Cocaine industry resurges in Peru

Dispersed network creates challenges

At a news conference this month in Lima, antidrug police displayed 1,500 kilograms of cocaine seized in Peru. At a news conference this month in Lima, antidrug police displayed 1,500 kilograms of cocaine seized in Peru. (ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times / March 30, 2008

SANTA LUCIA, Peru - Rustic mule trains ferry vital chemicals to clandestine jungle labs. Booby-trapped fields ward off intruders.

Trekkers never seen on the Discovery Channel backpack the prized finished product on epic journeys from steamy Amazon hideaways to chilly highland distribution depots.

And a shadowy remnant of the Shining Path rebel army, led by a charismatic man named Artemio, uses its muscle to pocket a fortune in a sinister protection racket.

Peru's cocaine industry, the world's largest and most violent in the late 1980s and early '90s, is on the upswing again. Plots of coca bushes, whose leaves yield cocaine, have increased by about one-third since 1999, according to Peruvian and United Nations estimates.

And this time, the traffickers might be more difficult to combat because the kingpins from Colombia have been replaced by a piecemeal network, a sort of gold rush of international entrepreneurs.

Production is still well below the record highs of the early 1990s, and neighboring Colombia has surpassed Peru as the global cocaine leader, supplying 90 percent of the US market, according to the US State Department. Moreover, Peru's President Alan Garcia is a staunch foe of the drug.

"Peru will not resign itself to be a country of narco-trafficking," said the pro-US Garcia.

But Peru, the world's number two supplier, feeds a booming demand in Brazil, Europe, East Asia, and as far away as Australia, authorities said. The density of coca plantings has doubled in some cases, specialists said, and the fertilizer-nourished leaf yields a greater proportion of cocaine alkaloid, the active ingredient in cocaine.

A wave of drug-related lawlessness has fanned fears of the kind of narco-instability that afflicts Colombia and Mexico. The Tijuana cartel is suspected in the 2006 slaying in Lima, of a judge hearing a case against an alleged cartel capo.

And renewed militancy among the peasants who grow the coca leaf has sparked violent clashes with law enforcement officers.

The Garcia administration initially agreed to suspend eradication efforts, a mainstay of the US-backed antidrug policy. But Garcia later reversed course and even suggested that clandestine laboratories be raided and bombed. With US aid of about $50 million a year, Peru has trained hundreds of antidrug police officers. "If we don't kill the danger now," Garcia said, Peru could be confronted with a large insurgency.

During the 1990s, US-backed enforcement efforts chased much of the coca trade to Colombia. Now, some people say, the wheel is turning: Pressure there is shifting production here.

But today's tableau is distinct from the scenario of the late 1980s and early '90s.

Gone are the Colombian drug barons swaggering around in opulent jungle redoubts such as the nearby town of Uchiza, once dubbed the world cocaine capital. Replacing them is a multinational network.

"We're up against an army of ants," said General Miguel Hidalgo, head of Peru's antidrug police.

Authorities here have identified smuggling rings from Mexico, Brazil, and Nigeria, among other countries.

Today, Peruvian traffickers produce pure cocaine for export. Ever-adaptable traffickers have expanded cultivation zones.

Negotiating extreme terrain, low-tech legions use mules to haul in chemical precursors, and cocaine-laden backpackers travel age-old Inca trails.

On the ground, coca growers have devised a countermeasure: Some plants are rigged with homemade bombs. Since 2006, 73 eradication workers have been wounded and two killed, the government said.

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