Peru is a mega-producer of cocaine. Alongside Colombia (with Bolivia a distant third), it exports a large percentage of the cocaine the world consumes. What has passed unnoticed during this growth are the swift changes in how the cocaine is moved.
Cocaine flights are back. Light aircraft are entering Peruvian territory with growing frequency, landing in rustic jungle strips, loading and promptly taking off with drug loads… usually of around three hundred and fifty kilos each trip.
So far, it has been a fairly safe business for traffickers. During the last few months, the only two aircraft 'seized' by the Peruvian National Police (PNP) had in fact been abandoned by the drug traffickers after landing mishaps.
The early morning purring of the aircraft as they take off with their loads brings back memories of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, a time when Peru exported cocaine paste. All in planes and all to Colombia.
At that time, Peru's coca fields reached a staggering 130,000 hectares. The air bridge was made up of dozens of flights a week leaving from the Huallaga and the VRAE (the valley formed by the rivers Apurimac and Ene, for its acronym in Spanish) valleys heading to Colombia. The dependence of the Peruvian narcos on their Colombian counterparts and their laboratories for crystallizing cocaine was total.
All that changed when Peru and the United States applied a tough aerial interdiction in the second half of the 90s. The air bridge was destroyed and the price of cocaine, cocaine paste and the coca leaf collapsed while the area under drug cultivation reduced by almost 100,000 hectares.
Later drug trafficking recovered, bit by bit. Drugs were exported from the coca valleys on foot and then using beasts of burden. A few years afterwards vehicles became more widely used.
However, a few months ago, cocaine flights returned in force to the Peruvian jungle. First from the Pichis Palcazu area and now right from the heart of the VRAE. The number of flights has been growing at an epidemic rate.
But no longer towards Colombia, like in the 80s, but rather southwards, to Bolivia.
In 2012, Pichis Palcazu became the clearinghouse for cocaine coming from the VRAE and Huallaga. From the outskirts of Ciudad Constitucion an increasing traffic of light aircraft has become established, dispatching cocaine mainly to Bolivia, and also onto Brazil.
A percentage of drug plans dedicated to production in the VRAE have moved to Bolivia's cattle-ranching areas, setting up cocaine labs, to crystallize the cocaine base, as chemical precursors are cheaper and more accessible there. These clans have begun to export the drugs to Bolivia by plane from Pichis Palcazu, where there is little police presence and none of the Shining Path.
This year the air bridge has become consolidated. Cocaine shipments are being moved in Bolivian light aircraft, with three to four flights a day.
"Between May and December 2012, 59 light aircraft took off from Ciudad Constitucion, each one loaded with an average of 300 kilos of drugs. That meant an aerial export of 17.7 tons of cocaine. This year, 58 light aircraft (17.4 tons of cocaine) were detected in the same area just during the first four months of the year," IDL-Reporteros revealed in "The Return of the Drug Flights," last July.
At this time, Peru's anti-narcotics agency (Dirandro, for its acronym in Spanish) launched an extensive operation in Pichis Palcazu, blowing holes in all the clandestine runways it could find. It was the same approach used at the beginning of the 80s and it failed just as quickly.
What happened then and happened now was that the drug traffickers quickly rebuilt the majority of the landing strips. Police blew up 57 airstrips, of which 15 were repaired by the traffickers, and 10 new runways were built. They did not need more because something else was rapidly developing: the beginning of the 'drug flights' from the VRAE itself to Bolivia.
Up until last year, the most common way of smuggling the drugs out of the VRAE was using trucks and pickups. The latter, especially the Toyota Hilux models, had effective cover, given that they are the kind of vehicles used by the construction and mining companies in the area.
From the classic "backpackers," the smugglers evolved into vehicle drivers and now, in a very short period of time, into pilots, and the air bridge has returned to the VRAE. In the valley there are now approximately 40 clandestine runways in the valley although only around 15 or 20 are active, according to information supplied by various sources to IDL-Reporteros.
