Drug Trafficking, Terrorism, and Civilian Self-Defense in Peru

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Peru is poised to become the focal point of global efforts to combat the production and transportation of illegal narcotics in South America. Between 2006 and 2011, US agencies provided $5.2 billion in counternarcotics support to the Andean region of South America to curb the annual flow of hundreds of metric tons of cocaine. Although Colombia received 76 percent of this funding, Peru is now the world’s largest producer of coca leaves and is rapidly expanding domestic cocaine production. In June 2012, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala gave the inaugural speech at the International Anti-Drug Conference in Lima. He assured members from more than 70 delegations that Peru is committed to a global effort to reduce the production, transport, and consumption of illegal narcotics. At the conference, the European Union pledged 34 million euros to help implement Peru’s 2012-2016 Anti-Drug Strategy. Since his election in 2011, President Humala has strengthened Peru’s ties with the Barack Obama administration and in the coming year the United States will almost double its support for Peruvian counternarcotics and development efforts with a $100 million contribution.

Strong ties between drug traffickers and remnants of the Shining Path insurgency from the 1980s and 1990s complicate counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts in Peru. The Shining Path, led by philosophy professor Abimael Guzman, waged a violent campaign against any actor positioned to challenge their Maoist revolutionary program. Guzman and his followers originally targeted symbols of power in an effort to highlight social and economic injustice, as well as the inability of the state to address the people’s needs. The campaign later devolved into the indiscriminate and brutal targeting of civilians, security forces, and political actors alike. After Guzman’s arrest in 1992, state security forces halted the revolutionary group’s momentum and eventually defeated the armed insurgency.

This article originally appeared in the Combating Terrorism Center’s publication, the CTC Sentinel. See original, including citations, here.

Today, however, the remnants of the Shining Path movement protect the illicit narcotics trade and use the profits to strengthen their organization and acquire advanced weaponry. Drug traffickers and Shining Path militants have disrupted local economies, generated increased insecurity, and stunted post-conflict institutional development in many regions that cultivate illegal coca. As policymakers and state security forces in Peru address these challenges, they must now also contend with a growing number of civilian self-defense forces. Civilian actors played a crucial role in the initial defeat of the Shining Path in the 1990s, and many communities have reactivated local self-defense forces in the last few years. In some parts of Peru, armed civilian patrols confront criminal and insurgent organizations, and they will play an increasingly important role in addressing the challenges associated with state counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts.

This article offers a summary of Peru’s counternarcotics strategy, showing how the Peruvian state has attempted to simultaneously address security issues related to illegal narcotics production and armed Shining Path militants. It then identifies the challenges faced by many communities affected by the illicit drug trade, as communities contend with state security forces, “narcoterrorists,” as well as legal and economic pressures related to coca cultivation. Finally, the article examines the participation of civilian actors in confronting security challenges. It finds that civilian actors played a critical part in The Shining Path’s original defeat and will likely play an equally important role in combating the contemporary “narcoterrorist” threat.

Peru’s Anti-Drug Strategy

When President Humala first took office in 2011, the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (DEVIDA), Peru’s anti-drug agency, announced that it would scale back forced coca eradication and focus efforts on development projects and programs to promote social inclusion. Peru’s Anti-Drug Strategy of 2012-2016 emphasizes a holistic, multifaceted approach to combating drug production. The initiatives outlined in the 2012-2016 strategy include alternative development efforts, various forms of interdiction, as well as prevention and treatment programs aimed at drug users. Many of the regions most affected by counternarcotics initiatives, however, have become increasingly militarized as key political leaders and state security forces implement these strategies. Peru has prioritized particular elements of interdiction and eradication as evidenced by Humala’s commitment to eradicate 50 percent more illegal coca plants in 2013 than 2012. Actual eradication surpassed targets with the removal of 23,600 hectares of coca crops in 2013, and DEVIDA has set an ambitious 30,000 hectare target for 2014. Although key policymakers recognize the importance of pairing eradication with development and social inclusion programs, they often prioritize security concerns. The national police (PNP) and the armed forces simultaneously combat the two primary sources of regional insecurity: drug traffickers and the remnants of the Shining Path insurgency. Until recently, they have prioritized counterterrorism efforts over halting the expansion of drug cultivation and trafficking. For example, the PNP had only one base dedicated to counternarcotics efforts in the communities surrounding the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River valleys (the VRAEM) in 2012, while the armed forces combating terrorism had 29 bases. Counterterrorism efforts in communities cultivating illegal coca generate additional challenges, as the military and police attempt to implement state counternarcotics strategies.

