Trafficking and the Shining Path; the rejuvenation of Peru’s cocaine industry (November 24, 2012)

On February 12 a joint police-army patrol captured a key suspect in Peru’s ongoing campaign against insurgents and drug dealers that continue to operate in the remote river valleys of Peru’s mountainous interior. Jose Eleuterio Flores, a.k.a. Artemio, was seized in the small, rural town of Tocache, which lies on the isolated Huallaga River. Press reports indicate that Artemio had been wounded by security forces and had been apparently travelling to his hideout, which is said to be located further south along the Huallaga River, deep in the jungles of Andean river valleys. A surviving leader of Peru’s infamous Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, his arrest was seen by many observers as one of the final blows against the organization, which has suffered serious setbacks over the past several years. According to Ijet, Artemio himself seemed to confirm this belief, releasing a pronouncement in December, 2011, that outlined the failure of the Shining Path’s political movement and his reported desire to discuss an amnesty arrangement with the Peruvian government. Indeed, with Artemio and many of his known associates and partners now dead or in custody, this day seemed to mark another crucial step towards the end of Peru’s social and political violence. Yet, what was Artemio doing in such a remote and isolated place besides hiding out? While jungles are great places for getting lost in, they are not always conducive to conducting a successful insurgent campaign. And, while the Shining Path may have given up its goal of political domination in Peru, its remaining members do not wish to surrender unconditionally to be placed in jails for the rest of their lives. Therefore, while the isolation of the Shining Path outside of Peru’s cities is undoubtedly important for the country in terms of achieving prosperity and safety, this retrenchment of the organization in an extremely isolated countryside and its own repudiation of its political goals has redefined the conflict in Peru. The Shining Path are no longer political idealists, inhabiting a World defined by the politics of the Cold War era; they grow cocaine, and the success of their growing enterprise has boosted Peru from relative narco-obscurity to the country that, as of 2012, now produces the most cocaine on planet.

To comprehend this shift in Peru it is important to understand not only the evolution of the Shining Path itself but the evolution of the Peruvian cocaine trade as well. The coca leaf is native to the mountainous jungles of Peru. Requiring specific soils and tropical temperatures at high altitudes, coca production can only take place in specific regions of the globe and the plateaus of the country’s interior have traditionally provided a perfect place for its cultivation. Peru was therefore the natural cradle of coca production, which was used and harvested for hundreds, if not thousands of years by indigenous farmers of the area. Much like Khat is chewed in contemporary Middle Eastern countries, the local inhabitants chewed on the coca leaf for energy throughout the day, a practice that is still utilized throughout the Andean countries today. In fact, farmers in Bolivia and Peru remain particularly sensitive in their respective countries about the policies that restrict the growing of the coca leaf, citing their indigenous cultural traditions.

It was not until early in the twentieth-century that German scientists found the right mixture of chemicals to transform the coca leaf into a snortable or injectable substance. As was the case with the indigenous populations of the Andes, cocaine was seen as a positive and healthy way to re-energize one’s self by most scientists and intellectuals at the time. It was not until the campaigning against narcotics really hit its stride in the United States under Harry Anslinger in the 1950s and 1960s that the substance was finally made illegal. This shift to illegality for cocaine coincided with the development of communist guerrilla groups, both Marxist and Maoist, throughout the jungles and cities of Peru. The most prominent, the Communist Party of Peru (PCP), was a Maoist organization with its roots going back to the 1920s. By the time the 1970s rolled around it had come to be led by a former and thoroughly disgruntled university professor of philosophy, Abimael Guzman. Guzman subscribed to the belief that the proletariat’s struggle for power could only be victorious if it became an armed struggle. Abandoning its earlier attempts at reform through peaceful public protest, the PCP launched its armed struggle in 1980 by moving to the isolated jungles of Peru. Now called the “Shining Path” in an effort to demonstrate its enlightened perspective, this group adopted Maoist guerrilla principles and set itself to trying to bring about the collapse of the Peruvian state.

