Violence in Peru has been relatively low since the end of its civil conflict in the late 1990s. Although it remains the world’s top coca producer behind Colombia, illicit cultivations in the country are decreasing. Profits from drug trafficking and illegal logging have fueled a small resurgence of the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group that no longer poses a major threat to the stability of the Peruvian state, but which continues to attack security forces and foreign multinationals in the remote Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM) region of central Peru.
Peru is an important location for the cocaine trade thanks its suitability for growing coca, and vast ungoverned areas which allow groups like the Shining Path, as well as drug trafficking clans, to flourish. Its strategic position bordering on Bolivia and Brazil gives it access to Brazil’s growing domestic cocaine market, as well as its international shipping routes.
Peru has been a cocaine and coca exporter since the 19th century, when much of its product was exported legally to the United States. Washington outlawed the drug in the early 20th century, and pressured Peru into doing so in 1948. This sparked the growth of the illegal drug business, which over the following decades would be centered around the Huallaga Valley, in the north of the country.
Much of the country’s cocaine was shipped out south via Chile, until a crackdown by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet forced a re-routing north through Colombia in the 1970s, which gave rise to the powerful Medellín and Cali Cartels there. Coca leaves were generally processed in Peru into coca base, and refined into pure cocaine once abroad. By the 1980s, Peru had become the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.
The decade also brought the rise of the Shining Path guerrillas, a group of Maoist communists led by philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, who declared war on the state in 1980. The group’s insurgency began in the mountain town of Ayacucho and grew to occupy large parts of the highlands, even reaching Lima at its height. The conflict also involved a rival guerrilla group the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru – MRTA), and peasant patrols backed by the government.
Nearly 70,000 died or disappeared during the conflict between 1980 and 2000, with just under half the deaths attributed to the Shining Path. Government forces were blamed for some 23,000 deaths, as well as widespread human rights abuses.
The Shining Path went into a decline after its leader, Guzmán, was captured in 1992, and later split into two separate branches. Meanwhile, Peru’s cocaine production dropped with the harsh security policies of the Alberto Fujimori government (1990-2000), and production largely shifted to Colombia. However, the drug trade still remained an important force in Peru. Fujimori’s close ally and security chief Vladimiro Montesinos was arrested accused of corruption and links to drug trade and to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
However, the cocaine business has increased again, and the new influx of money has helped the Shining Path make a comeback. Peru and Colombia have been alternating as the world’s largest coca cultivators and cocaine producers for years. By 2015, Colombia was again considered to be the world’s number one, following a 14 percent decline in cultivations in Peru in 2014. The government has warned that coca production is spreading outside of the traditional production regions and into the Amazon, while there is evidence that the security forces, political sphere, and judiciary have been infiltrated by the drug trade. The state has hit back with tough eradication campaigns and tight controls on precursor chemicals used to make cocaine.
The success of these efforts are linked to the government’s fight against the Shining Path, who are known to be involved in the drug trade. The state has found it hard to penetrate the Apurimac, Ene River and Mantaro Valley (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro – VRAEM) region — the Shining Path’s last remaining stronghold and the country’s biggest coca-producing region.
The government’s aims to bring the area under coca cultivation down to 38,000 hectares by 2021 presents a political challenge. Traditional uses of the coca plant remain legal, and coca growers are a strong political force.
While drug trafficking remains the focus of security concerns, the profits it brings in are dwarfed by those of the illegal mining trade, which government officials estimate is worth up to $3 billion a year. The epicenter of the trade is the Madre de Dios region. While there is not much violence associated with the sector, it has wrought environmental and social destruction, and mining regions are a hub of human trafficking, for both forced labor and sexual exploitation.
Among other challenges for Peru are its large illicit timber trade, which is facilitated by corruption and lax controls. Up to 80 percent of the country’s total timber exports are illegal.
The Shining Path guerrilla group launched its war against the state in 1980, and is now deeply involved in organized crime. While the drug trade has helped strengthen the group, in recent years it has been severely weakened by the death or arrest of a number of its top leaders. The rebels are thought to work with traffickers in the VRAEM region. This is the group’s last remaining stronghold after it was pushed out of the Alto Huallaga region following the 2012 capture of Florindo Eleuterio Flores, alias “Comrade Artemio.”
Local Peruvian trafficking groups share their territory with foreign drug trafficking organizations, including Colombian and Mexican criminal groups. These maintain sophisticated cocaine trafficking networks to Europe, East Asia, the United States, and other countries.
Local traffickers are also known to have links with other transnational criminal groups, including Brazilian gangs and Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta.
Peru’s illegal gold mining sector operates as a complex network of miners, middlemen and mining concession owners, including “gold capos,” such as foreign armed groups, powerful families and politicians who use illegal practices such as forced labor and bribery.
The 63rd Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is thought to provide protection and logistical support for Peruvian illegal miners along the Putumayo River, on the border between Colombia and Peru.
Human smuggling networks and illegal loggers also operate in Peru, and extortion is a major industry.
Peru has a centralized police force, the Peruvian National Police (Policía Nacional del Peru – PNP). The force has a reputation for corruption.
As of 2016, Peru had 120,660 active frontline military personnel. The armed forces’ reputation has in the past suffered due to incidents of human rights abuses during the internal conflict, and some military leaders’ support for Fujimori, who is now in prison accused of corruption and abuses.
The armed forces have recently increased their involvement in fighting drug trafficking and the remnants of Shining Path, conducting joint operations with the police force. Authorities have dealt severe blows to the Shining Path in recent years, although the rebel group remains strong in certain regions.
Members of the armed forces have long been implicated in arms trafficking networks linked to criminal groups.
Peru spent 1.4 percent of its GDP on “military expenditure” in 2014.
There are almost 700 authorized private security companies in Peru, with over 70,000 personnel.
The Supreme Court of Justice is Peru’s highest judicial body. Below this are the Superior Courts of Justice, which operate within their local jurisdictions, followed by smaller courts that also operate on a local level.
Fujimori’s decade of increasingly authoritarian rule left a legacy of impunity and greatly damaged the impartiality of Peru’s judicial system, which has been accused of having deep ties to organized crime.
In 2014-2015 the World Economic Forum ranked Peru at 124th out of 144 countries for judicial independence.
Peru’s overcrowded penal system is showing signs of strain. The widespread use of pre-trial detention has caused the number of inmates to grow beyond control. In 2016, Peru’s prison population was at 233 percent of its total capacity.
In 2015, Peru’s government revealed that 95 percent of suspects were being released after their arrest — the majority of whom had been caught red handed — suggesting corrupt practices within Peru’s security forces. In the same year, a law was passed to speed up judicial proceedings for delinquents who are caught in the act, raising fears of a spike in the number of detainees.
There is also evidence of extensive inadequacy and co-option within Peru’s prisons, allowing for breakouts and a stark lack of control over its inmates.