Communities in the VRAEM are bracing themselves for the Peruvian state’s response to expanding coca plantations and processing sites. Closer ties to the United States and increased dependence on US funding may influence Peru’s counternarcotics strategy to mirror past efforts in Colombia that prioritize eradication. A close alliance between drug traffickers and Shining Path militants exacerbates the danger of militarizing counternarcotics efforts. The Shining Path militants have taken on a mercenary role, and key political and military decision-makers believe that attacking the insurgent group’s financial lifeline will lead to the Shining Path’s defeat.

SEE ALSO: Shining Path Profile

For example, General Leonardo Longa Lopez, the new head of the VRAEM Special Command, explained recent Shining Path attacks and kidnappings after a period of inactivity. Longa suggested that these actions are the Shining Path’s last desperate reaction to the military’s efforts to halt drug trafficking in the region. “The production supplies aren’t getting through and the terrorist remnants have withdrawn,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer [terrorists] because they’re abandoning the ranks.” He believes that removing incentives offered by illegal narcotics production will eventually eliminate Shining Path militants. Carmen Masias, the head of DEVIDA, also recognized the symbiotic relationship between the Shining Path and the illegal drug economy. He emphasized the need to focus on eradication: “There are leftover terrorists to attack, but that’s not the main problem. This year we’ve invested three billion [Peruvian] soles in the VRAEM and [coca cultivation] didn’t go down a single hectare. When you don’t eradicate, it doesn’t affect drug-trafficking.” For Masias, successful counternarcotics policy must include actively eliminating coca crops. These two key actors in Peruvian counternarcotics strategy think that the key to success includes interdiction (limiting supplies and transport) and eradication (removing crops).

Peruvian security forces have also actively engaged in counterterrorism operations. The arrest of Shining Path leader Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala (known as Comrade Artemio) in the Upper Huallaga Valley in 2012, as well as the deaths of “Alipio” and “Gabriel” in the VRAEM in 2013, removed important obstacles hindering state security forces’ ability to enter these regions to combat terrorism and illegal drug production. The December 2013 arrest of Alexander Dimas Huaman (also known as Hector), Artemio’s successor, caused the head of Peru’s national drug police to declare that the Shining Path has disappeared from the Upper Huallaga Valley and that the region has been pacified. Yet despite recent arrests that dealt temporary blows to the Quispe Palomino clan that now controls much of the VRAEM, civilians in that region remain doubtful about the military’s capacity and intentions. The Quispe Palomino clan, headed by brothers Victor and Jorge (aliases “camarada Jose” and “camarada Raul”), recently demonstrated their ability to recover quickly from military blows to their organization by reasserting control over key drug routes shortly after sweeping arrests of suspected narcoterrorist actors. Armed columns of narcoterrorists took several communities by force, despite supposedly being under military protection. Furthermore, an indiscriminate military response in some communities left civilians with questions about the military’s concern for their well-being. One civilian described the military operation that followed as a barrage of missile fire from a helicopter around the periphery of their village without clear targets.

