Shining Path and its Alliance with Drug Trafficking in the VRAEM

This article is included in the publication Ambiente Estratégico 2022: Seguridad, Desarrollo y Defensa Nacional.


Summary

This article discusses the alliance between the remnants of the terrorist group Shining Path (SL for its name in Spanish “Sendero Luminoso”) and criminal organizations dedicated to drug trafficking in the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (VRAEM). On the one hand, SL needs to cover its administrative and operational expenses; on the other hand, drug traffickers need to secure their activities in the area, where -for more than three decades- the national authorities have not been able to defeat the remnants of SL, despite countless operations. Undoubtedly, the main concern of a criminal organization is to maintain and grow its operations, no matter who its ally is. In that sense, as long as the government does not plan, develop and implement an effective program that can jointly defeat the problem of terrorism such as drug trafficking, these will continue to exist as an endemic evil that not only affects the population of the VRAEM area, but also the economy and development of the country.

Key words: Shining Path, Drug Trafficking, VRAEM.

Introduction

The Alto Huallaga Valley and the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM) represent Peru’s cocaine producing center. These places were invaded by the Shining Path (SL) in the mid-1980s and 1990s, where they formed “liberated zones.” The VRAEM is crucial for drug traffickers because it has allowed them to develop a specific pattern of interaction with the remnants of SL in the region, helping them -the latter- to finance their revolution in the rest of the country during those decades.

In general, terrorist organizations use state-of-the-art techniques and technology to diversify their sources of financing, means of communication and modes of operation. In addition, these organizations spread misinformation while endangering the security of the population, often relying on the activities of organized crime to achieve their political objectives.[1] In that context, social and economic marginalization, as well as growing disparities and human rights abuses, are conditions that foster violent extremism and terrorism.

SL’s alliance with organizations dedicated to drug trafficking originated from the urgent need to pay their expenses in exchange for providing security to drug traffickers. The transformation of SL began in 2000, from its mutation as a criminal organization in the valley of the Apurímac and Ene rivers, a phenomenon favored by the weakness of the Peruvian State in the area, and which has now spread to sectors surrounding the Mantaro River. In that sense, this article addresses neosenderism in the VRAEM, the resurgence of coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia, and the mutation of SL into a narcoterrorist organization.

Neosenderism in the VRAEM

The connection of neosenderism with drug trafficking is known as narcoguerrilla or narcoterrorism and may or may not have characteristics of an organized movement. During the last two decades, SL has discarded the insurrectionary theory of Abimael Guzmán and has rethought its strategy with the aim of strengthening its power, stability and economic base in the VRAEM through drug trafficking. The neosenderistas operate as an organized criminal gang despite their political bases, emphasizing the new interpretation of their political objectives.[2] In this organization, commercial activity related to drug trafficking prevails, providing them with security and dedicating themselves to hired assassins. Therefore, it is important to differentiate between terrorism and drug trafficking, two different socioeconomic activities, despite having common adversaries, geographical areas and victims. The neosenderistas are just one more piece of the drug trafficking machinery in the VRAEM, getting involved in organized crime.[3]

There has been much debate about whether the war primarily impacted their ideology or whether it was just another chapter in SL’s post-Guzman history. However, it can be said that the remnants of SL are in a period of accumulation of forces, in the absence of the Peruvian State in the VRAEM.[4] The neosenderistas are not pure senderistas fed by ideology but disguise themselves in a political discourse to get involved in drug trafficking and obtain economic benefits. However, thanks to this political discourse, they manage to capture the population, being their main strengths their military experience and their structure of organization and command.

Resurgence of Coca Cultivation in Peru and Bolivia

Peru and Bolivia are two traditionally coca-producing countries in the central Andes of South America, although such production has increased significantly in recent decades. Therefore, the attention and resources of countries such as the United States (which is more supportive of Colombia in the fight against drug trafficking) should also be focused on the VRAEM area.

