Peru is fighting on two fronts against an expanding cocaine trade and resurgent Shining Path guerrillas. The country's former top anti-drug official Ricardo Soberon told InSight Crime why the government’s militarized approach, designed to keep the army and the US on its side, is only making things worse.
After President Ollanta Humala came to power in July last year, he appointed Soberon to head Devida, Peru's national anti-drug agency. Soberon was seen as a bold choice that could herald a shift in the country's drug policy, away from the US-dictated approach. He has been a prominent advocate for alternatives, arguing for a focus on halting suppliers of precursor chemicals, for example, rather than targeting coca farmers and eradicating their crops. The administration temporarily suspended eradication programs in its first months, but by January Soberon was out of the job, replaced by a more Washington-friendly choice, who hiked up eradication targets. InSight Crime spoke to the former drug czar about the new direction of drug policy in Peru, and the latest moves by the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) rebels.
On the Government’s Drug Policy
I am a bit suspicious and dubious about the US's assertion that Peru is the biggest cocaine producer in the world. The methodology of the State Department is not exact, they over-extend the conversion factor of cocaine from the Apurimac and Ene River Valley [the VRAE, Peru’s biggest drug-producing region and home of the Shining Path] to the whole of Peru. The VRAE gets five crops per year, whereas in other cocalero [coca-growing] regions of the country it’s more like two to three, because they use a lot of insecticide in the VRAE.
The State Department’s position when it comes to Peru is basically to promote the idea that it is the “biggest coca producer in the world,” and the idea that there is no other way of responding to the problem than the one promoted by the US, the traditional one. They’re playing on that, they are basically trying to create a public opinion of fear, a sense of threat, that everything is going wrong and we are losing the war.
However, there are several reasons to think that if things continue to evolve as we think they will evolve, in terms of the mistakes committed by the state, etc., Peru will pass from the current 60,000 hectares of coca to at least 80,000 hectares by 2016. This is due to the appearance of new markets for cocaine away from Western Europe, in the Southern Cone, and because technology is making it easier for traffickers to produce more cocaine with the same area of crops, by applying technology; using chemicals, pesticides.
The Militarization of the Drug War
The main mistake the government is making that is driving this expansion is the idea of considering terrorism and drugs as the same thing -- the concept of "narco-terrorism." They treat the drug trade as a military problem when it is basically an economic, political problem. Poverty and exclusion are the main reasons why people dedicate themselves to growing coca and to the illicit economy. Thinking militarily opens the door for an repressive, authoritarian response. So that is the biggest mistake, giving the whole responsibility for the drug problem to militaries.
I am the best example -- the government got rid of me and has appointed Luis Rojas Merino as the minister in charge of their plan for the VRAE; he is a retired colonel. So now the four most important guys who decide about the future of the VRAE are from the military: President Ollanta Humala, Prime Minister Oscar Valdes, the joint commander in charge of the military operations in VRAE itself, and Rojas Merino, who is in charge of the civilian part of the plan, but also is a soldier. So, basically, we are witnessing the militarization of social problems in Peru.
Why do they want to make it a military problem? First, ignorance. Second, they do not trust civilians, and third, corruption. Humala is using the militarized approach in order to maintain the support of the US State Department and the Southern Command, and of the Peruvian military. By maintaining the military control in the VRAE he is giving them enough to keep their support. He doesn’t need to increase their wages, he doesn’t need to increase the security stance of Peru against Chile. This how he buys the political will of the military as a whole.
The military use the threat from the Shining Path for their own ends. Whenever they need to, they will provoke certain reactions from the Shining Path, and they haven’t carried out tactical or strategic reforms in the way that they respond militarily. For example, there is an overuse of choppers that don’t have protection against snipers.
This reflects a lack of political will to solve the problem, because there is money. Instead of using Huey UH-1 choppers why don’t we use Black Hawk?
The Government’s New Plan for the VRAE
For the last few days I have been looking for the text of the Plan VRAE(M), because next week I am traveling to the region and I have a meeting with several people and we want to discuss the document -- we can’t find it. We haven’t been able to see the written statement. The government is absolutely convinced that the new plan is a result of citizen participation, consulting majors, regional governments, etc., but nobody in the VRAE knows anything about it. The plan is a product of the work of certain illuminated people here in Lima trying to decide the destiny of those living in the VRAE -- they haven’t really consulted the local people.
The plan adds the Mantaro Valley to the VRAE, which is why it's called the Plan VRAEM. This is another example of a mistake that has been made over the last five years. The area considered to be the VRAE is in a state of permanent expansion. They have extended it to Huancavelica, to Cusco, and now to Mantaro. In this region they are using extreme measures and resources in order to combat the drug problem, for example declaring a state of emergency, and they are extending the area under these extreme measures more and more. So, with the mining crisis, at least four very important and strategic regions of Peru are now under a state of emergency.
The first thing that should happen in the VRAE is to put trust in democracy and citizenship, in order to change the paradigm of how it is handled. To open platforms, spaces, assemblies, in order to consult, to discuss, to debate, and then decide. To talk to the people and see what they need.
Tactics and Territory of the Shining Path
Looking at recent movements from the Shining Path, we can say that their first priority right now is the struggle with the armed forces, who are on the offensive after the events of April, the kidnapping of the gas workers. They are trying to strengthen their political and military control on this province of La Convencion, that’s why one of the three columns that the Shining Path have in the VRAE region is now present in La Convencion, which is the biggest province of Cusco.
