Peru’s government has announced the creation of a no-fly zone in the coca producing VRAEM region, in an effort to curb drug flights in one of South America’s most important and unmonitored drug trafficking areas.
“Any flight that does not report to aviation headquarters will be considered a hostile and illegal flight,” said Peru’s anti-drug chief Alberto Otarola at a February 4 press conference. Nearly 90 percent of all cocaine produced in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) leaves by air.
Otarola expects the no fly zone to be operational in March, following the planned approval of a law allowing the government to intercept planes suspected of drug trafficking. The first step will be to install radar coverage near the borders with Bolivia and Brazil.
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Almost half of all cocaine produced in Peru comes from the VRAEM, the first leg in an air bridge to Bolivia, where coca base can be crystallized into cocaine and sent to large consumer markets in Brazil or for transit to Europe. According to some estimates, up to 72 tons of cocaine are flown out of the VRAEM each month.
Peru previously had an interception policy for drug flights during the heyday of the Peru-Colombia air bridge, which abruptly ended following the accidental shoot down of a flight carrying a US missionary and her daughter in 2001.
After that incident, the Peruvian government changed direction by stepping up coca eradication efforts in the VRAEM, and began destroying airstrips on the ground instead of intercepting planes. Both were clear policy failures -- drug traffickers rebuilt airstrips with 24-hour turnaround times and eradication in the region mostly hurt poor farmers instead of traffickers.
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Another question is whether Peru will even have the capability to interdict drug flights in the largely unmonitored VRAEM. The government announced the construction of 10 new military bases in September 2014, but according to reports from IDL-Reporteros, drug planes entering Peru to resupply fly over “barracks, precincts, posts and bases” before finding a suitable place to land. The government is in the process of purchasing military planes and four new radars, which supposedly will be ready by March 2015.
Though controversial, no fly zones and aerial interception policies can be effective, with Colombia registering a 99 percent reduction in drug flights in 2014.