Since the actions of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in 1952, farmer cooperatives have existed in rural areas of Bolivia, generating associations of coca growers and preventing the emergence of criminal groups or guerrilla movements as intermediaries. In Peru, it can be said that SL has become a narco-terrorist group due to the lack of strong grassroots associations among farmers, which allowed both guerrilla organizations (SL and MNR) to act as intermediaries and protectors of drug traffickers or, in other cases, carry out drug trafficking actions, properly speaking.[5]

To prevent a repeat of the balloon effect (pushing the crop out of one country only to reappear in others) the U.S. government will have to establish a viable relationship with the Bolivian government and find effective ways to combat the resurgence of SL and coca cultivation in Peru. If more effective drug control policies are not achieved in both countries, a continued increase in coca production is likely to occur in Peru and Bolivia, thus nullifying any progress in the anti-cultivation and drug trafficking policies adopted by the Peruvian government in the VRAEM.

The Mutation of the Shining Path into a Narcoterrorist Organization

Peruvian drug trafficking organizations, known as “firmas,” are weak compared to Colombian criminal groups, such as the defunct Cali and Medellín cartels. Peruvian traffickers are less organized, less powerful, and unable to create alliances and deals with competing groups. Traditionally, “firmas” convert coca leaf into cocaine paste or cocaine hydrochloride, coordinating air shipments of these products to Colombia.[6] However, Peruvian drug traffickers have gained greater autonomy after the Cali Cartel was disbanded in 1995 and have begun producing and selling their own cocaine to Mexican gangs that ship the drug to the United States.[7] Due to their vulnerability, drug traffickers have accepted the offer of SL’s remnants in the VRAEM, through which they are provided with armed protection against operations by the Peruvian National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces (FF. AA.), allowing them to continue their criminal operations in the area.

Although Peruvian traffickers are powerful enough to extort and abuse farmers in the VRAEM, they are at the same time unable to stand up to the FF. AA. or the PNP. The lack of a sufficiently strong group of traffickers that can coordinate their activities, as was the case with Pablo Escobar’s organization for the Medellín Cartel or the Orejuela organization for the Cali Cartel, is a valid argument of the theory of collective action, in contrast to Colombia. Because Peruvian traffickers rely on the expertise and safety of Colombian hitmen, it is also feasible for the latter to use a divide-and-conquer strategy with the former.[8]

At the end of the last century, there were about 12 “firmas” in Peru, which had control of 100 subgroups.[9] The largest “firmas” were led by capos such as Reynaldo Reynoso (arrested in 1985), Catalino Escalante (AKA “Vampiro”), Guillermo Cardenas (AKA “Mosca Loca”) and his son Jorge (AKA “Mosquito Loco,” arrested in 1997), Demetrio Chávez (AKA “the Vatican”), and Elias Chavez (AKA “Lan Chile”).[10]

Traffickers in Peru have a shared interest in bribing civil and/or military authorities, protecting themselves from law enforcement and the state, and forcing farmers to grow and sell their coca leaf at a lower price. This is a guideline pursued by all drug trafficking “firmas” in the VRAEM. Therefore, these actions constitute a method to increase and strengthen the cocaine business. However, none of these “firmas” – by themselves – has been able to build a solid and effective organization to achieve those objectives.

Due to its links with drug trafficking, SL initiated a structural process of transition towards neosenderism, starting from its origins as a criminal organization in the VRAEM. While it is plausible that drug traffickers had an interest in thwarting the Peruvian government’s efforts to regulate the VRAEM, attempting to change the country’s political system or its economic and social bases would serve neither their goals nor those of the country’s citizens. For example, for drug traffickers, archetypal (illegal) free-market capitalist activity would have no place in a puritanical communist society like the “New Democratic Republic” that the SL terrorist group planned to impose at the time. Instead, corruption of politicians and government officials is important to drug traffickers as a means of safeguarding their trade. Drug traffickers are part of a global market, which makes it advantageous for them to maintain a free market.

The dilemma of the Peruvian State lies in the fact that, although it promises to provide alternative development to coca farmers (a commitment that has existed “on paper” since 1991), it has not been able to carry it out, due to its limited capacity and socioeconomic growth, since drug control policies have not been improved, and Peru depends on external financing to carry out these initiatives. In this context, U.S. assistance is more oriented towards policies of repression (interdiction) than economic growth. Therefore, faced with this reality, the farmers of the VRAEM are more likely to accept the protection of SL. Meanwhile, traffickers persist in their illicit activities and SL continues to demand money from them, being able to satisfy each other’s needs and remain in that place. Therefore, without other development alternatives, coca will continue to be the main means of subsistence for farmers in the VRAEM.[11]

Conclusions

The main objective of a criminal organization is to maintain and grow its operations, no matter with whom it allies or infringes on its political convictions. In that sense, there is a mutual need -between SL and criminal organizations dedicated to drug trafficking- to have an alliance that benefits them. While SL needs someone to pay for its administrative and operational expenses, drug traffickers need to receive security in the VRAEM area.

