drawn so-called “drug mules” from other countries, often motivated by poverty, as the Embassy’s survey suggests. According to Peruvian police, the majority of the “mules” detained at Lima’s international airport in the first 10 months of 2011 were foreigners. In 2012 Peruvian authorities detained 248 “drug mules” in the Jorge Chavez International Airport, the majority of whom were Spanish, Peruvian, and Mexican.  

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