Violence in Peru has been relatively low since the end of its civil conflict in the late 1990s. Though the country remains far behind Colombia in coca cultivation, illicit cultivation in Peru is rapidly increasing. Profits from drug trafficking and illegal logging have fueled a small resurgence of the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group that remains active though no longer poses a major threat to the stability of the Peruvian state. Remnants of the group and its offshoots continue to attack security forces and foreign companies in the remote Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM).
Peru, South America’s fourth-largest country, sits just south of the equator. It is bordered to the north by Ecuador and Colombia, with Brazil in the east, and Bolivia and Chile to the south. Its 3,000-kilometer coastline faces the Pacific Ocean.
Peru contains a greater swathe of Amazon territory than any country except for Brazil, with the rainforest covering some 60% of Peru’s entire landmass. Unfortunately, this has made the country a hotspot for timber trafficking, illegal mining, illegal wildlife poaching, and drug trafficking.
The country is an important location for the cocaine trade thanks to its suitability for growing cocaine. Alongside with Colombia and Bolivia, it is one of the world’s major coca-growing nations. There is little to no state presence in vast parts of the country to its difficult terrain, which has permitted drug trafficking clans, as well as groups such as the Shining Path, to flourish. Its ports, such as Callao, allow for international trafficking along shipping routes, while with Brazil’s local cocaine market the largest in South America and one of the largest in the world, cocaine is also moved across the border to be sold there.
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 and imprisoned in 1992 — where he remained until his death in 2021 — and later split into two separate branches. Guzmán died in prison in 2021.
During the harsh security policies of the Alberto Fujimori government (1990-2000), Peru’s cocaine production dropped and 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% 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.
In 2017, Peru’s government launched an ambitious plan to cut coca cultivation in half by 2021. The effort ultimately failed in the absence of effective crop substitution programs and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw eradication efforts paused. By 2021, Peru was cultivating a record high of over 80,000 hectares of coca, and continuing to export coca and cocaine paste to Bolivia, where it fetches a higher price. Political obstacles also complicate efforts for a reduction in cultivation because traditional uses of the coca plant remain legal, and coca growers are a strong political force.
Small family clans in the VRAEM and Huallaga regions have traditionally handled cocaine supplies and moved the drug to the country’s capital and borders, but there are signs that Peruvian groups are now expanding into taking control of drug export operations.
While drug trafficking remains the focus of security concerns, the profits it brings in are dwarfed by those of the illegal mining trade, which as of 2020 had an estimated annual value of around $3.9 billion. The epicenter of the trade is the Madre de Dios region, where 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% 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.
In December 2022, Dina Boluarte became the sixth president in as many years after former president, Pedro Castillo, was arrested following an attempted coup d’état. It was the latest in a number of presidential scandals to hit the country with four of Castillo’s predecessors facing or having faced corruption charges linked to 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.”
One offshoot of the Shining Path, known as the Militarized Communist Party of Peru (Militarizado Partido Comunista de Perú – MPCP), maintains a presence in the VRAEM region. Its second-in-command, Jorge Quispe Palomino, alias “Raúl,” was confirmed dead in March 2021. Since then, the MPCP, led by Raúl’s brother, Victor Quispe Palomino, alias “José”, has made its continued presence known through violent attacks. In May 2021, the group massacred at least 16 people near the village of San Miguel del Ene while an attack on police in February 2023 claimed the lives of seven officers.
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.
Continued military action in the VRAEM, the country’s coca heartland, has seen drug production and trafficking operations move further into the Amazon. Trafficking groups there have been blamed for the murders of Indigenous leaders who have sought to prevent traffickers from overrunning their territories.
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. Gangs fighting for control of illegal coal mining have also been blamed for a string of murders in the coastal region of La Libertad.
As is the case in a number of countries across South America, there has been concern in Peru over the encroachment of the Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s largest criminal organization. Peruvian police arrested 30 members of the Gallegos, an armed wing of the gang, in December 2022.
The area near Lake Titicaca along the Peruvian-Bolivia border has become a major smuggling focal point. Coca and coca base is smuggled into Bolivia, where it fetches a higher price, while fuel is smuggled into 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 2023, 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 defense minister stepped down near the end of 2021 after allegedly pressuring military commanders into promoting allies of the then-president, Pedro Castillo.
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.
According to local media, as of February 2022, there are more than 4,000 authorized private security companies in Peru, with over 125,000 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 uncertainty related to the country’s latest political crisis under Pedro Castillo risks further undermining faith in its justice system.
According to the World Justice Project’s 2022 Rule of Law Index, Peru ranks among the worst Latin American countries for corruption and is in the bottom quarter globally for criminal justice.
Peru’s restrictive defamation laws 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. By 2022, the prison population was more than double the system’s capacity.
In 2015, Peru’s government revealed that 95% 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.
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