Peru has become the biggest cocaine producer and exporter in the world. In the main cultivation region, farmers make their living selling coca leaf with no questions asked. Those in power are accused of collaborating with criminals and the last stronghold of the Shining Path is caught between terrorism and drug trafficking. This is how the first link in the drug chain operates.
The journey was dusty and full of curves. In some parts the rocks had fallen from the cliffs and blocked the road, which was cut across by small cascades formed by the rain. We were surrounded by green: hectares and hectares of coca plants. Political propaganda could be seen on the wall of a wooden house: "Guillermo for mayor, coca." Further on, among the trees, a sign could be seen: "Entry forbidden to criminals under penalty of lynching. Beware!"
At the edge of the road a woman stopped our car to ask for help. Her two-year-old daughter could not stop coughing and she needed someone to take her to the doctor in the nearest village, around 15 kilometers from where she worked gathering coca leaves with her three other children. Every week, entire families work in the "cocales" -- coca plantations -- either planting, harvesting or drying the plant. Coca supports life in this poor region, isolated from the rest of Peru. The children, dirty and full of mucus, hopped into a stranger's car while their mother remained to work in the field. She took the coca leaves and threw them onto a canvas to let them dry in the sun.
This region is composed of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) and, according to the United Nations (UN), it is the place with the most coca crops and laboratories for the production of coca base and cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) in the world. Every year, more than 200 tons of cocaine are produced in the region (out of 600 tons nationwide), according to the UN, although some specialists give a higher estimate of 400 tons. Peru has overtaken Colombia as the world's leading cocaine exporter.
"Today we have 22 small coca cultivating basins throughout the eastern jungle and we have three major centers of exportation. One is through the Amazonian tri-border region [bordering Colombia and Brazil], towards Europe. [Then there is] the Pacific highway that connects with Central America; and a growing market in Brazil fed by the VRAEM. This third one is the new major trend," said Ricardo Soberon, Peru's former antinarcotics chief and founder of the Center for the Investigation of Drugs and Human Rights (CIDDH).
Getting here from Lima takes more than 20 hours by car, keeping in mind the possibility of the road collapsing. Until 2006, the Peruvian state barely had a presence in the region, but resistance by the last faction of the Shining Path guerrilla group, the Quispe Palomino clan, has driven the army to try to reclaim the territory, which has also become the main exit point for Bolivia-bound cocaine. Since then, a battle has been waged between members of the Shining Path and the military. There are frequent attacks, as well as a trade in weapons and drugs, which has led authorities to impose a curfew to stop people being outdoors after 10 at night. A few months ago, an official helicopter was brought down by terrorists.
Nothing but Coca
Cheldo Perez -- a 34-year-old with dark skin, black eyes and a broad back -- has always lived in Kimbiri, the regional capital. The town barely gets internet access, many building facades are flaking, the market consists of three stalls, and Peru's famous gastronomy is lost to the town, as there is only one restaurant in which "you won't get food poisoning," according to the owner of our hotel. When he was a teenager, Perez saw how the fight between the Shining Path, the army and the civilians themselves -- who organized into self-defense groups -- multiplied the death toll. Those were the times during which the Shining Path, under the leadership of Abimael Guzman, alias "President Gonzalo," challenged the state in order to establish a communist regime. To do so, he resorted to an armed struggle and recruited, kidnapped and killed peasants in regions such as the VRAEM.
Following the conflict, Perez, along with the majority of farmers, decided to earn a living growing coca leaves, since this crop can be harvested up to four times a year and generates much better earnings than any other crop. An "arroba" (12 kilos) of coca leaf can cost around $38, and a day laborer earns double working on a coca field than on a cacao or coffee plantation. Although coca kills the earth and does not allow for the cultivation of any other type of crop for years, Perez had no doubts about using his two hectares of land for this crop.
"It's their petty cash fund. Every three months they get cash to pay the bills with," Soberon explained. Of the 20,000 hectares of coca fields in the VRAEM, only six percent of the product is sold legally and registered with the National Coca Company (ENACO). The farmers who belong to this organization can process coca leaf to make teas, soaps and medicinal products, or sell it for chewing, a typical activity in the Andean region because it counteracts altitude sickness and alleviates hunger, thirst and fatigue. The rest goes to drug trafficking.
