Violence in Peru has been relatively low since the end of its civil conflict in the late 1990s. Although it remains the world’s top coca producer behind Colombia, illicit cultivations in the country are decreasing. Profits from drug trafficking and illegal logging have fueled a small resurgence of the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group that no longer poses a major threat to the stability of the Peruvian state, but which continues to attack security forces and foreign companies in the remote Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM).
Peru is an important location for the cocaine trade thanks to its suitability for growing coca, and vast ungoverned areas that allow groups like the Shining Path, as well as drug trafficking clans, to flourish. Its strategic position bordering Bolivia and Brazil gives it access to Brazil’s growing domestic cocaine market, as well as international shipping routes.
Peru has been a cocaine and coca exporter since the 19th century, when much of its product was exported legally to the United States. The US government outlawed the drug in the early 20th century, and pressured Peru into doing so in 1948. This sparked the growth of the illegal drug business, which over the following decades would be centered in the Huallaga Valley, in the north of the country.
Much of Peru’s cocaine was shipped out of the country via southern routes through Chile. However, a crackdown in the 1970s by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet forced a re-routing north through Colombia, giving rise to the powerful Medellín and Cali Cartels there. Coca leaves were generally processed into coca base in Peru, and refined into pure cocaine once abroad. By the 1980s, Peru had become the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.
The decade also brought the rise of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas, a group of Maoist communists led by philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, who declared war on the state in 1980. The group’s insurgency began in the mountain town of Ayacucho and grew to occupy large parts of the highlands, even reaching the capital Lima at its height. The conflict also involved a rival guerrilla group the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru – MRTA), and peasant patrols backed by the government.
Nearly 70,000 people died or disappeared during the conflict between 1980 and 2000, with just under half the deaths attributed to the Shining Path. Government forces were blamed for some 23,000 deaths, as well as widespread human rights abuses.
The Shining Path went into a decline after its leader, Guzmán, was captured in 1992, and later split into two separate branches. Meanwhile, Peru’s cocaine production dropped with the harsh security policies of the Alberto Fujimori government (1990-2000), and production largely shifted to Colombia. However, the drug trade still remained an important force in Peru. Fujimori’s close ally and security chief Vladimiro Montesinos was arrested in 2001 on accusations of corruption and links to the drug trade and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). Local politicians, such as David Bazán Arévalo, the twice-elected mayor of the crime-plagued northern town of Tocache who was arrested in 2017, have also been accused of corruption and ties to the drug trade.
The cocaine business increased slightly during the early to mid-2010s, providing a new influx of money that helped the Shining Path make a comeback. At this time, Peru and Colombia alternated as the world’s largest coca cultivators and cocaine producers. But by 2015, Colombia had taken back the title, following a 14 percent decline in Peru’s cultivations in 2014.
At this time, coca production began spreading outside of traditional production regions and into the Amazon, and evidence emerged that the drug trade continued to infiltrate the country’s security forces, political sphere and judiciary. Peru’s government hit back with tough eradication campaigns and tight controls on precursor chemicals used to make cocaine. However, the funding for these anti-drug trafficking programs was limited, and the state continues to struggle with establishing control in the remote VRAEM region — the Shining Path’s last remaining stronghold and the country’s biggest coca-producing area.
Peru’s government has launched an ambitious plan to cut coca cultivation in half by 2021, but it is unlikely to succeed without improvements to crop substitution programs like one in the Puno jungle that focuses on swapping coca for coffee. Political obstacles also complicate efforts because traditional uses of the coca plant remain legal, and coca growers are a strong political force. Nonetheless, coca cultivation has remained stable in recent years and Colombia continues to hold the mantle of the world’s main coca cultivator and cocaine producer.
While drug trafficking remains the focus of security concerns, the profits it brings in are dwarfed by those of the illegal mining trade, which 2014 government estimates valued at $3 billion a year. The epicenter of the trade is the Madre de Dios region. While there is not much violence associated with the sector, it has wrought environmental and social destruction. Mining regions are also a hub of human trafficking, for both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The illegal gold trade has also been tied to money laundering involving a US-based company with offices in Miami and Dallas. In 2017, Peru officially declared illegal mining an organized crime activity and launched a program to tackle it, including through massive police operations.
