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DRUGS-PERU: Mexican Cartels Dig in Their Heels

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Aug 28 2006 (IPS) - Police in Peru have captured 25 Mexican drug traffickers in the last 18 months. According to the authorities, this unprecedented number of arrests of Mexican nationals is due to the fact that five of the main Mexican drug cartels have set up operations in this country to supply their customers in the United States.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says that 30 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States – the world’s largest market for drugs – comes from Peru and is smuggled in by Mexican mafias.

A fishing boat carrying 4.7 tons of cocaine to Mexico was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard on Jul. 28, bringing the amount of Peruvian cocaine confiscated so far this year to a total of 12 tons, 300 kilograms more than for the whole of 2005.

The area under coca leaf cultivation in Peru fell by four percent between 2004 and 2005, to 48,200 hectares, due to a forced eradication programme. However, potential cocaine production has remained stable since 2000 at between 141 and 190 tons a year, according to the latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Drug seizures in the last five-year period have averaged 20 to 25 percent of that annual production figure, counting confiscations within the country and abroad.

Current Peruvian law on coca eradication leaves very little margin for indigenous people and small farmers to legally plant their traditional Andean crop. In response, a campesino movement has emerged, demanding more flexible laws. The movement has grown in strength to the point that several of its representatives were elected to Congress this year.

U.S. State Department figures reported 121,300 hectares of coca cultivation in Peru in 1990. That total had been reduced to 115,300 hectares by 1995, and to 43,400 hectares by 2000, but as of 2005 the area under cultivation had grown again by 4,800 hectares.

Until the mid-1990s, cocaine production in Peru was the exclusive preserve of the Colombian cartels. But with the arrival of the Mexican drug mafias, pouring millions of dollars into the manufacture of cocaine on a massive scale, the industry has reached unprecedented levels in the country.

“Peru used to be a supplier of cocaine paste for Colombian drug trafficking organisations,” which reserved exclusive rights to the manufacture of cocaine hydrochloride, the chief of the National Anti-Drug Directorate, General Carlos Olivo Valenzuela, told IPS.

“But now the Mexican cartels send their ‘agents’ with millions of dollars to invest in cocaine production in Peru, and they do it in partnership with the Colombians, who contribute their know-how and even send their ‘chemists’ into the jungle to set up the laboratories close to the coca leaf plantations,” he explained.

Olivo Valenzuela said that, on the basis of information from Mexican detainees, which was compared to DEA intelligence, the Peruvian police have identified the Tijuana cartel as the most powerful Mexican drug ring in the country. The Guanajuato, Sinaloa, Juárez and Guadalajara cartels are active in Peru as well, he added.

Official U.S. sources also told IPS that Mexican narcotics organisations are operating in Peru, and transport cocaine by sea, under the cover of legal activities such as fishing and agribusiness. They indicated that the presence of these cartels implies significant movements of cash and, therefore, a greater degree of corruption.

The first sign of the presence of Mexican cartels in Peru came in January 1995, when local anti-drug police and the DEA seized 3.2 tons of cocaine ready for shipment to Mexico in Piura, a coastal town in the north of Peru.

The López Paredes brothers who were in charge of the shipment worked for the Guadalajara cartel, according to police reports.

Later the DEA discovered that the now-deceased head of the Juárez cartel, Amado Carrillo, known as the “Lord of the Skies”, had financed cocaine production in Peru.

That line of investigation was frustrated by Carrillo’s demise on an operating table on Jul. 4, 1997, while undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance.

But a drug trafficker, Óscar Benítez, testified that the Juárez cartel had bribed former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori’s security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, to ensure cocaine exports would not be interfered with. The case is being processed now by the Peruvian courts, together with other charges faced by Montesinos, the former strongman in the Fujimori administration (1990-2000).

But it was on Jun. 7, 2002, that Peruvian anti-drug police discovered that more Mexican cartels had entered the country to promote large-scale cocaine production. On that day, an operation sweeping from the northern fishing port of Chimbote to the southern jungle region of Ayacucho prevented shipment of 1.7 tons of cocaine to Mexico.

With this successful operation, the authorities were able to put together the jigsaw puzzle of international drug trafficking organisations involved in Peru, which also include Colombian, Ecuadorean and Peruvian drug rings.

