Authorities in Peru have destroyed 54 clandestine landing strips in a major operation targeting aerial drug trafficking, a concerted effort to discourage smugglers from using the so-called air bridge between Peru and Bolivia, but one that will likely bear little fruit.
Demolitions experts used more than four tons of explosives over the course of the operation, which took place in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley region (VRAEM) and was the biggest such offensive carried out by Peruvian authorities since 2011, according to the Associated Press. The first phase of the operation took place in early September, with the destruction of 10 landing strips.
The AP reported that an aerial view of the area showed evidence that various landing strips destroyed earlier this year had already been rebuilt. Two of the landing strips destroyed in the present operation had been reconstructed four times this year, according to the head of Peru’s anti-drug police, General Vicente Romero.
Security officials told the AP that drug traffickers could rebuild a landing strip in just one night, and often paid local residents to assist them in the process.
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The operation, which was the largest of several such recent offensives, indicates that Peruvian authorities are making a sustained effort to discourage the aerial trafficking of cocaine out of Peru. However, as the officials’ comments to the AP suggest, targeting air strips is little more than a temporary solution to a major problem.
Peru lacks radar coverage, making it virtually impossible to target aerial trafficking. Authorities have been forced to operate from the ground, blowing up airstrips and and attempting to ambush drug planes when they land. Police footage published by IDL-Reporteros illustrates one such operation from July, in which authorities camped out in anticipation of an incoming drug flight and later engaged in a gunfight with alleged traffickers.
SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profiles
In the 1990s, when Peru’s air bridge was directed principally to Colombia, authorities undertook a successful interdiction campaign involving the shooting down of suspected drug planes. The strategy cut air traffic and led to a huge drop in coca production. However, following the accidental shoot-down of a plane flying a US missionary in 2001, this strategy was suspended.
Since then, Peru has re-emerged as the world’s number one cocaine producer and the air bridge is back, this time directed toward Bolivia and sometimes Paraguay, from where cocaine is sent on to Brazil. The VRAEM — where the recent security force offensive took place — is Peru’s most important coca producing region and a major hub of aerial trafficking. An estimated 90 percent of some 200 tons of cocaine produced there annually is shipped out by air.