"Whoever buys it off me, it is not my business," Perez said early one Sunday morning, while eating ceviche in a restaurant in front of the town's main square, which is currently under construction. "All of a sudden, someone will come with their truck and buy all of someone's harvest," said the coca grower, who employs 60 people to work his fields every season. Furthermore, drug traffickers pay three times more than ENACO. The majority of farmers do not know where the coca leaf is destined for, nor that cocaine is part of a multi-million dollar business that kills thousands of people on this continent. "Many have never seen other things, other opportunities."
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In one of the poorest regions in Peru, where the majority of people earn less than $282 a month -- the country's minimum wage -- Perez drives a motorcycle; wears shiny, clean clothes that contrast with those of the day laborers working in the coca fields; and carries his laptop in his hand. Everyone else fights over a spot in the only two internet cafes in the area.
"Where are the 'pits' [places where coca leaves are converted into base]?" we asked Cheldo Perez when we visited his coca plantations.
According to the latest report by the Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA), there are at least 200 clandestine laboratories in the VRAEM, and clandestine runways used for drug flights are increasingly common throughout this region and in the central rainforest.
The farmer smiled, showing his dazzlingly white teeth, and pointed to the top of the mountain. "There and there," he said indifferently, as if for him it were already a distant problem.
In pavilion number seven of Lurigancho prison, Peru's biggest penitentiary, 30 minutes or so away from Lima, an Italian mafioso lives together with a Colombian cartel envoy and a Spanish mule named Jordi who, pushed by the economic crisis in Spain, had attempted a return flight with a suitcase full of drugs. Flores -- a fake name -- a Peruvian in his forties, an extrovert with an easy smile, has been in the jail for more than a decade, also on charges of drug trafficking. He saw how, while his country gained importance as a cocaine producer and exporter, this prison turned into a miniature version of the UN.
A number of inmates and a guard accompanied us through the prison, wandering in between computer and handicraft workshops, and corridors in which some prisoners were smoking crack. In ward number seven there are shops, such as Walter's chicken store with its plastic chairs on the patio, where small meetings are held while basketball games are played next door. Depending on the purchasing power of each inmate, some sleep in private cells, others in shared cells and others on mattresses on the floor. Everyone breathes in as much air as they can in a prison that is at four times its capacity.
Not long before we said goodbye, when the guard accompanying us was at a distance, Flores slipped us a card with his cell phone number written on the back. "Call me and I'll tell you." A couple of days later he answered our call from his prison cell:
"It was no man's land. Everybody knew. The army too. There was no control."
Flores was talking about Alto Huallaga, at the end of the 1980s and 1990s, when it was the epicenter of production in Peru. Today, after many millions were invested by the United States into coca eradication, coupled with pressure from Peruvian authorities, it has been replaced by the VRAEM.
Like many youngsters from this land which borders the Amazon to the north, he was fascinated by the arrival of Colombian traffickers. "They would give us toys, and money on Mother's Day," said Flores. The narcos would hire around 40 people, or a "cuadrilla," who would set up camp in a remote area for a week, living off canned food. First they would gather and macerate the coca leaves. Three days later, in a big hole in the ground -- the "pit" -- they would mix the plant with sulfuric acid, ammonia and potassium permanganate. The mix, Flores recalled, smelled foul. He said that if someone were to see how coca base was made, they would never use cocaine.
The work of the Peruvians, always under the watch of around 20 armed men, would end when they made big balls of coca base of up to 400 grams, and placed them into barrels.
"They would pay us 70 soles a day [around $25] to work from 6 in the morning to 6 in the afternoon, without breaks. It was a pitiful amount, but to us it seemed like a lot of money." Having worked as coca farmers their entire lives, little by little they began to learn that with the right processing, the plant could return much higher yields in the illegal market.
"Today there are more hectares of coca than before the eradication began," said Soberon, who is currently an advisor to governments such as that of President Evo Morales in Bolivia on the topic of drugs.
