Police in Peru have shot down a drug plane in the notorious VRAEM region, in a move that signals the government’s return to a controversial shoot-down policy intended to impair illegal activity in one of the region’s most important drug trafficking hubs.
A special operations unit from Peru’s anti-drug agency intercepted the plane in the expansive and inhospitable Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) on February 26, according to Peruvian news agency Andina. The pilot reportedly escaped, but police recovered 288 kilograms of cocaine, communications equipment, and firearms.
Police also found a clandestine airstrip nearby the downed plane. In the town where police discovered the airstrip, locals reported the existence of construction companies that build airstrips with quick turnaround times and lease them to drug traffickers, according to Diario Correo.
This is the first shoot down of a drug plane since Peru announced the creation of a no-fly zone in the VRAEM at a February 4 press conference, at which anti-drug chief Alberto Otarola said unreported flights would be considered “hostile and illegal.”
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As the epicenter of drug trafficking in Peru, the VRAEM produces an estimated 200 tons of cocaine annually, with up to ten daily drug flights connecting the coca producing regions to Bolivia and Brazil. The announcement of the no-fly zone in early February was tempered by questions of monitoring capacity — radar coverage in the VRAEM is sparse — as well as safety concerns.
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According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Peru shot down at least 30 planes in the 1990s as part of an effort to end an air bridge linking coca producers with processing facilities in Colombia. The interception policy abruptly ended after an accidental shoot down killed a US missionary and her daughter in 2001.
The return to the shoot down policies is indicative of the lack of effective security strategies authorities have to combat drug trafficking in the VRAEM. Coca eradication efforts have fallen in the past due to threats from the Shining Path, which maintains an armed insurgency in the region. Destroying clandestine airstrips has proved ineffective as well, with drug traffickers able to rebuild runways within 24 hours.