The account of one drug trafficker's criminal history in Peru's tri-river valley known as the VRAEM is emblematic of how the cocaine trade works in the country's biggest coca-growing region.
The trafficker who would eventually earn over $100,000 per drug shipment started in the cocaine business at age 12, making $300 a month collecting coca leaves in Peru's Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) region. "Sacha Mono," as he is identified in an interview with La Republica, soon realized he occupied the lowest rung in the drug supply chain, and sought to increase his income.
Once Sacha Mono saved up enough money, he opened his own coca maceration pit -- where the first steps in cocaine production take place -- and saw his earnings jump to $3,200 per month. Sacha Mono eventually started supplying coca base to one of the "most respected and feared" drug traffickers operating along the Peru-Bolivia border. At that point, Sancha Mono says he was being paid $1,500 per kilo -- making almost $700,000 per year. With just a basic education, Sacha Mono had made it big in the drug trade.
"I changed 4x4 trucks like I changed my shirts," Sacha Mono told La Republica. "Like magic, my life had changed."
But the good times would not last. One day while working in his maceration pit, police officers swooped in and arrested him. Although Sacha Mono has since completed his prison sentence, his life is now a shadow of what it once was.
"I was left even poorer and my family has left me," he said.
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Sacha Mono's story is indicative of how the low and middle tiers of the drug supply chain operate in the VRAEM, Peru's most prolific coca-growing region where an estimated 200 tons of cocaine are produced each year.
What is perhaps most surprising, however, is that he was caught at all. Indeed, the VRAEM is considered a stronghold of guerrilla group the Shining Path, and the Peruvian government has long struggled to establish a strong state presence in the region.
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While President Ollanta Humala recently declared drug traffickers no longer constitute a "parallel power" in the VRAEM, the region has yet to see a decline in coca production -- despite significant decreases in many other parts of Peru. This is perhaps due to the government abandoning its forced coca eradication program in the VRAEM in June 2014 due to security risks posed by the Shining Path.