In his case, Flores decided to transport the cocaine to Lima. A kilo at the place of origin, be it Alto Huallaga or the VRAEM, is currently worth around $800, while in the capital city, which sits on the coast, the price rises to an average of $1,200.
Flores earned around $800 for each trip, until on one of them he was arrested and sentenced to prison.
Since those early days, both the process and the drug traffickers have grown more sophisticated. "What they have done is replace the chemicals that we regulate," said Renzo Caballero, a major in Peru's anti-drug police (DIRANDRO). "Now the process uses 84-octane gasoline, which is the same fuel, for example, that is used by all the speedboats crossing the rivers of the VRAEM. Gasoline is legal everywhere in the world!"
In Kimbiri or Pichari, localities without a great fleet of vehicles, there is a proliferation of gas stations. "They've also hired engineers who are able to cut and weld the metal of big engines without leaving any traces. Then they wrap the packets with all types of paper. It's quite complicated for the [drug] dogs," he said. Mules have also proliferated in this region full of rivers. Residents said that many locals would walk for days carrying the processed cocaine on their shoulders to deliver it to drug traffickers who then take it to Bolivia. According to the DEVIDA report, around 4,000 young people from the VRAEM are currently in prison for drug trafficking.
Caballero, who met us at a white table surrounded by maps of Peru, seemed to encapsulate all the qualities of a good police officer: he was eloquent, he knew the terrain and the statistics well, and was in great physical shape. He was even honest when it came to speaking of the paradox he faced. Last year they made more arrests, more seizures and eradicated more hectares than ever. This year they have confiscated twice the amount of precursor chemicals as last year. Nonetheless, coca production has increased recently and the Quispe Palomino clan is playing a decisive role in controlling drug routes.
"Drug traffickers ask the Quispe Palomino [faction] to plant [the coca] and to surround and protect the routes. They get family clans together and launder money through their businesses [...] They are not the Shining Path at all, they are just drug traffickers," Major Caballero said.
The police, furthermore, lack support in regions such as the VRAEM. In 2012, the DIRANDO set up base in a school building in Kepashiato -- a small coca farming community -- due to a lack of resources. The Shining Path would open fire on the police at night. The local people, alarmed at the danger their children were in, demanded that the police leave the area. Furthermore, every time the police approach the farms with shovels to begin eradicating, there is some kind of mobilization against them. This year, President Ollanta Humala's government is looking to eradicate around 30,000 hectares of coca leaf to remove Peru from its position as the world's primary coca producer, but it is not easy to remove someone's source of income and convince them that it is for their benefit and protection.
Another Lurigancho inmate, born in the VRAEM and arrested while transporting a few kilos of cocaine to Bolivia, told us how, as a baby, he was given baby bottles with a coca infusion. "Yes, everything is coca there," Caballero said. Alternative crops such as coffee, citrus and cacao -- which have been tried out as possible solutions -- have failed to change the local landscape. "It's only natural, with coca they earn ten times more," added Caballero.
Although Peru is not home to big names in the drug trafficking industry, as is the case in Colombia or in Mexico, Peruvians are starting to become more active participants. Various clans have emerged to produce and traffic drugs to the country's borders. Today, there are around 40 operating. Jaime Antezana, a drug trafficking expert, distinguishes the first stage of the trade -- up until the mid-1990s -- during which Colombian cartels dominated the business and exports were mainly delivered by air, from the second -- beginning in the year 2000 -- during which production has steadily increased, the productivity of crops has shot up -- for every 313 kilograms of coca leaf a kilogram of cocaine can be extracted -- and during which the invasion of the Shining Path has provoked a fight for the control of plantations and routes.
Among Sharks and Narco-Politicians
Godofredo Yucra was working in a coca maceration pit when he was arrested and convicted for drug trafficking. It was the year 1997. Fifteen years later, this stony faced man of few words was working as the governor of Kimbiri, seated at a well-worn wooden desk that barely saw any light. He faced new allegations that he was a member of the Shark Clan, one of the most famous drug groups in the region. "Let the justice system figure that out," was all he had to say when we asked him about his criminal past.
After attending to a citizen who wanted to change his residence, Yucra insisted that he would not leave his post despite the charges against him, and that the following day he would to go to his humble study as usual, which looked more like an old utility room than a politician's office.
