The coronavirus pandemic has halted trafficking in Peru and sent cocaine prices plummeting, but drug seizures continue in the border department of Ucayali, a jungle region that has become a major smuggling corridor to Bolivia and Brazil.
A March 29 raid in eastern Ucayali department resulted in the seizure of 39 kilograms of cocaine, the discovery of three clandestine airstrips and the arrest of nine people, according to local media outlet Caretas. The drugs were reportedly destined for neighboring Bolivia, the news report said.
About a week later, authorities seized 70 kilograms of coca paste. An April 24 raid also led to the dismantling of a drug ring made up of 23 people and the seizure of 56 kilograms of cocaine.
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The string of drug busts in Ucayali has come at the same time that cocaine prices in Peru are falling amid the coronavirus pandemic. Drug smuggling has been limited because of restrictions on movement, leading to a glut of cocaine and a drop in its local price from $900 per kilogram to $400, according to news outlet Peru21.
Pedro Yaranga, an expert in security and drug trafficking issues, told Peru21 that the decline in cocaine prices has occurred throughout the country, including in Cusco, Huallaga and the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley, a cocaine production hotspot also known as the VRAEM.
"The narcos have a lot of difficulties in transporting their merchandise. There are those that have opted not to buy drugs because they cannot move them,” said Yaranga.
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While the coronavirus is causing conventional routes in Peru to shut down, the sparsely populated and remote jungle region of Ucayali has continued to function as a transport hub to neighboring Bolivia and Brazil.
Yaranga, the drug trafficking expert, told InSight Crime in August 2019 that two factors had led to an increase in cocaine moving through the Ucayali region.
First, more drugs are being moved to Brazil, with which Ucayali shares a long border. Second, traffickers have found the department to be a strategic point for smuggling by air.
In 2015, the National Airspace Control, Surveillance and Defense Law was enacted, allowing Peru's Air Force to shoot down aircraft used for drug trafficking. Numerous subsequent military operations in the VRAEM -- long the center of Peru's coca growing and cocaine production -- led to the destruction of hundreds of clandestine airstrips, many used for drug flights to Brazil and Bolivia, according to Yaranga.
Consequently, traffickers began to construct airstrips farther north and just to the west of Ucayali, in the area of Pichis, Palcazú and Pachitea.
In 2017, authorities dismantled 57 clandestine airstrips in the Pichis, Palcazú and Pachitea, adjacent to Ucayali. To fight the rising frequency of drug flights, the government installed a radar in Ucayali's capital of Pucallpa in 2019. Despite these efforts, Yaranga said that more than 100 clandestine airstrips exist in the region of Pichis, Palcazú and Pachitea.
Coca cultivation in the region has also skyrocketed. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) 2017 report on coca crop coverage in Peru, illicit crops increased by 554 percent between 2016 and 2017 in the area of Pichis, Palcazú and Pachitea, while the municipalities of Aguaitía and Callería in Ucayali saw illicit crops increase by 40 percent and 136 percent, respectively, during that same time.
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Smugglers are also increasingly moving drugs along the rivers linking Ucayali to Brazil. The Ucayali River already serves as a highway for bringing illegal wood to international markets, according to an InSight Crime investigation.
Towards the north, drug traffickers use the Ucayali River, a major tributary of the Amazon, to feed cocaine to the Brazilian city of Manaus. Drugs also move into Brazil further south, flowing first down the Ucayali River then the Abujao River to the border. According to the UNODC, this route has grown rapidly in recent years.