The Shining Path Threats and the Failure of a Coca Economy

Civilians in Peru feel they are once again caught “between two fires,” fearful of violent reprisals from both the Shining Path and state security forces. One coca farmer in the VRAEM explained the dangers of leaving his modest wooden home during the night and warned, “You should not use a candle or flashlight.” He pointed up into the hills to the north. “The military controls that area over there.” Then he pointed toward the hills to the west, “And Shining Path controls that area over there. Either one of them might take a shot at you if they see a light.” Civilians often find themselves in an impossible situation with few options to ensure the safety of their families and improve their lives. Communities must avoid accusations and physical attacks from two fronts: state security forces and Shining Path militants.

For example, during a spike in violence in 2008, the military killed numerous villagers in one VRAEM community whom they labeled “subversives.” Months later, guerrillas came and abducted the village leader for supposedly collaborating with the military. Today, many communities continue to help the Shining Path out of fear. With punitive violence from both Shining Path and state security forces, combined with increased drug eradication efforts that threaten some farmers’ livelihoods, many communities in the region want change or to simply be left alone.

Market pressures to grow the most profitable crops with more frequent harvests originally led local farmers to embrace illegal coca production. If local farmers could make a similar living cultivating alternative crops, however, some would voluntarily grow cacao, coffee, and other plants instead of coca. One farmer explained, “Of course! We would eradicate ourselves. We wouldn’t need the army or police to do it. It would be magnificent.” Coca has not provided a solution to the economic hardships faced by farmers and their families, and few farmers have made substantial profits through illegal coca.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profiles

Apart from continued poverty, farmers in the region have also started to recognize the devastating environmental effects of illegal coca cultivation. They have experienced environmental degradation in the form of a disappearing jungle canopy, the elimination of native wildlife like monkeys and parrots, and widespread soil erosion. More frequent harvests drain vital nutrients from the earth, and pesticides used to protect the vulnerable coca leaves have poisoned the soil. The effects of coca cultivation have disrupted the production of other important agricultural staples such as yucca. Collaborating with the Shining Path and drug traffickers has failed to improve the lives of farmers and has disrupted some indigenous groups’ cultural traditions. Forced eradication by state security forces, however, will likely harm communities tied to the coca economy. Eradication does not work without supplementary programs that generate broad and equitable development, and finding sufficient resources to implement these programs is challenging.

Civilian Self-Defense in Peru

The civilian population will play an increasingly important role in Peru’s recent push for eradication in the VRAEM. A similar effort in the Upper Huallaga Valley in the mid-2000s disrupted social order and led to widespread violence until the communities were able to organize and provide for their own security. Peru has a long history of civilian self-defense, and armed civilian actors still help to maintain social order in many rural regions of Peru. Communities in the Cajamarca and the Piura regions of Peru originally organized “rondas campesinas” (peasant rounds) in the 1970s to combat rampant cattle thievery. Some credit the presence of these organizations with limiting the Shining Path expansion into these regions when the insurgent group initiated armed struggle in 1980. Another form of civilian self-defense, “comites de autodefensa” (CADs), emerged in the Central Sierras in the early 1980s to combat the Shining Path. Early CADs developed “organically” through the communities’ own volition. As the conflict progressed, the armed forces sometimes stepped in to co-opt these nascent organizations to provide them with logistical and material support, or in some cases to compel communities to organize if they had failed to do so on their own. The academic literature on violence during Peru’s internal armed conflict recognizes civilian mobilization as a key component in the defeat of the Shining Path. Policymakers and state security forces see the potential benefits of coordinating with community self-defense forces to complement current counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations, but the state has offered only minimal support in terms of financial resources. Civilian support and participation may prove crucial in defeating remnants of the Shining Path insurgency and halting the expansion of illegal narcotics production.

Past and present civilian participation in combating insurgent violence in this region is complicated. Although many contemporary civilian self-defense organizations in jungle communities have largely chosen not to become involved in issues related to drug trafficking and terrorism, many of the mountain communities leaving the VRAEM have recently reactivated patrols to respond to these challenges. For example, 24 communities around Luricocha coordinate with each other to train, organize patrols, and confront contemporary security challenges that the state is either unable or unwilling to address.