The accusation had been made by the previous mayor, who had been dismissed for nepotism, and who had additionally accused family members of the current mayor. Some VRAEM locals who opposed the appointment of Yucra -- the post is chosen by politicians and not by civilians -- spoke of him with a resigned smile. Narco-politics is a common topic in the region.
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"In Peru there are 11 or 12 narco-mayors and 12 narco-congressmen," affirmed Antezana, the drug trafficking expert who more than three years ago denounced the ties between politicians and drug traffickers, especially in high-risk zones such as the VRAEM.
The mayor of Pichari, Edilberto Gomez, or "El Loco Edy," is among those who have taken office amid accusations of collaborating with criminals. "Everything under the sun is clear to see. There is nothing to hide," he said distractedly one warm afternoon in his office. "It's not the fault of who's planting [it] but of who's consuming [it]," added Gomez, the man who organizes Pichari's International Coca Leaf Festival every year in honor of the over 5,000 year old farming tradition. During the celebration, coca leaf is used to produce sweets, baked goods and liquors. Miss Coca is also crowned.
The daily routine in Kimbiri or Pichari seems to be a sequence of scenarios depicting how life naturally revolves around coca, rather than typical episodes of a territorial battle between the army, drug traffickers and the Shining Path. The only person who spoke to us about a "war" was an army coronel who received us in the barracks of Pichari. "Within these walls you have to understand that we are at war," he stated. After giving vague answers regarding the work of the military in the area he saw us off with a gift: a pack of poker cards. Each of the cards had a photograph of a Shining Path member above the reward offered for information leading to their capture: the ace of diamonds was for the Shining Path's "Jose," the two of spades was for "Alipio," and the three of clubs was for "Raul." For each a reward of 1 million soles is offered, or approximately $300,000.
The general feeling among the locals is that the horrific war of the 1980s and 1990s that left around 70,000 people dead -- of which little over 20,000 have been identified -- will never return. "They don't get involved with civilians anymore. We've already beaten them once. Now they ask for food and leave," says Cheldo Perez, the coca farmer. For the locals the conflict has become marginal, a problem between the Shining Path and security forces that from time to time affects the inhabitants of the VRAEM. They believe that the era of political violence will never return.
Around 15 minutes from Kimbiri, in an Ashaninka village -- the largest indigenous ethnicity living in the Peruvian rainforest -- the family of Damian Michael Ciuviri, a DIRANDRO police officer, and the rest of the community, demand justice in finding out who murdered him. Wearing their traditional dress, a kind of brown robe that reaches their ankles, men and women separated into two groups under a thatched wooden roof and recounted how, since the times when the Shining Path was at its peak, their ethnic group has been affected by terrorism and drug trafficking. The men withdrew and the sisters of the police agent spoke, surrounded by dozens of children playing around them.
On the day of the murder, the family had been trying to contact him, but he never answered his calls. Ciuviri was taking part in an operation because the police had received intelligence regarding a supposed exchange of weapons and drugs between Shining Path members and drug traffickers. The terrorists ambushed the patrol along the road, killed Ciuviri and another colleague, and two agents were injured. The Nissan truck that they had been driving was burnt to a crisp.
The Ashaninkas, a group that fights against the exploitation of wood in the region, have been caught in a crossfire between the Maoist guerrillas and the military for nearly 40 years. Until the end of the 1990s, they were forcibly recruited or accused of subversion, and a number of their people were assassinated during the confrontations. Since the arrival of drug trafficking, the war has more to do with drug theft and ambushes than with ideological struggle. Days after the ambush, Ciuviri's family travelled to Lima to ask the president that justice be served. "There are no thieves, 'terrucos' [terrorists] or drug addicts here. But the newspapers in Lima demonize the VRAEM because they have to sell copy," claimed Mayor Gomez. Under the shadow of the thatched roof, one of Ciuviri's sisters swore unwaveringly: "If the government does not do us justice, we will take up arms."
*This article was also contributed to by Pablo Ferri. It originally appeared in Domingo El Universal and was reprinted and translated with permission from Alejandra S. Inzunza and Jose Luis Pardo. See original here. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com.