Many believe that once SL has been defeated militarily, coca farmers will be able to rally under the banner of a national coca growers’ union federation and use armed patrols to extort the government or to protect themselves from any future campaign. While it is true that the terrorist actions of SL have been contained by the Armed Forces, AA. and the PNP, paradoxically the danger of drug trafficking has increased significantly due to the increasing levels of corruption in the regional and local governments of the VRAEM.

Another factor to take into account is the imbalance of forces between SL and the “firmas” of drug traffickers in Peru. This difference is quite high in favor of SL remnants, although an alliance need not have a symmetry of power to exist. This situation shows that there is no such thing as a “Peruvian Drug Union,” but a set of independent criminal gangs that lack the resources to join forces against a larger adversary. However, it is still debated whether SL’s association with drug traffickers constitutes an alliance or a “marriage of convenience.” With no major options, Peruvian drug traffickers have accepted SL’s protection because, when the latter occupied the VRAEM, the hired killers who worked for the “firmas” were almost eliminated.

Due to the complexity of illegal drug markets, reducing the supply of narcotics has also become more complex. The safety, health and overall well-being of individuals and communities are threatened by unprecedented levels of cultivation, manufacture and trafficking of illegal drugs. Several causes, including urbanization, demographic changes and, in particular, “youth growth” and socio-economic inequality, are driving the growth of drug use, especially in emerging countries.

As long as the government does not plan, develop and implement an effective program that can jointly defeat both terrorism and drug trafficking, these will continue to exist as an endemic evil that affects not only the population of the VRAEM area, but the economy and development of the country.

Endnotes:

  1. UNODC, “Estudio mundial sobre el tráfico de armas de fuego 2020”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2020), https://www.unodc.org/documents/firearms-protocol/2020/Global_Study_Ex_Summary_es.pdf
  2. Fernando Rospigliosi, “La Responsabilidad del Gobierno”, The Republic (May 23, 2019), https://larepublica.pe/politica/395944-la-responsabilidad-del-gobierno/
  3. Ricardo Soberón, “El narcotráfico en el Perú y la ausencia de políticas de Estado”, Center for Development Studies and Promotion (Perú: 2007), http://www.desco.org.pe/recursos/site/files/CONTENIDO/11/Peru_Hoy_2007A_12_Soberón.pdf
  4. Raúl González, “Contraataque militar a Sendero Luminoso”, in an interview by Páez, Ángel, Diario Digital Republica Dominicana (May 17, 2010), https://hoy.com.do/
  5. Mariano Valderrama y Hugo Cabieses, Questionable Alliances in the War on Drugs: Peru and the United States, (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004), 53-69.
  6. Drug Enforcement Administration, “El Comercio Sudamericano de Cocaína: Una ‘Industria’ en transición”, U.S. Department of Justice (2022), https://www.justice.gov/; Pablo G. Dreyfus, “When all the Evils Come Together: Cocaine, Corruption, and Shining Path in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley, 1980 to 1995”, SAGE Journals (1999), https://doi.org/10.1177/1043986299015004004
  7. Ibid.
  8. LaMond Tullis, Unintended Consequences: Illegal Drugs and Drug Policies in Nine Countries (Studies on the Impact of the Illegal Drug Trade), (London: United Nations University, 1995), 72.
  9. The Drug Lords, Actualización sobre el Narcotráfico, (March 1994), 7.
  10. Rensselaer W. Lee III, El laberinto blanco. Cocaína y poder político, (London: Transaction Publishers, 1991), 109.
  11. Ibid.

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The ideas contained in this analysis are the sole responsibility of the author, without necessarily reflecting the thoughts of the CEEEP or the Peruvian Army.

Image: CEEEP

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