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11 November 2013

Colombia or Bust: Narcotics Trafficking in Peru and the Road Ahead

Coca Leaf, courtesy of Adriao /Wikimedia Commons
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil

Coca Leaf, Bolivia

Is it wise to compare Peru’s ongoing struggle with cocaine production and trafficking with Colombia’s experiences? Patrick Hernandez doesn’t think so. Beyond the differences between the two countries’ domestic politics, he also believes that the US’s falling demand for cocaine makes a ‘Plan Peru’ unlikely.

By Patrick Hernandez for Southern Pulse | Correspondents

Even the most cursory analysis of the war on drugs in Latin America reveals that gains in one geographical region tend to be followed by losses in another. The case cited most frequently is Mexico, where a wave of violence since 2006 has been attributed to U.S. efforts that successfully staunched the flow of cocaine through the Caribbean in the early 2000s.

If media reports are to be believed, Peru is next in line. Its increasingly high profile as the number one producer of coca leaf in the world, following U.S. assistance to neighboring Colombia, appear to confirm the pattern. But are the comparisons with Colombia, which is only now beginning to emerge from a decades-long struggle with cocaine production and trafficking, merited? This post aims to highlight similarities and differences, and to shed light on some of the factors that may determine Peru's fate going forward.

Like Colombia, Peru is attempting to police its problem away with security investments. President Ollanta Humala's proposed 2014 budget raises police salaries by more than 50 percent, provides funding for specialized drug trafficking units, and doubles coca eradication financing. Within the next twelve months, government forces are expected to move into the Apurímac and Ene River Valley (VRAE), the heart of what remains of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso, or SL) guerrilla organization and a major source of coca paste, to eradicate crops and construct a military airbase. The government offensive comes amid a resurgence of Peruvian "narcoflights," which served as the main shipment method for Peruvian coca to Colombia's drug labs in the 1980s and 1990s. While the U.S.-sponsored Air Bridge Denial program has decimated trafficking flights to Colombia since it began in the late 1990s, they are now heading south to Bolivia, where lax policing and cheap chemical precursors provide an optimal business climate for traffickers. The 19 October arrest of four SL-trained Peruvians among a cohort of Bolivian coca growers who murdered crop eradication officials near La Paz is confirmation of the linkage.

According to some analysts, the growing Peruvian drug trade and the incursion of security forces into the VRAE will create a powder keg of violence akin to Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. Coca is by far the most economically viable crop for VRAE farmers, and indigenous communities have harvested the plant for its caffeine-like properties for centuries. Popular resistance to government eradication efforts is likely to be aided by SL guerrillas, who derive much of their income from charging transshipment taxes on coca. In this paradigm, the SL is the analog of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Yet Peru's situation is vastly different. Unlike the decades-old FARC, Shining Path only matured in the 1980s. Its convoluted Maoist ideology was the creation of Abimael Guzmán, a mestizo philosophy professor. This arguably sapped the organization of its popular legitimacy and facilitated the group's rapid disintegration after Guzmán's capture in 1992. At the very least, this is one encouraging contrast.

In many ways, though, Peru may be more at risk. Unlike Bogotá, located square in the middle of Colombia, Lima is largely isolated from the effects of drug trafficking. Where Colombians were able to witness the FARC's tactics up close, Lima remains too far from the coca-growing hinterlands for events there to have much of an impact on Limeños’ daily lives. This same isolation allowed the government to ignore SL for years until the organization began bombing power transformers outside Lima. In the security arena, events may have to become dramatically worse before they get better.

Peru is also burdened with an extraordinarily dysfunctional political system. While Colombia is one of Latin America's oldest democracies, Peru's lack of a stable party system, widely publicized official corruption, and perennial public cynicism weaken the government's position. The state has done little to rectify the marginalization of the country's indigenous groups who harvest most of its coca. Together, those factors mean it will be much more difficult for Peru to manage the externalities (including, primarily, violence) of its drug trafficking problem in the absence of much-needed institutional changes and policy reforms.

Lastly, there is a crucial variable whose effect remains unknown. U.S. demand for cocaine has fallen precipitously since the 1980s, and particularly since 2006. Meanwhile, it is increasing in Argentina and Brazil, where its popularity is exploding among youth, with alarming effects on urban crime. Perhaps few recent events are as emblematic as the recent arrest in Peru of Luis Tato Enrique, an Argentine national alleged to have used as many as ten firms as fronts for an international cocaine shipping operation. His warehouses in Paita, near the border with Ecuador, housed over four metric tons of the drug. Tato employed a pair of retired Peruvian military officers, and his organization allegedly worked with Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, shipping cocaine as far as Asia.

For its part, the United States seems unlikely to pursue a "Plan Peru" in the manner it supported Plan Colombia from 2000 to 2008, which entailed a robust and expensive set of security assistance and human rights promotion initiatives. Consequently, governments in Buenos Aires and Brasilia will likely determine the future of cocaine production and trafficking in Peru. Brazil's increasing political clout and military spending, which has jumped almost 50 percent in real U.S. dollars since 2000, could allow it to cut down on narcotics shipments along the country's 3,000 km border with Peru. If this occurs, it could produce violence similar to that of contemporary Central America. Interdiction crackdowns have historically led to great conflict, as trafficking groups splinter and compete with one another. Shining Path might serve as an added wild card. But if Brazil and Argentina neglect the problem, it may, ironically, remain relatively benign, with existing groups expanding to occupy larger shares of the economically and socially marginalized countryside. Both outcomes are, regrettably, far from ideal.


Patrick Hernandez is a Contributing Editor to Southern Pulse.

Editor's note:

This article was originally published by Southern Pulse on 27 October 2013.

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