The Shining Path want to control La Convencion, [which is outside the VRAE] because it is the route to Puno and the border of Bolivia and Brazil. Looking at a map you can see that the VRAE is an area crossed by the Rio Apurimac. To the right east, you have La Convencion, which is the way out of VRAE, through Cusco, through Madre de Dios or Puno, to the border with Brazil and Bolivia. So that’s why they are trying to strengthen their activity in that area, because it’s an important drug route.
We criticize the absence of the state in the VRAE, and this has been a priority for this government. In Puno, however, the situation is much worse in terms of the absence of the state, of problems, of the presence of illegal mining. It’s a triple boundary region, the upper jungle of Puno is a very very isolated area where anything can happen, without anyone stopping it.
It’s difficult to imagine the Shining Path intervening freely in Loreto, as some have predicted. They have never had a say on the situation in the Amazon, not in the 1980s, not in the 1990s, and not now. When I was in charge of Devida, the regional president of Loreto started a campaign alerting the public about the presence of more than 40,000 ha of coca leaves in the Amazon. We immediately responded saying that that is impossible for a very logical reason -- in order to have 40,000 additional hectares of coca you would need to have at least 70,000 workers on the field, and there hasn’t been that increase of population in Loreto. You can grow coca in the lowlands, but you will have a huge bush with very long leaves, with very little cocaine within. There are a lot of sun rays, so the coca leaf increases its size, but with small amounts of the alcaloid.
The other branch of the Shining Path, in the Huallaga region, has been greatly weakened since the capture of "Armenio" [their leader, who was captured in February this year]. It still remains to be seen if this branch has been broken up, it's too soon to be sure. However, I don't think that the VRAE branch are moving to take over their territory. The presence of police and intelligence and undercover officers is huge in the region, which makes it very difficult to try to reestablish a political branch.
I would say that the VRAE branch is more interested right now in keeping control of this southern region, on this area of La Convencion, because it is the route for trafficking drugs from the VRAE to Bolivia and then the Southern Cone.
On Cocaine Shipments from the VRAE
For how much cocaine travels along this southern route out of the VRAE, I will use official figures, it’s not necessarily that I agree with them, but I will use them. The UN report states that Peru produces 325 tons of cocaine a year. The VRAE produces 80-90 tons of that. I will say that at least 20-30 tons of cocaine is current going to the southern part of South America per year -- to São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, but the number will continue to increase month by month. Why? Three reasons: first, they are finding this new market rising from Brazil’s economic success, the new influx of people, the Olympics, the World Cup. Brazil is starting to get more important in terms of cocaine and crack consumption, and that will continue to increase in the coming months. Second, because Bolivia’s drug production is small, it needs to be supported by Peruvian production.
The Brazilian population, as well as the Argentine population, are starting to increase their cocaine demand. For them, the most important supplier of raw material would be both Bolivia production, and the production of the valleys in southern Peru.
In Peruvian police stations in Cusco, Puno, to the boundary of Bolivia, and also in certain Bolivian cities, such as Beni, Pando and Tarija, you are increasingly seeing young Peruvians being detained with medium size drug packets.
On the Shining Path and the Drug Trade
It’s difficult to define the extent of their involvement. As a preliminary base we could say that the Shining Path in Ayacucho, in VRAE, has territorial control of the secondary routes of transportation, those that are far from the most well-used routes and roads, in order to get away from police control. So I could by all means tell you that the Shining Path has a say on who transports drugs in which places. However, about whether Shining Path deals with the drug business itself, I cannot be completely sure about that.
They transport the drugs, or control the transport, and are paid for that service, but it’s not clear whether they hand it over to the international groups, whether they get money for each kilo of cocaine that is sold to an intermediary before it leaves Peru.
I cannot be sure. That’s why I am basically against reducing the whole complexity of the problem to the word narco-terrorism. It hides a lot, that reduction.
Who Controls Peru’s Drug Trade
I think there are some misunderstandings about the nature of criminal organizations in Peru. As far as I know, after receiving daily intelligence reports when I was part of the government as anti-narcotics czar, there is a sharp division of labor between international and national groups. The international ones have decided that the Peruvians are those who determine when, whom, and how to put the final product in their hands.
Within Peruvian territory, the Peruvians define how to organize drug transportation. Peruvian groups are in charge of transporting the drugs from the coca-producing regions to the borders or to the coast. That is the responsibility of the Peruvian groups, and there are different sizes, different patterns amongst them. There is a huge division or separation between who deals with the security, who deals with the supply of chemical precursors, who deals with the storage of the drug close to the ports, and so on.
The only place where Peruvians are participating in the international markets is in Argentina. There is a historical migration cycle from Peru to Argentina that started in the 1980s, when thousands of Peruvians went to live there. Some of them came from the VRAE, to escape from violence, and now they live in areas called villas in Buenos Aires, and they control the cocaine paste markets within the city.
What the Mexicans or Colombian need is for the drugs to be in the correct place at the correct moment in order to be transported outside Peru -- basically the coastal area. I think that we underestimate the importance of the maritime structure for transporting drugs. The Peruvians' job is to get the drugs to the right place at the right time.
Ricardo Soberon is the director of the Centro de Investigacion Drogas y Derechos Humanos (CIDDH).