Authorities in Peru have sent troops to an isolated river valley at the heart of the country’s cocaine trade after the massacre of more than a dozen individuals, raising fresh questions about the Shining Path splinter faction suspected of carrying out the attack.
The deployment came after members of a group known as the Militarized Communist Party of Peru (Militarizado Partido Comunista del Perú -- MPCP), a splinter faction of the infamous Shining Path guerrillas, were alleged to have shot and killed at least 16 individuals, including women and children, on May 23 in San Miguel de Ene, a hamlet nestled deep within the heart of Peru’s Amazon, the armed forces announced in a press release.
The small town sits in a strategic cocaine trafficking corridor known as the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro -- VRAEM), where around half of the Andean nation’s almost 55,000 hectares of coca crops are located, according to Peru’s anti-drug agency (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo y Vida Sin Drogas - Devida).
SEE ALSO: Shining Path Profile
Authorities called the brutal attack an “act of genocide.” They allege it was carried out by the MPCP faction headed by Victor Quispe Palomino, alias “José,” adding that the guerrillas have carried out similar attacks in the past as a form of “social cleansing,” according to the statement.
Pamphlets reportedly left at the crime scene - but dated for May 10 - urged locals to boycott the upcoming presidential election this June between left-wing hopeful Pedro Castillo and the right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori. “Rid the VRAEM of … parasites and corruption,” read part of the note. It also said that anyone voting for Fujimori would be labeled a “traitor.”
Castillo decried the murders as a “terrorist act.” And Keiko Fujimori called on people to not be afraid in a statement, stressing that she wouldn’t let those who carried out the attack stop the electoral process.
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The brutal murders in the VRAEM appear to be a desperate act from a severely weakened Shining Path faction struggling to recover after the death earlier this year of their second-in-command, Jorge Quispe Palomino, alias “Raúl.”
US authorities call the Shining Path and its faction led by José - the late Raúl’s brother - a “narco-terrorist organization.” Both brothers were indicted in New York in 2014 on drug trafficking, weapons and terrorism charges. The State Department is offering a reward of up to $5 million for any information leading to José’s arrest and conviction.
The brothers had tried to distance the MPCP from past rural killings at the hands of the Shining Path to gain the trust of local communities, which is key to their criminal activities, ranging from taxing coca growers to providing armed security for cocaine shipments.
SEE ALSO: Shining Path Commander's Death Strikes Blow to Peru Rebel Group
However, the latest massacre suggests the MPCP has resorted to the same brutal violence the Shining Path often used, all but undermining the local support the group needs to steer clear of security forces working to remove them and coca crops from the VRAEM.
Just last week, Peru's police arrested several individuals and the armed forces destroyed five coca processing labs in the VRAEM.
According to Peruvian police sources that spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, the raid was made possible due to information provided by local informants working for authorities.
They explained the massacre was likely a stern warning to locals in the VRAEM not to cooperate with authorities. The brazen nature of the attack and the fact that leaflets were left behind for survivors seems to support the theory that the perpetrators were trying to send a clear message.
"We may not see a logical reason for them to attack, but there was a clear intention behind this," according to one police source.
Top photo: Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press (AP)