Peru’s drug trade was once highly centralized and facilitated by one powerful man: the government’s former spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. Montesinos, and his system, are gone, but traffickers still need their political brokers.
It has been more than a decade since Montesinos, commonly referred to as President Alberto Fujimori’s “Rasputin,” received his first sentence in what would grow to be more than 30 convictions for crimes including embezzlement, influence peddling, death squad involvement and bribery. He has also been convicted of orchestrating a 1999 arms deal in which 10,000 assault rifles were sold to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.
Montesinos, the former head of Peru’s National Intelligence Service (SIN) has never been convicted of drug trafficking. However, evidence suggests that he played a pivotal role in facilitating the drug trade in the Upper Huallaga Valley — once the center of Peru’s thriving cocaine industry — charging protection fees from top drug traffickers and even dealing directly with Colombia’s most infamous kingpin, Pablo Escobar. He was, in essence, the underworld’s broker in Peru, a person who could help ensure that trafficking activities would not be uninterrupted by security and judicial forces in return for some very hefty sums of money.
Since Montesinos’ — and Fujimori’s — fall from grace, the face of drug trafficking in Peru has changed dramatically. The geographic area of the drug trade has shifted, the major intermediaries who once supplied the Colombians have fallen, the Mexicans and Brazilians have moved in, and the air bridge that once linked to Colombia has been rerouted east towards Brazil.
One thing that has remained constant, though, is that Peru’s political system remains riddled with corruption, and there have been numerous accusations of politicians continuing to support drug traffickers.
Fujimori’s “Rasputin” and Peru’s Drug Trade
Formally speaking, Montesinos was the deputy head of Peru’s SIN. But underneath this title, he was much more.
“There is no one who stands toe-to-toe with Montesinos in the Peruvian government, and nothing that the government does on intelligence, enforcement and security issues occurs without his blessing,” a 1999 cable from the US State Department read.
Montesinos relied heavily on bribery to enact his political will and heighten his power (see videos released by IDL-Reporteros). He had great control over Peru’s military and also developed a close working relationship with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), despite misgivings expressed by the US Embassy in Peru and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Montesinos (pictured shaking hands at a public event) was supported by the CIA — which reportedly provided him some $10 million in aid during the 1990s — when he centralized all anti-drug affairs under the SIN.
IDL-Reporteros director Gustavo Gorriti told InSight Crime that Montesinos’ role in the drug trade was “mixed.” On the one hand, he was a hero in the war against the Shining Path guerrillas, was credited with taking down major drug traffickers, and eventually imposed an aerial interdiction policy that essentially froze Peru’s drug trade.
On the other, he has been linked to various drug traffickers. These alleged drug ties stretched back to the 1970s, when Montesinos worked as a lawyer for drug traffickers, including Evaristo Porras Ardila, alias “Papa Doc,” a high-ranking member of the Medellin Cartel.
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According to several major traffickers, Montesinos, during his time in the SIN, essentially dictated the rules of the drug trade.
The now-deceased Peruvian-Panamanian leader of drug trafficking organization the Camellos, Boris Foguel y Suengas (pictured), claimed after his capture that Montesinos demanded $300,000 to swipe his slate clean and that he had paid Montesinos $100,000 bribes in order to fly cocaine out of the country in army helicopters.
Demetrio Chavez Peñaherrera, alias “El Vaticano,” the principal provider of coca base to the Medellin Cartel from his base in the Amazonian town of Campanilla during the early 1990s, had a similar story.
According to Vaticano (pictured in the white shirt below), he was approached by an army captain he called “Capulina” in March 1991, who said he had a high-level connection — presumably Montesinos — who could act as a guarantor for his business, for a fee. Montesinos allegedly demanded $50,000 a month from Vaticano, in exchange for rights to operate an airstrip, operational advice and alerts on anti-drug operations in the region. He also has claimed the state provided him with all the machinery necessary to build his airstrip. However, in the summer of 1992, Montesinos attempted to double the fee, and Vaticano refused. Within a month, police shut down the Campanilla airstrip, and Vaticano fled to Colombia where he was captured in 1994.
A former judge and a former governor both later told Caretas magazine they had seen Montesinos visit Campanilla during that time period.
Roberto Escobar, the brother of Colombia’s late Medellin Cartel capo Pablo Escobar, said that Montesinos had accepted $1 million for Fujimori’s first presidential campaign, had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for facilitating drug flights out of Peru, and had even visited Pablo at his Napoles ranch in Colombia.
“Fujimori told my brother by telephone that if he became president, he would happily collaborate whatever way he could,” Escobar claimed in 2000.
A Changing Narco Landscape
During Montesinos’ heyday in the early 1990s, the same amount of coca was cultivated in the Upper Huallaga Valley alone as now is grown in the entire country. The region was, essentially, a “colony” of the major Colombian cartels — first Medellin and later Cali — according to IDL-Reporteros. Large Peruvian drug “firms” (such as Vaticano’s) acted as the cartels’ suppliers. The cocaine was flown to Colombia, nearly all in its unrefined form known as coca base or paste, on dozens of planes each day.
The air bridge was shut down in the late 1990s, however, and the price of coca plummeted. By 2000, an estimated 13,600 hectares of coca was left in the Upper Huallaga region — less than a quarter of what was produced at the height of Peru’s drug trade.
Since that time, Peru’s drug trafficking landscape has changed dramatically. The Alto Huallaga is no longer the principal production center. That title now goes to the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley region (VRAEM), further to the south (see FONCODES map).