These cases allow for a glimpse into the actual process of civilian mobilization. Small groups of civilians armed with 12-gauge Winchester shotguns aim to deter drug trafficking and to protect the population from groups of bandits along the highway leading out of the jungle. Civilian patrols set up temporary roadblocks on the dirt highway an hour outside of Luricocha en route to the jungle. They stop and search automobiles and trucks traveling in the middle of the night. These actions generate great risks for the participants, but many of these individuals have previous military experience or belonged to civilian self-defense forces during the civil war.

Many policymakers oppose civilian efforts to militarize. The press, politicians, and academics often debated the matter in the media during the internal armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s. Many were hesitant to arm civilians, fearful that by supplying rural communities with weapons they would arm the same militants they sought to defeat. In some cases, civilian militia leaders have committed human rights abuses or became involved in drug trafficking. For the most part, however, their fears never materialized and armed civilian actors never took on a large political role in their communities during the post-conflict period. Furthermore, Peru has developed a legal framework regarding civilian self-defense that facilitates state oversight and control of these organizations. Although the groups operate autonomously, they coordinate with the armed forces. For example, one group near Huanta, in the Ayacucho region of Peru, carries out joint patrols with other groups and they meet once a month at a local military base for training and weapons maintenance. Groups from the region also meet annually to commemorate their role in the initial defeat of The Shining Path and reaffirm their support for the armed forces and police in pacification efforts as well as socioeconomic development. Civilian self-defense initiatives collaborate with state security forces, which can generate better human intelligence. Community members who organize and participate in civilian self-defense know the terrain and the people, and they often share their knowledge with security forces. These individuals also cater security provision to local needs. Civilian self-defense organizations have generated stronger relationships between local intermediaries and the state to help coordinate and implement development efforts.

Civilian Resistance in Peru and Beyond

Civilian participation in security provision can lead to drastically different outcomes. While the Peruvian case generally experienced fewer instances of predatory behavior by armed civilian self-defense forces, in other cases these types of groups exacerbated existing armed conflicts. Scholars and policymakers should not make broad generalizations about the benefits of armed civilian mobilization. The conditions in which armed civilian groups emerge often affect their goals and behavior.

For example, in Colombia, paramilitaries emerged to defend against violence tied to revolutionary groups and the drug trade. The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) emerged as an umbrella organization coordinating disparate civilian paramilitaries. In Colombia, however, armed civilian defense mostly formed to protect private interests. Paramilitary groups emerged as private protection organizations for landowners, cattle ranchers, or other business elites with interests in regions with conflict. Large landholders in Colombia might pay armed civilians to protect their property and guarantee their safety.

Alternatively, in Peru, collective custodians and small landowners coordinated together to mobilize and protect their own collective interests. The formation of civilian self-defense forces in Peru must be understood as “the expression of a massive, autonomous decision on the part of the rural population.” Continued coordination with state security forces and legal accountability helped minimize the risk of rogue paramilitary mobilization.

In addition to addressing immediate security concerns in this case, the Peruvian experience may shed light on other contemporary cases where armed civilian actors confront threats to social order. As many Mexican communities organize “self-policing” efforts to combat drug traffickers, and towns in northern Nigeria mobilize civilians to confront the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, policymakers will benefit from a better understanding of the dynamics behind civilian resistance. Peruvian civilian self-defense forces varied in their origins, behavior, levels of support they received from the military, and their post-conflict trajectory. The Peruvian case provides a unique opportunity for policymakers to learn from successes and failures when civilians help to combat security threats.

*Steven T. Zech is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington, Seattle. He teaches courses on political violence, terrorism, and counterterrorism. He was research affiliate at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) in Lima from 2012 to 2013 while investigating community responses to insurgent violence for his dissertation.

This article originally appeared in the Combating Terrorism Center’s publication, the CTC Sentinel. See original, including citations, here.

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