Can Peru’s New President Pacify the Rebel Heartland?

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Peru’s new President Ollanta Humala has made clear that he is determined to clean up the dregs of the country’s drug trafficking guerrilla group. This means bringing order to the lawless zone where the rebels have their powerbase.

In the run-up to the handover of power, Humala’s choice for defense minister, Daniel Mora, declared that the forthcoming government would eradicate “narco-terrorism” in Peru, getting rid of the remnants of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) rebel group. He expressed the hope, like so many of his predecessors, that the new government would “solve this issue for good.”

The Shining Path was formed in the 1970s, and over the next two decades grew to pose a mortal threat to Peru’s government, embroiling the country in a conflict that left almost 70,000 dead. The organization went into decline after the capture of leader Abimael Guzman in 1992. Considered by many to be a spent force, the group, or factions associated with it, sprung back into action in the late 2000s, with a low-intensity campaign of attacks against the security forces that has killed at least 50 since 2008. It is now split into two relatively independent factions; one in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley and one in the Apurimac and Ene River Valley, known by its initials in Spanish as the VRAE.

map_vrae2Source: RPP

The VRAE is wild, remote territory in the center of the country, riven by mountains and jungle. It is also close to the birthplace of the guerrilla group, in the city of Ayacucho. The difficulty of policing this terrain, and the poverty and isolation of the some 130,000 people that live there — 80 percent in poverty, according to the authorities — make it ideal guerrilla territory. The area is neglected by the government, with soaring rates of illiteracy, and a general lack of electricity, infrastructure, and services. The VRAE also houses nearly a third of Peru’s coca crops — the raw material used to manufacture cocaine. The Shining Path’s resurgence in the region has been propelled by the revenue from the cocaine industry. Profits from the drug trade have allowed them to gain a measure of popular support, as the rebels do not need to rely on extortion for their funding (a strategy that breeds ill-feeling among residents). Additionally, the rebels are perceived as supporting the coca economy, which many locals depend on for survival.


The Shining Path in the VRAE now support themselves by taxing coca farmers, escorting drug shipments for traffickers, alongside a variety of other activities like illegal logging. They are also thought to run their own coca plantations and cocaine laboratories. The U.S. State Department puts their numbers at some 200-300 members, down from more than 20,000 they claimed before Guzman’s capture.

The government dismisses the current Shining Path guerrillas as mere “narco-terrorists” who have abandoned their political ideology. This appears to be more than propaganda; imprisoned Shining Path founder Guzman has dismissed the VRAE faction as “mercenaries,” who have thrown his Marxist-Leninist ideology “into the trash.”

The Shining Path remains an irritant to the Peruvian government, which has been unable to get rid of what is left of the group, or stop the steady drip of casualties in the state forces. Much of the rhetoric of Humala’s government sounds similar to that employed by the administration of his predecessor Alan Garcia. “It would be easy to turn one’s face and ignore the VRAE,” declared then-Prime Minister Javier Velasquez Quesquen almost two years ago. “But we have decided to assume the responsibility, the final liquidation of the remnants of terrorism and drug trafficking.” (Map source: El Pais)

The Garcia government also set out to end, once and for all, the Shining Path’s dominance in VRAE. In 2008 the armed forces established the VRAE Special Command, made up of members of the army, marines, and air force. This unit had a degree of automony from the central command, and enjoyed a higher budget then previous forces in the zone. In 2009 they proposed to declare the VRAE a combat zone, in order to give the army extended powers, before being forced to abandon the idea in the face of opposition from locals.

Representatives of the outgoing governmnt claim that this military strategy produced results; then-Defense Minister Jaime Thorne said recently that in Garcia’s five years in office, the army had managed to reduce the rebels’ “area of influence” from 34,000 to 5,000 square kilometers. However, the minister did not give details of where exactly these zones where located, or how they were calculated.

News from the VRAE would suggest, in fact, the government has made little measurable progress in driving back the rebels; in 2005, the year before Garcia came to power, there were 15,000 hectares of coca crops in the VRAE; now there are 19,700. Recent growth in coca cultivation has been mostly driven by the region. According to the United Nations (UN), the area under coca cultivation in the VRAE increased 13 percent between 2009 and 2010, even as it dropped in the country’s other biggest producing zone and rebel base, Huallaga. Peru is on its way to becoming the world’s biggest coca producer, according to disputed UN figures.

Meanwhile the Shining Path have continued to make their presence felt, ambushing and killing five soldiers in the VRAE on the eve of the presidential elections in June.

Even the Garcia administration’s listing of its achievements in the zone seemed to be made from a defensive stance, in response to criticism of their failure to pacify the VRAE. Minister Thorne insisted that representatives of the U.S. and Israeli militaries had assured him that the VRAE was a very difficult zone to fight in, and that the only other regions with such tricky terrain were in “places like Afghanistan and Vietnam.” Even if, as Thorne claims, the rebels have been driven back by the new army command bases, its not clear how permanent this is. As a guerrilla group with several decades experience, the Shining Path knows how to fall back in the face of military presence and return when they are gone.

For former Defense Minster Roberto Chiabra, who served under Garcia’s predecessor, one problem of the last administration’s approach, which seems set to continue under Humala, is the definition of the issues facing the VRAE. “We must define who the enemy is,” he said. “It is not the remnants of terrorism, but drug trafficking.” It’s possible that the focus on the Shining Path rebels, and their political past, is obscuring government efforts to combat what the group has become.

Humala, the new president, may be able to bring a fresh perspective and make a difference to the VRAE. As a former military man, he might enjoy some extra credit and trust from the armed forces. His links to coca growers’ organizations may mean that he can pursue a more realistic and sensitive policy towards them, and perhaps succeed in breaking their links with the rebels. A “large majority” of the VRAE’s population depends on coca cultivation, according to a 2005 UN study, and so it will take more than eradication schemes or threats to persuade farmers to drop their illicit crops. The new interior minister, Oscar Valdes Dancuart, has emphasized the economic factors in combating the drug trade in the VRAE, and said that the government must use “imaginative methods,” and develop infrastructure in those areas where crop substitution is not possible.

New Defense Minister Daniel Mora has also emphasized a more broad-based approach to security in the VRAE, saying that the security forces must work with the people and “address their needs,” while bringing in measures like tighter controls on drug precursor chemicals entering the zone.

An association of the VRAE’s mayors recently came together and made a list of demands to be handed to the new president. Their requests range from bringing electricity to hundreds of rural communities and setting up a healthcare management unit in the region, to completing the asphalt on a mayor local thoroughfare. Humala might do well to listen to them.

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