A recent attack by Shining Path guerrillas on a military base in rural Peru may have been revenge for the seizure of a cocaine shipment, raising questions about just what the Maoist rebel group is morphing into.
On October 7, the security forces seized more than half a ton of cocaine and arrested seven people who were transporting it in a truck. The authorities said that the goods, intercepted in the San Martin de Pangoa district of the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE), were packed and ready to be transported to Lima, and then abroad. The valley is home not only to most of the country's coca production, but to one of the two remaining branches of the Shining Path rebel group (Sendero Luminoso). Six of those captured were Peruvian, but one was a Colombian national identified as Garzon Alvarez Edilberto, alias “Danny.”
The details of Alvarez’s business in the region are hazy. Some reports say he was sent by Colombian traffickers to do business in Peru, while others say he is part of a group called La Revancha, whose name was reportedly stamped into the seized cocaine. According to La Republica, he heads a group known in the VRAE as “Los Colombianos.” Whatever his exact role, he was likely the Peruvians’ link to selling the drugs on the international market.
Some six weeks after this modest success, the local Union Mantaro military base was attacked by Shining Path guerrillas. The armed forces managed to fight off the guerrillas, but one army lieutenant was killed and another two soldiers injured. Army sources told La Republica that the attack was direct retaliation for the cocaine seizure, and that the traffickers had been linked to the rebels. According to the newspaper, “Each time the troops strike a blow against the drug traffickers, the Shining Path reacts with a counterattack. There is a direct relation between cause and effect.”
The rebels have certainly set out before to protect coca plantations, murdering coca eradicators on more than one occasion. They have also previously carried out operations that appeared to be in response to drug seizures: a 2007 attack on a police station in Ocobamba, in which 60 rebels reportedly bombed the building before carrying out a two-hour assault and executing an officer, took place only a month after police from that station had seized almost a ton of coca base, the raw material for cocaine. The attack was led by a rebel known as "Comrade Robert," who had reportedly been in charge of protecting the shipment.
This could suggest a deepening relationship between drug traffickers and the erstwhile insurgents, with the Shining Path working almost as an enforcement arm for trafficking groups. If the Shining Path are now attacking government forces not as a matter of ideology but to protect drug shipments, this would be a decisive move away from their roots as a revolutionary force.
As with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Peruvian authorities have been declaring for some time that the Shining Path has transformed itself into "just" a drug trafficking organization. According to statements from the army, this transformation took place in 2004, when the group decided to begin cultivating coca and producing coca base. In addition to producing their own crops, they also tax coca growers and charge a fee to protect and guard drug shipments exiting the VRAE. Reports from El Comercio earlier this year said that the Shining Path charges $30 per kilo to guard a shipment of cocaine through their territory.
However, according to a 2010 report, the VRAE branch of the group only produce coca base, and do not refine it into the purer, and more profitable, HCl form, as they lack the contacts to get the product to big buyers abroad. They instead have to go through intermediaries, selling the coca base to local drug traffickers. Three local groups named by La Republica as buying base from the Shining Path are the Bendezu Quispe family, the Pinedo Guillen family, and the group headed by Filemon Huillcayauri Crespo.
Given all this, the guerrillas still appear to be distinct from the traffickers who they deal with, sell to, and protect. This, and their lack of international contacts, explains the presence of Colombian nationals in the VRAE; according to La Republica, the Peruvian authorities have identified two other Colombians operating in the region, in addition to “Danny.” Both function there by financing drug production and paying “quotas” to the Shining Path to protect their shipments. Colombians are also reportedly present in the territory of the Shining Path’s other faction, an independent branch based in the Upper Huallaga Valley, although there, according to one captured rebel, the Colombians were working in labs to produce the cocaine.
The guerrilla's attacks on the armed forces seem to be motivated by the wish to cause casualties, rather than just to protect drug shipments. The group has killed more than 50 members of the security forces since 2008. So far this year the body count of soldiers is nine, according to analyst Jaime Antezana, in five separate incidents. This includes the death of two soldiers in an ambush on a helicopter in the VRAE, which analysts say was an attempt to bring the whole aircraft down -- a tactic that the rebels have used on more than one occasion in the last 12 years. This kind of highly aggressive attack on the armed forces smacks more of an insurgency than of a drug trafficking operation.
For Antezana, the military's focus on the Shining Path as a drug trafficking organization could be wrongheaded. He told El Comercio that the deadly attack on the Union Mantaro base was to some extent the result of a situation in which the military had “dropped their guard” against the Shining Path, focusing on combating drug trafficking operations rather than being on the tail of the guerrillas. For Antezana, the military’s focus on intercepting shipments, destroying cocaine-making facilities, and regulating the purchase of chemicals that can be used to produce the drug is not enough to stop the rebels.
However deeply the Shining Path are enmeshed in the drug trade, they still have certain characteristics of a guerrilla group. These include a sophisticated command structure, the capacity to plan and carry out operations against the security forces, and perhaps to rely on the loyalty of their troops in the way a drug gang would not.
As happened with the FARC in Colombia, the proceeds from drug trafficking are enough to give a new lease of life to the rebel group. According to La Republica, some 15 tons of cocaine pass each month through the northern part of the VRAE. If we estimate that the Shining Path guards half of this, charging its $30-per-kilo fee, that alone would yield them a quarter of a million dollars -- more than enough to keep the group not only in existence, but with uniforms, military training and the other trappings of a well-functioning insurgency.