What a Sinaloa Cartel Alliance Would Mean for the Shining Path

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Claims that the Shining Path is now dealing directly with Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel, if true, would put the Peruvian rebel group in the same drug trafficking league as Colombia’s FARC guerrillas.

According to one Peruvian drug policy expert, the Sinaloa Cartel has teamed up with the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) rebel group to run trafficking operations. Pedro Yaranga told radio network RPP that the Sinaloa Cartel had been operating in the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) since January, and working directly with the guerrilla faction based there. The VRAE is Peru’s biggest coca-producing area, and home to one of two remaining branches of the Shining Path. According to Yaranga, the Sinaloa Cartel has two representatives permanently based in the region, in an area dominated by a guerrilla column headed by a rebel fighter known as “Alipio.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the Sinaloa Cartel has been reported to have a presence in Peru. In 2003 a Colombian who was accused of links to Sinaloa was arrested by Peruvian forces for an alleged scheme to ship drugs by boat to Mexico. In 2008 police in Lima arrested some 20 people in connection with a plan to smuggle 2.5 tons of cocaine out of the country, three or four of whom were reportedly Mexican nationals, and members of the Sinaloa Cartel. In January 2011, Peru’s attorney general said that the Sinaloa Cartel had an armed force of 40-60 people operating in the region of Piura, on the border with Ecuador, which produced cocaine and marijuana and had been in operation since the 1990s.

It makes sense that the Sinaloa would have its own people in Peru, as the powerful Mexican group seeks to move further down the supply chain — in this case right to the source — to collect a greater share of the profit. It’s not clear, however, whether the two Sinaloa representatives that Yaranga speaks of are Mexican-born members of the cartel, or just local associates.

Either way, to operate in Peru, the Sinaloa Cartel needs local partners. According to the attorney general, the Piura-based groups used the local population to harvest and store the drugs, and to work as lookouts. It would be natural for the Mexican cartel to build connections with the Shining Path, as a criminal group operating in Peru’s biggest drug-producing region.

But these assertions about a Sinaloa alliance raise questions about the state of the Shining Path. Both branches of the group are known to get much of their funds from taxing coca growers. Peruvian authorities have long asserted that the connection goes deeper, and that the Shining Path has now become a drug trafficking organization, especially in the case of the VRAE-based faction.

The leader of the other branch of the group, based in the Upper Huallaga Valley, recently called for peace talks with the government, claiming that his group had only made money from coca growers, never from drug trafficking groups. “Comrade Artemio” told media that, “My army has never been lent to guard maceration pits [for processing coca leaves], guarding transport of merchandise, or guarding airports or flights,” claiming he had only allowed traffickers’ operations to take place because he was too weak to fight them.

This is unlikely to be true, but it is hard to find conclusive evidence of the Huallaga Shining Path having a deeper role in the drug trade. The U.S. State Department and the Peruvian authorities both class the group as a trafficking organization, but it seems that if they were indeed busy carving out a new role as drug barons, then Artemio would not be seeking to surrender along with his troops.

The case is much clearer with “Comrade Jose’s” VRAE-based group, whom Artemio has repudiated as “mercenaries” with no connection to Maoism or revolutionary ideology. Indeed, there is evidence that the VRAE group’s attacks on the armed forces are timed to take revenge for the interception of cocaine shipments, rather than being inspired by their struggle to overthrow the Peruvian state.

For Yaranga, both branches of the rebels are deeply involved in the drug trade, with Artemio and Jose both dealing with the Sinaloa Cartel. He argues that the Shining Path has “practically become a [trafficking] firm, because it does not just provide security, but oversees the planting and processing of coca, and guards the laboratories.” He backs claims made in recent DEA testimony to U.S. Senate in October, which asserted that the Shining Path had formed a “symbiotic relationship” with drug trafficking organizations operating in Peru, protecting their operations in exchange for payment. The testimony particularly highlighted the role of Mexican traffickers in the trade, who it said were “increasingly involved in coordinating large drug loads” in that country.

If Yaranga and the DEA are correct, than the VRAE-based branch of the Shining Path are as far enmeshed in the drug trade as their Marxist cousins of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), not only taxing coca growers but also processing coca leaves, selling coca base on to drug trafficking groups, and guarding shipments of processed cocaine. It remains to be seen if they will continue to cling to their rebel ideology, like the FARC, or shed their revolutionary trappings, as Artemio claims the VRAE faction already have.

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