The weather this time of year has allowed for the creation of natural runways, small islets, on the Ene River's shores. In spite of the topographical challenges compared to Pichis Palcazu's relatively flat terrain, the Bolivian pilots -- novices, mainly -- manage to land without major problems.
The landing strips are in the main drug producing areas, located in Llochegua, Santa Rosa, Pangoa, Sivia, Corazon Pata, San Francisco, Cutivireni, Canaire, Puerto Cocos, and Mayapo. These last three locations are where the highest volume of air traffic has been registered.
Last Friday, for example, Dirandro agents found a light Bolivian aircraft in a clandestine landing strip in Puerto Cocos. The aircraft had crashed on landing – the front wheel had snapped – and the drug dealers simply abandoned it. The agents arrived only after the crew had already fled. The week before, on the same airstrip, officers found sacks loaded with 143 kilos of cocaine ready to be dispatched on the next aircraft.
The cocaine that leaves the Valley is moved primarily in Cessna single-engine aircraft, capable of hauling 350 kilos of drugs each trip. on the plane, besides the pilot, usually travels the man "responsible" for the shipment. A very common payment procedure is the so-called "under the wing" method, which consists of the man in charge paying on delivery for the cocaine collected.
The costs of renting an aircraft are between $20,000 and $30,000 per flight, while the price for use of the runway varies between $10,000 and $20,000. The airstrips are used, at most, two or three times in a row by the organization. After this, another location is used in order to avoid detection, according to what a source told IDL-Reporteros. "As a safety measure, just as they are arriving at the VRAE they decide where to land. They rely on UHF radios to communicate with people on the ground."
The return flight from the VRAE to Bolivia takes an average of 5 hours. It is shorter than the Bolivia – Pichis Palcazu journey; however, it is more expensive given the bribes drug dealers must on occasion pay the Shining Path and corrupt members of the security forces.
The average number of flights is three to four per day. The aircraft take off very early, between 6 and 8 am, even though on occasion there are flights at 10 am.
Considering that, every day, three to four planes take off, each loaded with 350 kilos of cocaine, it is estimated that the VRAE exports 1.2 tons of drugs each day by air, and up to 20 tons a month. And the number of flights is rising.
In fact, the demand for cocaine has increased in the VRAE. Proof of this is the increased price for cocaine base (PBL, for its acronym in Spanish), which is basically what is exported from the VRAE to Bolivia. PBL, which last year cost around $600 to $800 per kilo in the production zones, now fluctuates between $900 and $1000. The cost of cocaine hydrochloride, on the other hand, hasn't varied significantly. The current value fluctuates between $1000 and $1200, very similar to last year's price per kilo, which was around $950 to $1100.
The security aspect is much more worrisome. The dozens of aircraft loaded with cocaine flying over the Valley land, take off and fly very close to military or police bases, in what is one of Peru's most militarized zones.
"In Esmeralda Valley there's a combined-forces garrison from which everything is visible. The post is high up and strategically placed. You can see almost all of the Ene Valley. Everyday helicopters fly over and there are government agents are all around the VRAE. (…) It is not a novelty for people to see the planes take off, and when they are fully loaded they emit an accelerated sound," a source informed IDL-Reporteros.
There is a total lack of control of the airspace over the VRAE. It is as if the aerial interdiction had never existed. The runways' locations are known, but no radar system or air surveillance detects incoming or outgoing drug flights.
"There's no radar. We don't monitor our airspace. The FAP (Peruvian Air Force) doesn't have the operational capacity to be able to do interdiction," a military source said.
So while the Armed Forces and the Police put up with the embarrassing drug flights buzzing around their heads, the government, instead of addressing this huge security gap, has announced the start of a coca eradication program in the VRAE. Which means attacking the usually poor cocalero peasants and leaving the drug traffickers, untouched, so as to make sure that no mistakes are left unmade.
*Romina Mella is a journalist at IDL Reporteros.