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PERU: Shining Path Rebels and the War on Drugs

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Nov 27 2007 (IPS) - A surviving faction of Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas has launched an offensive against anti-drug police units in the Apurímac and Ene river valleys – an area known by the acronym VRAE – in one of the country’s main coca-growing and cocaine-producing regions.

 Credit: Courtesy of La República

Credit: Courtesy of La República

The attacks staged by the insurgents are in reprisal for the growing crackdown by the security forces in that vast region in Peru’s southern highlands and on the main drug routes in the area.

The Central Operations Commando (COC), a combined armed forces and police unit whose mission is to destroy the remnant Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) faction, has stepped up its activity this year in the area.

In addition, the Division of Investigation and Inspection of Chemical Inputs (DICIQ), a specialised anti-drug police team dedicated to cutting off the flows of chemicals used to produce cocaine from coca, began to operate in January, with a special focus on the VRAE region.

The guerrillas killed a police chief and blew up a police station early this month in Ocobamba, in Apurímac province, and ambushed and killed four police officers on Nov. 13 in Tayacaja, in the neighbouring province of Huancavelica.

The assailants are Shining Path guerrillas who survived the 1980-2000 counterinsurgency war, which peaked in 1992, when the Maoist group’s founder, Abimael Guzmán, and many other leaders were captured.

Because of the gravity of this month’s attacks, Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo, Defence Minister Allan Wagner and Interior Minister Luis Alva Castro were called in to brief Congress on the situation in a closed-door session.

The support base of the Shining Path rebels who mounted the attacks on the police in that area in southern Peru are thousands of campesinos (peasant farmers) who grow coca on an estimated total of nearly 16,000 hectares of land.

To bolster their meagre incomes, many coca-growers also produce cocaine base, the intermediate product used to manufacture cocaine hydrochloride.

That explains why the total area planted in coca in the VRAE region increased 72.5 percent from 2000 to 2006, while the potential cocaine production grew from 141 to 280 tons, according to the latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Estimates by the government’s National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA) indicate that 58 percent of the cocaine produced in Peru comes from drug labs in the VRAE region, which includes the country’s poorest provinces: Apurímac, Ayacucho and Huancavelica.

Although the government of Alan García initially blamed the attacks on drug traffickers, it later reported that they were staged by "narco-terrorists" – members of an alliance between Shining Path guerrillas and drug traffickers.

An expert on Peru’s insurgent groups, Raúl González Chávez, explained to IPS that in the 1980s, when Shining Path launched its armed struggle, it initially had a bad relationship with the local coca-growers, before it began to win them over.

"At the start, the coca producers formed anti-subversive civil defence groups to fight the Shining Path guerrillas," he said. "But over the last 15 years or so, the column has sought to win support among the local campesinos by changing its political discourse and offering to defend them from anti-drug operations."

González Chávez said the recent violence makes it clear that Shining Path is still a problem in Peru.

"The big problem is that in Peru, for reasons that are not very intelligent, there is a reluctance to accept the fact that the Shining Path is still a pending issue," he maintained. "That’s why the emphasis is put on the ties between the guerrillas and drugs – ties that exist, it&#39s true, but which are not yet the determining factor in their actions."

But national security analyst Rubén Vargas Céspedes says there is a cause and effect relationship between the anti-drug operations in the VRAE region and Shining Path’s reaction. "The attacks in Ocobamba and Tayacaja are violent responses to the anti-drug and anti-subversive operations in that area," he told IPS.

"If the drug business is strangled, the local economy suffers, especially the coca-growers," he pointed out.

That is why, "according to the guerrillas’ reasoning, by breaking down the barriers that the security forces put in the way of the flow of chemical inputs and cocaine, they are fighting in favour of poor farmers who grow coca for a living. They are seeking to consolidate their support base among the coca-growers."

There is strong evidence that Shining Path rebels are involved in the production of cocaine.

Two members of Shining Path were riding in a truck intercepted by the anti-drug police on May 22, in the town of Churcampa in Huancavelica province. The truck, which was heading towards the VRAE region, was carrying 17 tons of chemical inputs.

And on Sept. 20, in Huancayo, the capital of the central highlands province of Junín, the police seized seven tons of chemical inputs that were being transported to the VRAE region, bringing the total between January and September to a new record of 510 tons. Three of the people arrested at the time were Shining Path insurgents.

One and a half weeks before the Shining Path attack on Ocobamba, the police intercepted 82 kg of cocaine base that was being shipped out of the VRAE region.

Although the army is not authorised to arrest drug traffickers, on Oct. 17 a military patrol killed seven local campesinos who were transporting drugs in a mule train. According to the official report, the incident occurred in Putis, in the province of Ayacucho, and the victims were from the VRAE region.

"They were not simple drug carriers, because they were armed," a military source with the COC told IPS. "The weapons are an indication that the victims included Shining Path rebels, who protect the circulation of cocaine base and cocaine in the area. They have stopped being subversives and are now at the service of the drug mafias."

For his part, González Chávez said "the drug question is very important, but it doesn&#39t explain these actions (the incidents in Ocobamba and Tayajaca) that are carried out periodically every year, both prior to and after the (Sept. 12, 1992) capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán."

While Prime Minister del Castillo announced the strengthening of counterinsurgency and antinarcotics efforts in the conflict zone, the chief of the armed forces joint command Jorge Montoya asked for nearly 27 million dollars in additional funds to build six military bases over the next six months.

"It would be counterproductive for the government to militarise the fight against the drug mafias in the VRAE region, not only because the local population could identify with the Shining Path as its members put up armed resistance, but also because recent experience has shown that drug trafficking corrupts the security forces," said Vargas.

"The solution must be political," he argued. "You can&#39t fight the Shining Path by treating them simply as common criminals; that would be the worst error the government could commit. The illegal drug economy has developed in the VRAE region because of the absence of the state."

As the security forces tighten the noose around the centres of cocaine production, the Shining Path will, in response, step up its violent activities to win support among the rural poor in that area, many of whom form the lowest rung of the drug trafficking ladder.

Another alternative would be for the state to make its presence felt in infrastructure, development programmes and initiatives to encourage farmers to grow legal crops instead of coca. But for now, the government’s only plan is to increase the activities of the anti-drug police.

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