And the Colombians are no longer the principal buyers. Now groups like Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel or Brazil’s First Capital Command (PCC) are purchasing cocaine and coca paste from the Peruvians. In one recent example, authorities in Peru made the country’s largest cocaine seizure ever, more than seven tons, in the port town of Trujillo, encapsulated in a load of coal. It belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel, according to officials.
These criminal groups contract Peruvian intermediaries, who gather coca paste and cocaine from the various local drug clans. The intermediaries work for various buyers rather than being exclusive to any one cartel, and there are no known major figures, former Peruvian Interior Minister and security analyst Fernando Rospigliosi told InSight Crime. Nor are there large Peruvian syndicates as there were in the early 1990s.
“The Peruvians are the collectors [of the cocaine and coca paste], nothing more, because they do not handle relationships with the exterior,” Rospigliosi said.
There are also Peruvian custodians. There is evidence, for example, that what is left of the Shining Path guerrilla group operating in the VRAEM protect drug operations for a fee. What this means in practice is that the group will ensure that others do no encroach on the territory of their clients and reduce the possibility of theft of their merchandise.
SEE ALSO: Shining Path News and Profile
According to Gorriti, the Mexicans are present mainly as buyers. Unlike the Colombians, they do not generally operate in coca regions or get involved in other parts of the Peruvian drug chain.
“They already know from prior transactions who the intermediaries are, who will supply them with drugs from the rural areas, and what the sales price for the drugs are,” said Gorriti. “They don’t take risks, and they don’t intervene in problems of local transport; others take care of that.”
For their part, the Brazilians are taking advantage of a shift in demand. In the past couple of years, the Peruvian air bridge has reemerged, but this time directed largely to the Brazilian market (and the Argentine market to a lesser extent). An intelligence agent who asked not to be identified told Peruvian daily Gestion that Brazil’s PCC is now the top buyer of Peruvian cocaine.
However, according to Gorriti, Peruvian clans are still the ones transporting the drugs in-country, and the Brazilians have very little presence in Peru. For its part, Bolivia is used as a stopping point on this eastern bound route but could also be a point of cocaine production. Precursor chemicals are cheaper there than in Peru, and Gorriti said the Peruvians are moving coca base — the gooey paste that is the first step towards production of cocaine — to Bolivia where it is converted to cocaine in more sophisticated labs.
A New Political Drug Broker?
“The Mexican cartels, as the Colombian capo Pablo Escobar in his time, use bribery as the principal mechanism by which they are successful in their business,” Vargas said. “Now, just as before, narco-corruption continues to perform excellent work: it buys judges, prosecutors, police, armed forces, customs agents, heads of commercial banks and the terrorist faction [Shining Path] that operates in the VRAEM.”
Rospigliosi and Gorriti have no doubt that politicians continue to operate as brokers for drug traffickers. However, along with the nature of Peru’s drug trade, the form of this collaboration has changed since Montesinos’ time.
As Peru’s drug trade has become more disperse, so has the political collaboration it receives. There is no longer any known political figure with the concentration of power Montesinos once had. Instead, there are a larger number of political brokers that assist drug traffickers in smaller ways.
“They [the political actors today] have less importance, more fear, and additionally, there has been a decentralization,” Gorriti explained.
He said the majority of political collaborators of drug traffickers are now seen at a regional and provincial level, and their involvement is limited:
“There’s nobody even close to the figure of Montesinos,” he added.
This widespread, low-level support was highlighted by Peru’s recent local and regional elections, in which the country’s top anti-drug attorney said as many as 700 candidates may have had drug ties.
The case of the multi-ton cocaine shipment in Trujillo is also indicative of this modern narco-political relationship. Congressman Jose Leon rented a property to Rodrigo Torres, alias “Lic,” one of the alleged Mexican traffickers in charge of the shipment. Videos were later leaked (see below) that showed him meeting with this same man.
Leon has also admitted he once held a “professional” relationship with Manuel Sanchez Paredes, who is investigated for money laundering, and whose predecessors in the Sanchez Paredes clan were involved directly in cocaine production and trafficking. He is also believed to have ties to a candidate in the recent elections linked to the VRAEM drug trade.
Peru’s former top immigration official has also been questioned about the case, given that a residential work visa for Torres was processed in just three days; it normally takes a minimum of 45.
However, Gorriti said the involvement of these characters was likely limited to accepting bribes. Rather than playing a central role, they were looking to make money in one-time deals.
There are some other illustrative examples.
The mayor of the VRAEM town of Pichari — described by Salvadoran publication Contrapunto as the current “heart” of coca production — is reportedly the cousin of a famous drug trafficker from the region.
The former governor of Ancash, Cesar Alvarez Aguilar, has been investigated for running a “criminal mafia” and charging drug traffickers to use the Chimbote port for shipments, with the help of Police Major Jose Luis Carmen Ramos — nicknamed “Vladimirito.”
Peruvian Congressman Heriberto Benitez Rivas has been linked both to Alvarez and to a criminal network allegedly run by a prominent businessman, Rodolfo Orellana, and a retired police coronel, Benedicto Jimenez. The network is believed to have laundered large quantities of drug money, and Orellana has been accused of ties to drug traffickers in Mexico, Colombia, and Italy.
According to both Rospigliosi and Gorriti, some members of Peru’s Armed Forces also allow traffickers fly drugs out of the VRAEM for a fee. The difference, as it is for the politicians, is that this system is no longer run by a central figure like Montesinos.