It happens about four times a day, right under the nose of Peru’s military: A small single-engine plane drops onto a dirt airstrip in the world’s No. 1 coca-growing valley, delivers a bundle of cash, picks up more than 300 kilos of cocaine and flies to Bolivia.
Roughly half of Peru’s cocaine exports have been ferried eastward on this “air bridge,” police say, since the rugged Andean nation became the world’s leading producer of the drug in 2012.
Peru’s government has barely impeded the airborne drug flow. Prosecutors, narcotics police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents say that while corruption is rife in Peru, the narco-flight plague is the military’s failure because it controls the remote jungle region known as the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley.
Wilson Barrantes, a retired army general who has long complained about military drug corruption, said giving the military control over the valley is “like putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.”
Deputy Defense Minister Ivan Vega, who runs counterinsurgency efforts in the region, said that he was not aware of any military officials under investigation. “Corruption exists, but we are always looking out for it,” he said. “If we know of anyone involved, we’ll throw the book at them.”
But an Associated Press investigation found that “narco planes” have been loaded with drugs at landing strips just minutes by air from military bases in the remote, nearly road-less valley where about two-thirds of Peru’s cocaine originates.
Videos obtained by AP show small planes landing on clandestine air strips in the jungle region, about the size of Ireland. Elite squads of narcotics police hidden on nearby hilltops videotaped the landings, but were too outgunned to intervene, said two narcotics police officers who provided the videos but declined to speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs. Cocaine regularly disappears aloft in Cessna 206 planeloads, each worth upward of $7.2 million overseas.
The operations normally last about 10 minutes, usually just after dawn and tightly choreographed: A dozen or so cocaine-laden backpackers appear on a landing strip’s fringe as the GPS-guided plane, its pilot having broken radio silence a few minutes earlier, approaches. Men with assault rifles guard the strip. Money is offloaded, drugs are jammed into the cabin. The motor re-engages. The plane departs.
One pilot told the AP that some local military officers charge $10,000 per flight to allow the planes to land and take off unbothered.
Concern over the flights spurred Peru’s congress to pass a law in August that authorizes shooting down drug planes. But critics say the government lacks the will to do the job, having inexplicably scrapped plans to buy and install the necessary state-of-the-art radar.
PERU’S DRUG WAR: “DISTORTED, INCOHERENT AND INERT”
When President Ollanta Humala took office in 2011, he declared combatting illicit drugs a priority. His government has destroyed record amounts of coca leaf. His government has spent more than $60 million on eradication, and is supported by the U.S. government and the European Union. In a July 28 independence day address four years after assuming office, the former army lieutenant colonel said trafficking in the valley had been reined in.
“Drug trafficking is no longer a parallel power in the VRAEM,” Humala claimed, referring to the cocaine valley’s acronym.
But critics say he has allowed most of Peru’s cocaine production to migrate to the valley, where there is no eradication of coca crops and drug enforcement is weak.
Humala also points to more than 550 missions to blast craters into the clandestine airstrips as a triumph. National police director Gen. Vicente Romero has said repeatedly that traffickers fill the holes in a matter of days using local labor.
Sonia Medina, the public prosecutor for illicit drugs, said in an interview that trafficking has gone “from bad to worse” on Humala’s watch — along with narco-corruption in politics, the criminal justice system, the police and military. “What we are doing in counter-narcotics is completely distorted, incoherent and inert.”
Compared to Colombia, the world’s second-largest cocaine exporter, Peru’s drug war performance pales:
—Peru seized 28 metric tons of cocaine or coca paste a year on average from 2011-2014, compared to 170 metric tons by Colombia or partners acting on Colombian intelligence. For Peru, that’s less than 10 percent of potential production, for Colombia it’s more than half, by U.S. estimates.
—While Colombia has systematically arrested major kingpins over the past decade, extraditing many to the United States for trials that yield lengthy sentences, Peru has not jailed and convicted a major trafficker since 2005.
—Peru’s narcotics police operate on a $12 million annual operating budget, with no planes or helicopters. Their Colombian counterpart has a $45 million budget, and some 50 planes and 70 helicopters including U.S. Blackhawks.
A special congressional committee in Peru was convened to probe drug corruption in politics after state and municipal elections last October in which Medina counted 700 candidates either under investigation for or convicted of drug-related crimes. Its chairwoman, Rep. Rosa Mavila, said Peru’s government is in danger of capture by narco-criminal syndicates.
“It is not yet a narco state,” she said in interview. “But it is at risk of becoming one.”
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