The Maoist doctrine for revolutionary warfare is a complex and, in places, a vague and reactionary notion, however, it does provide a clear blueprint for where the strength of the organization should come from: the peasants in the countryside. Guzman consequently began a system of patronage throughout many regions in rural Peru in an effort to garner support for his cause. He endeavoured, through control of local food production, to starve the cities into submission. While this campaign was developing in the early 1980s cocaine had simultaneously become the number one drug of choice for the United States, making its production and the cultivation of coca extremely lucrative on the international market. Guzman naturally began to favour coca cultivation in the territories he controlled and began supporting local coca growers, known as “cocaleros,” in an effort to capitalize on this vast source of income. A practice, which as will be seen, the Shining Path never truly abandoned.

By the mid 1980s, in the face of Peru’s burgeoning cocaine output and the America’s own violent aversion to communism, the US juggernaut rolled into action. The Peruvian government began to receive large quantities of military aid and training, while US military advisors began accompanying the Peruvian army on raids and sorties into the jungles. While their efforts were primarily ideological – an effort to destroy communism in Peru – the US also began to help the Peruvians with eradication efforts on the coca front. By this point the Shining Path and other rebel groups had formed the initial stages of an incredibly complex criminal trail, which started in Peru, moved north through Bolivia and Colombia, and on into south Florida through the Caribbean. Cocaine had become, in many ways, the lifeblood of the rebel organization and conversely governmental efforts to control its production and sale were seen as crucial to the war effort. Yet, what all these eradication and military efforts revealed was the fluid nature of the drug trade. As the crackdown on the Shining Path and their production intensified, the coca leaf was taken by Colombian and Bolivian criminal organizations and produced in their own countries, away from the prying eyes and roving units of the American military. Anti-narcotics experts refer to this process as the “Balloon Effect,” and, much like a balloon, as pressure is applied to one area, another area expands. The near seamless transfer of cocaine production from one Andean country to another severely inhibited the financial resources of the Shining Path, yet it is important to note that coca leaf cultivation was never truly halted in Peru.

As in Peru, cocaine production and distribution in Colombia became the lifeblood of the rebel movements there, with drug cartels as well as communist and fascist paramilitaries all taking part in the trade. The collapse and disintegration of many of these groups is well documented and not the real point of this discussion but it should be noted that again, like Peru, the Americans once more took notice. Consequently, throughout the 1990s, the US and Colombian militaries waged war on communists and cocaine traffickers in that country. And, while their interdiction efforts by no means completely encompassed the entire Colombian drug trade, Colombian coca production did gradually decrease between 1990 to 2005. Again, enter the balloon. As Colombian production slowed traffickers and other major criminal entities once more searched for a new place to obtain their supply of cocaine. The answer was a return to Peru. This decision was not random but may appear to any casual onlooker as the completion of a seemingly natural cycle. As Colombian guerrillas had enjoyed the limelight in the 1990s Peru’s rebel groups, including the infamous Shining Path, had been in full retreat, with their coca production – as mentioned, their major source of revenue – in decline. But, as the rebel groups collapsed or faded into obscurity in Peru that government’s pressure on the cocaleros and its remaining rebel factions began to lighten considerably. Thus, by the end of the millennium, the conditions were once again ripe for Peru to return to the global narcotics stage.

Today, in a political sense, the Shining Path is a shadow of its former self. Its numbers have dwindled from over 20,000 armed members during the height of its power to only several hundred. Its leadership, including the charismatic and incredibly unstable Abimael Guzman, have been arrested or killed. In such an instance, when the goals and desires of the organization become unobtainable, it would be thought that the organization would collapse. However, Guzman was arrested in 1992 and the surviving Shining Path membership have had twenty years since then to reformulate their needs into a new set of objectives. It is this misunderstanding of the current goals of the Shining Path by the Peruvian authorities that have allowed the group survive and flourish, albeit under entirely different circumstances. Their goals are no longer political but capitalist – they want to enrich themselves. And, due to the cyclical changes in the international drug trade over the past several years, they appear to be in a perfect position to do so. While Peru’s rebel movements are politically in shambles, they are not defeated – the survivors have merely moved on to a new game that the Peruvian government does not realize exists. As if to illustrate this point, it is interesting to note that the southern faction of the Shining Path shot down a Peruvian military helicopter on an eradication mission on the same day Artemio was apprehended. Shooting down helicopters is expensive and requires real military trade craft, it is not the practice of the inexperienced. It is natural to assume, therefore, that these groups are still well funded and maintain the international contacts required to obtain and utilize cutting-edge weaponry to protect their new raison d’etre.

