Almost 200 tons of cocaine produced annually in the VRAEM region of Peru are transported by plane to Bolivia and on towards Latin America’s principal market of Brazil, an air bridge facilitated by the inability of the region to effectively interdict drug flights.
Peruvian security expert Ruben Vargas told InSight Crime that 90 percent of the approximately 200 tons of cocaine produced in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) each year is exported to neighboring countries by air, with the remaining 10 percent trafficked by land or water.
Vargas also said just two percent of the total cocaine trafficked out of the region was seized by authorities, meaning that 98 percent ends up on the consumer market. According to Vargas, slightly over half of Peru’s cocaine is produced in the VRAEM.
InSight Crime Analysis
At the height of Peru’s coca production in the 1990s, the bulk of the country’s cocaine left by air for Colombia. The government drastically reduced air traffic with an intense aerial interdiction campaign that allowed security forces to shoot down suspected drug planes, but the program was suspended in 2001 after the accidental shoot-down of a civilian plane. Colombia’s drug cartels then promoted the sowing of coca in their home country, making it the principal cocaine nation in the world until it was announced Peru had reclaimed that dubious title once again.
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In the past few years, the air bridge has reemerged and gained force, but now the cocaine is directed to Bolivia. The growth in this route has been facilitated by a lack of radar equipment to track drug flights in either country.
Much of the product leaves Peru in the form of coca base, and is processed in Bolivian laboratories that InSight Crime field research has identified as being run primarily by Colombian groups. From there, the bulk heads to the Brazilian market, with members of Brazil’s primary criminal groups entering Bolivia to pick up the product, some of which remains in the form of cocaine paste (known as “merla” in Brazil). Peruvian cocaine is also trafficked to Argentina which, along with Brazil, serves as a transshipment point for cocaine headed to Asian and European markets.
Vargas’ estimate of the total amount of cocaine exiting the VRAEM by air corresponds with InSight Crime’s own estimate that between 100 and 200 tons of cocaine is trafficked from Peru to Bolivia annually. The VRAEM is a key region for coca production and — along with the Pichis Palcazu region — one of the principal departure points for drug flights.
A significant amount of cocaine also leaves Peru by other routes. Some is trafficked via the Amazon into Colombia, there are land routes that exit into both Ecuador and Chile, and large shipments have also been known to leave from the Pacific Coast.