US Indicts Shining Path Rebels as Drug War Focus Shifts to Peru

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A US indictment against commanders of Peru’s Shining Path guerrilla group is a boost to the Peruvian security forces’ campaign for increased US support against the insurgency. However, the charges are unlikely to result in rebel leaders standing trial in the US, and could even prove counter-productive for efforts to uproot both the rebels and Peru’s drug trade.

On July 2, the Southern District Court of New York published an indictment (pdf) against the rebel leaders, who led two separate and opposing splinter groups of leftist guerrilla organization the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso).

Victor Quispe Palomino, alias “Comrade Jose,” leads the group’s last surviving faction, based in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM), alongside his brother Jorge, alias “Comrade Raul.” The third defendant, Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, alias “Comrade Artemio,” was captured in February 2012, leaving his faction, based further north in the Huallaga Valley, virtually destroyed.

The indictment accuses the men of funding the Shining Path’s “narco-terrorist” activities through cocaine trafficking, and launching deadly attacks on the Peruvian security forces in order to protect this drug business. It states that the group seeks to control all aspects of the cocaine trade in its territory, and that some of the drugs they produced were sold in the US.

“Such a path is anything but shining,” states the accompanying press release, “it is the path to prison.”

Counternarcotics Cooperation

The indictment of Shining Path leaders marks the depth of the US’s counternarcotics cooperation with Peru, which has increased as Peru has emerged as the world’s top coca and cocaine producer. In 2013, US counternarcotics and alternative development assistance to Peru almost doubled to $100 million, up from $55 million the previous year, reported the Global Post.

The relationship has been a priority for the government of Ollanta Humala, who took office in July 2011. In his first months in power Humala abandoned his campaign promise to avoid forced coca eradication, and instead increased eradication to record levels, in what was interpreted by many as a move to placate the US. However, the president launched another abrupt change of policy last month, when he fired Washington-friendly drug czar Carmen Masias and postponed a US-funded forced coca eradication scheme for the VRAEM region amid concerns that it could drive local coca-growers to support the rebels.

SEE ALSO: Shining Path Profile

One facet of Peruvian attempts to secure further US security assistance has been their efforts to link the Shining Path to the drug trade in order to secure anti-narcotics funding for counter-insurgency operations. The Shining Path has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997, but it was only in 2010 that two of its leaders — Jose and Artemio — were added to the Narcotics Rewards Program, with a $5 million reward for information leading to their arrest.

“The DEA office in the 1990s had many restrictions, they could support the government and police against drug trafficking, but not against terrorism. When we asked for support [against the Shining Path] in those years, they would say that terrorist activity was separate,” retired police General Carlos Moran, a former head of anti-drug police agency Dirandro and part of the team who captured Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman in 1992, told InSight Crime.

In the early 2000s, the DEA still considered the Shining Path to be primarily an insurgent group rather than a drug trafficking organization. DEA Congress testimony from 2003 states that “there is no DEA intelligence indicating that SL [Shining Path] elements are involved in the cultivation, processing, or sale of drugs.”

However, from 2007 onwards the Peruvian police built cases linking Shining Path factions to drug traffickers, General (r) Moran explained, first in Huallaga and then in the VRAEM. “When a connection to drug trafficking was found, the US decided to support us with greater force — financial support, logistical support. This was fundamental for the Peruvian authorities, and it continues to be very important support today.”

For General (r) Moran, US backing has been “decisive” in the battle against the Shining Path, but the shift came “at the initiative of the Peruvian authorities, who convinced the US government that it was a question of narco-terrorism.”

The current moves by the US to bring charges against Shining Path leaders is an important symbolic recognition of the efforts of Peru’s security forces, according to Moran.

“For us, it is an international validation of the work that the Peruvian police have been doing for some time,” he said. “By initiating legal proceedings against these criminals, the US is saying that we were right, and that is important to us.”

“Narco-terrorism”

However, the extent of the Shining Path’s involvement in the drug trade is almost certainly more limited than the US indictment suggests. The document portrays the Shining Path as a fully-fledged drug trafficking organization, stating that, for the last decade, the group has “sought to control all aspects of the cocaine trade” in the Upper Huallaga Valley and the VRAEM, including by “cultivating and processing its own cocaine for sale.”

It is more accurate to think of the Shining Path as a link in the chain that makes up Peru’s cocaine trade. Artemio, before and after his arrest, has repeatedly claimed that his faction’s involvement in the drug trade was restricted to taxing coca farmers. While this is an understatement, there is no evidence that either branch has taken on a systematic role beyond taxing coca growers and protecting drug shipments.