The current Peruvian cocaine trade is focussed in several distinct regions of the country. Artemio’s Shining Path faction operates in an isolated central valley in northern Peru. The area has been shaped for millennia by the passage of the Huallaga River, which flows hundreds of kilometres through the Andes until meeting up with the Amazon in northern Brazil. Although only a few hundred kilometres from Trujillo on the coast, the region is relatively sparsely populated and its ancient traditions of coca cultivation have remained in use for centuries. The other dominant coca-growing faction of the Shining Path is located several hundred kilometres south of the Huallaga group, again in a remote series of river valleys in the southern region of central Peru. Bordered by Cuzco to the southeast and Ayacucho to the west this area appears, on a map anyway, to be easily accessible to the Peruvian military and close to major centres of population. Naturally, it would be easy to suspect that the proximity of this southern group to centres of civilization makes it a prime and comparatively easy target for security forces; however, the incredibly beautiful and hostile geography of Peru, with its high peaks and sheltered valleys, make such mountainous districts nearly inaccessible. This southern area of operation is known as the VRAE region – the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers – and it has a deserved international reputation as being one of the most lawless in South America, which is a truly ominous distinction. It is in valleys such as these that the two distinct factions have survived, providing protection to local coca farmers against inroads by government forces.

The government’s campaign has not gone as well as it thinks. Peru’s president, Ollanta Humaya, declared in a grand inauguration speech in 2011 that the government would focus all of its efforts on the destruction of the coca fields, setting a goal of destroying 10,000 hectares of the plant by 2012. Yet, disappointingly, the government cleared less than 4,000ha of land and, more importantly, actually cut funding and soldiers for interdiction efforts in the upper Huallaga Valley. Publicly the government discourse remains that the Shining Path factions are on the run, isolated and near collapse. Privately they are not so confident. And, importantly, the ongoing eradication campaigns over the past twenty years have taken their toll on rural farmers, both coca growers and legitimate, forcing Humaya to slow down eradication efforts in an effort to garner political support. Eradication efforts have traditionally been viewed by local farmers as the policy of the US that has been forced upon Peru’s population.  So, while Peru publicly flaunts its triumph over its rebel movements of the 1980s and 1990s, it is simultaneously dismantling the systems of control that allowed for its earlier victories, and it is completing this focus shift at the exact time when cocaine is once again being produced at record levels throughout the country. What may complicate the future intentions of both the Shining Path and the government is the nature of the relationship between the various Shining Path factions, particularly the VRAE and Huallaga groups, whose levels of interaction and cohesiveness remain to be seen. What is clearly visible are the abilities of these groups, disparate or not, to grow and sell vast quantities of cocaine.

A telling sign of Peru’s growing importance to the international cocaine trade are the various nefarious characters that continue to show up in the regions controlled by Shining Path factions. A perfect example of which was the October, 2011, seizure of two purification laboratories and over a ton of cocaine in the VRAE region. Arrested at the scene were members of Mexico’s largest criminal organization, the Sinaloa Cartel. Having already adapted to the changing market and supply chain, Mexican drug traffickers have subsequently begun to enmesh themselves into the fabric of the Peruvian criminal environment. Shining Path guerrillas provide protection while experienced trafficking organization employ their own members to process, manufacture and smuggle the cocaine out of the country. Due to this profitable symbiotic relationship the cocaine trade is becoming increasingly entrenched in Peru, and all aspects of society, from the local indigenous farmers and their Shining Path protectors to the businessmen and bankers of Lima and Cuzco, are enriching themselves in the process. What remains to be seen is whether or not the Shining Path are able to rejuvenate their political aspirations, or whether they simply accept their transformation to full fledged narcotics suppliers. The apparent natural cycle of illicit cocaine production has returned to Peru with a vengeance, a wave that may simply be too lucrative to stop in the short term.

– Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime

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