This was possible because one of the smugglers arrested, Marco Antonio Cano from Colombia, decided to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for prison privileges. This was the first time that a drug trafficker made such a proposal, and it was accepted.

IPS has had access to the statements given by Cano, who was the treasurer of his drug ring, which means he was quite familiar with the details of its well-oiled machinery.

Cano testified that the Mexican cartels have so far invested two million dollars in cocaine production. This money was used to buy cocaine paste, set up a laboratory to process the paste to cocaine hydrochloride, and transport the drug to the port of Chimbote.

“From any point of view, it was an excellent investment, because those 1.7 tons of cocaine amassed for export (which were seized) would have earned a profit in the United States of 42.5 million dollars. Who would not take the risk, given the opportunity of making such a profit?” General Olivo Valenzuela commented.

In Cano’s confessions, he also identified other accomplices within the Peruvian state itself.

The so-called “treasurer of the Tijuana cartel in Peru” testified that he had paid almost 200,000 dollars to army aviation officers: Commander Jorge Ríos and Major José Sal y Rosas. Their mission was to fly two military helicopters to transport the cocaine from Ayacucho to Chimbote. Both officers are now in custody.

However, the arrests of 23 members of the Tijuana cartel in Peru, and the loss of 1.7 tons of cocaine, have not deterred the Mexican drug traffickers. In fact they have indicated that they will not let anyone stand in their way.

Hernán Saturno Vergara, one of the magistrates in the court trying the defendants, was murdered on Jul. 18 as he ate dinner in a restaurant, in a Colombian-style killing in which shots were fired from a motorbike carrying two gunmen. As a result, the trial was interrupted.

Drug traffickers know that the Peruvian justice system is slow, and that if they are not sentenced within the established timeframes, they may go free. And that is what they are betting on.

In fact, no one has yet been sentenced since the drug ring was discovered in Peru four years ago.

A further item of information pointing to growth in cocaine production in Peru is the latest report of the governmental Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF), which states that from January 2005 to June 2006 Peruvian banks have reported financial transactions possibly related to drug trafficking amounting to 400 million dollars.

“This is only what the banks have reported, since they are legally obliged to do so. But the figure is only an approximation to the amount of money being moved by drug traffickers in the formal financial system, to launder assets obtained from the drug trade,” a UIF source told IPS.

In effect, Cano disclosed that drug money did not enter the country through bank transfers, but was brought in as cash by people contracted for the job. Once the funds are in the country, they are deposited in banks under the names of fictitious companies..

In spite of the increased pressure from the anti-drug police, the Mexican cartels’ ability to produce and export cocaine has not faltered.

On Nov. 12, 2004, Peruvian anti-drug agents disbanded another ring of drug traffickers connected to Mexican cartels, and seized 700 kilograms of cocaine.

Sources at the National Prosecutor’s Office, which is involved in the case arising from that operation, told IPS that the Peruvian ringleader was Jonathan Huácac Torrico, a former member of the military, who had recruited officers from the Piura region.

Because of his army contacts, Huácac Torrico had managed to obtain accommodation for two Mexicans, Rubén Lugo Romero and Guillermo Rodríguez Machado, at the officers’ club in Piura. They converted the military establishment into an operations centre for drug trafficking, hiding 340 kilograms of cocaine there, the sources said.

Anti-drug agents found a map in Huácac Torricos’s house showing the route by which the cocaine was to be exported: first to Mexico, then to the United States.

If they had succeeded in getting the 700 kilograms of cocaine out of Peru, the former military officer and his associates stood to gain 17.5 million dollars on the U.S. market. Only a few of the accomplices were arrested.

Meanwhile, the challenge posed by the Mexican cartels has not altered Peru’s anti-drug strategy. Anti-drug police have to work with a very low budget, and “we can’t inspect export shipments, nor are we authorised to make inspections in ports. We are at a disadvantage,” said Olivo Valenzuela.

But now, not only the Mexican cartels are devoted to the cocaine production business. The success of the drug trade has led Peruvian entrepreneurs to imitate the Mexican and Colombian drug lords, and for the first time they are manufacturing and exporting cocaine hydrochloride to the United States and Europe.

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