Another major challenge for Peru is its large-scale, highly-profitable and environmentally detrimental illicit timber trade, which is facilitated by corruption and lax controls. An estimated 80 percent of the country’s total timber exports are thought to be illegal. Killings of environmental rights activists have also been tied to the illegal logging industry.
Peru has also been rocked by the corruption scandals sweeping through Latin America in recent years. Four former presidents and a current top politician face money laundering allegations. In early 2018, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski became Latin America’s first serving head of state to leave office due to accusations linked to the region’s largest corruption investigation, the Odebrecht case.
The Shining Path guerrilla group launched its war against the state in 1980, and is now deeply involved in organized crime. While the drug trade helped strengthen the group, in recent years it has been severely weakened by the deaths and arrests of a number of its top leaders. The rebels are thought to work with traffickers in the VRAEM region. This is the group’s last remaining stronghold after it was pushed out of the Alto Huallaga region following the 2012 capture of Florindo Eleuterio Flores, alias “Comrade Artemio.”
Local Peruvian trafficking groups share their territory with foreign drug trafficking organizations, including Colombian and Mexican criminal groups. These maintain sophisticated cocaine trafficking networks to Europe, Asia, the United States and other countries. Local traffickers are also known to have links with other transnational criminal groups, including Brazilian gangs and Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta.
Peru’s illegal gold mining sector operates as a complex network of miners, middlemen and mining concession owners, including “gold capos” such as foreign armed groups, powerful families and politicians who use illegal practices such as forced labor and bribery.
The 63rd Front of Colombia's FARC guerrilla group is thought to provide protection and logistical support for Peruvian illegal miners along the Putumayo River, on the border between Colombia and Peru.
Human smuggling networks and illegal loggers also operate in Peru, and extortion is a major industry.
Peru has a centralized police force, the Peruvian National Police (Policía Nacional del Peru – PNP). The force has a reputation for corruption.
As of 2017, Peru had around 100,000 active frontline military personnel. The armed forces’ reputation has suffered in the past due to incidents of human rights abuses during the internal conflict, and some military leaders’ support for Fujimori, who was imprisoned for corruption and human rights abuses (though later released in early 2018 on a controversial pardon as his health deteriorated).
The armed forces have recently increased their involvement in fighting drug trafficking and the remnants of Shining Path, conducting joint operations with the police force. Authorities have dealt severe blows to the Shining Path in recent years, although the rebel group remains strong in certain regions.
Members of the armed forces have long been implicated in arms trafficking networks linked to criminal groups.
There are almost 700 authorized private security companies in Peru, with over 70,000 personnel.
The Supreme Court of Justice is Peru’s highest judicial body. Below this are the Superior Courts of Justice, which operate within their local jurisdictions, followed by smaller courts that also operate on a local level.
Fujimori’s decade of increasingly authoritarian rule left a legacy of impunity and greatly damaged the impartiality of Peru’s judicial system, which has been accused of having deep ties to organized crime.
The World Justice Project’s 2017 to 2018 Rule of Law index ranks Peru near the lower end of Latin American and Caribbean countries when it comes to criminal justice and corruption.
Peru’s restrictive laws aroung defamation may also be creating a chilling effect on media coverage of organized crime and corruption.
Peru’s overcrowded penal system is showing signs of strain. The widespread use of pretrial detention has caused the number of inmates to grow beyond control. As of 2017, Peru’s prison population was at nearly 219 percent of its total capacity, and almost half of all prisoners were being held in pretrial detention.
In 2015, Peru’s government revealed that 95 percent of suspects were being released after their arrest — the majority of whom had been caught red-handed — suggesting corrupt practices within Peru’s security forces. In the same year, a law was passed to speed up judicial proceedings for criminals who are caught in the act, raising fears of a spike in the number of detainees. In 2016, Peru also passed a law establishing longer sentences for those convicted of belonging to organized crime groups.