Ricardo Soberon, who served as President Humala’s first drug czar and currently heads drug reform group the Centro de Investigacion Drogas y Derechos Humanos, told InSight Crime that he did not agree with the US accusation that the rebels have sought to control all aspects of the trade. The Shining Path remnants, both under Artemio and in the VRAEM, simply have not had the “logistical, political or military capacity to take control of all the stages in the processing of drugs,” according to Soberon. They have controlled the passage of drug shipments through their territory, but, when it comes to “transport, storage and shipment, there the Shining Path has not had control or command.”

The Huallaga faction is now all-but destroyed, and no longer plays any substantial role in the drug trade. The Quispe Palominos’ faction continues to draw revenue from the drug trade, but their role is mostly confined to charging traffickers who move shipments through their territory. Gustavo Gorriti, editor of the investigative media outlet IDL-Reporteros, told InSight Crime that there was no hard evidence of the group processing coca leaves into cocaine or organizing laboratories in anything more than isolated cases. According to Gorriti, the local drug trafficking clans would rather avoid paying the Shining Path’s taxes when they can, and a recent increase in the use of small planes to move cocaine out of Peru has allowed many traffickers to avoid guerrilla-controlled areas altogether.

It is a matter of debate how far the Shining Path remains committed to overthrowing the Peruvian state, and how far it has abandoned the struggle and become a criminal group working within the existing system to make a profit. General (r) Moran argues that the Shining Path began their conversion into drug traffickers in earnest following the 1999 capture of overall commander Oscar Ramirez Durand, alias “Feliciano,” and that the VRAEM faction are no more than businessmen with a “facade of communism.”

“Their leaders were captured, they lost the ideology of struggle, and they became common criminal groups, practically,” he said.

However, the group have never ceased their political and propaganda work in the VRAEM region, putting up graffiti and lecturing residents about their ideals. Speaking to Peruvian journalists in 2012, a third Quispe Palomino brother, alias “Gabriel,” criticized the authorities’ dealings with the US, saying: “They call us terrorists, narco-terrorists, to confuse the people. [These are] lies. … You’re dealing with a man of the people. We aren’t manipulated by the CIA or by the Pentagon.”

For Gorriti, the US description of the Shining Path as “narco-terrorists” is far off the mark. “It does not come close to being an adequate description of this organization, which has a political aspect, a strong ideological aspect, and where the drug trade is a supporting business, and not their reason for being.”

Indeed, former drug czar Ricardo Soberon warns that the US indictment could be used as propaganda for the Shining Path in coca-growing regions. “It is not just useless, but could even be dangerous and counter-productive,” he told InSight Crime, arguing that the indictment could be used by the Shining Path to generate sympathy, by linking it to the US role in forced coca eradication.

Extradition

Despite the Peruvian authorities’ success in bringing the US to consider the Shining Path as a drug trafficking organization, it is unlikely that any of the three commanders accused in the indictment will ever stand trial in the US.

The US government has made no public request for the extradition of Artemio, and has indicated that it does not plan to. Artemio was convicted by a Peruvian court in June 2013 of terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering, and sentenced to life in prison. He is currently serving his sentence at Callao naval base outside Lima, where Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman is also serving a life sentence. If they are taken alive, the Quispe Palomino brothers will probably face the same fate — trial and life imprisonment in Peru.

Many in Peru would prefer to see the Shining Path answer for their crimes in their own country, and the foreign minister stated at the time of Artemio’s capture that the rebel leader should settle his accounts with Peruvian justice.

Unlike neighboring Colombia, Peru does not have a history of sending its drug traffickers to stand trial in the US. Peru’s traffickers do not have the same pervasive power or ability to escape government facilities, and they are less of a priority for the US than their Colombian counterparts.

“The US’s geopolitical interest in mixing drug trafficking with subversion was much simpler in the Colombian case,” said Soberon.

While Colombian traffickers in the 1990s feared extradition to the US, this would not have the same power for Shining Path leaders. IDL-Reporteros’ Gustavo Gorriti said that while the Colombian traffickers were fundamentally business people, who might be moved to negotiate by the threat of extradition, the Shining Path leaders have different motivations. “Their ultimate objective is a revolution through prolonged armed insurgency. They know what they have got themselves into, that they have taken the road of life or death, and this type of threat counts for very little.”

The Quispe Palominos may not have much more time left. The security forces killed two of their top operatives in August 2013 — military chief Orlando Borda Casafranca, alias “Alipio,” and the third Quispe Palomino brother, “Gabriel.” For General (r) Moran, the VRAEM group is facing a similar situation to that of the Huallaga group from 2010 onwards, when the steady loss of lieutenants left Artemio in an increasingly vulnerable position.

“They are isolated, they have lost operative capacity,” he said. “Soon, they will be dead or arrested, that is the future for them.” 

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