Cocaine air corridor zips past Peru’s military

Frank Bajak
Associated Press

Mazamari, Peru – — Small planes are hauling more than a ton of cocaine a day out of remote jungles that have become the world’s No. 1 coca-producing region and Peru’s military has turned a blind eye, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Drug corruption is rife across Peruvian institutions.

But the narco-flight plague exposes the armed forces’ drug-war failure because the military controls the valley, from which Bolivia-bound flights stepped up in tempo in the past few years, according to prosecutors, drug police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents.

In part because of the nearly unimpeded “air bridge” from the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, Peru surpassed Colombia in 2012 as the world’s No. 1 cocaine exporter. Police say the airborne flow accounts for roughly half of its production, with each planeload worth at least $7.2 million overseas.

The trafficking got so brazen that congress voted unanimously in August to authorize shooting down the single-engine planes.

But the government scrapped plans to buy the required state-of-the-art radar, a $71 million expenditure it announced last November, and President Ollanta Humala has just eight months left in office and an approval rating below 15 percent.

The “narco planes” have touched down just minutes by air from military bases in the nearly road-less region known by its Spanish acronym as the VRAEM. About four times a day, they drop onto dirt airstrips, deliver cash and pick up more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of partially refined cocaine, police say.

The AP obtained video of two such transactions taken by drug police who said they were too outgunned by assault rifle-wielding sentinels to intervene.

Wilson Barrantes, a retired army general who has long complained about military drug corruption, said giving the armed forces control of the cocaine-producing valley is “like putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.”

One accused narco-pilot interviewed by the AP said some local military commanders charge $10,000 per flight to let cocaine commerce go unhindered.

The AP renewed requests Wednesday to discuss the accusations with Peru’s defense minister and joint armed forces command. It also contacted the president’s office. None immediately responded.

The board chairman of the anti-corruption nonprofit group Transparency International, Jose Ugaz, said he hoped AP’s investigation would spur debate in the presidential campaign.

Sadly, the Peruvian lawyer said, military drug corruption is an open secret in the country. “It’s been going on for some time but unfortunately no one has done anything.”

Deputy Defense Minister Ivan Vega, who runs counterinsurgency efforts in the region, told the AP that he knew of no 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.”

Humala, a former army lieutenant colonel, said on taking office in 2011 that combatting illicit drugs was a priority. His government has destroyed record amounts of coca leaf.

But that’s not enough, says Sonia Medina, the public prosecutor for illicit drugs.

Trafficking and related corruption in the police, military, courts and criminal justice system have gone “from bad to worse” on Humala’s watch, she said. “What we are doing in counter-narcotics is completely distorted, incoherent and inert.”

Most of Peru’s cocaine production has merely shifted to the VRAEM region, where there is no eradication.

The Ireland-sized area has been under a state of emergency for nine years owing to the persistence of drug-running Shining Path rebels. They have slain more than 30 police and soldiers during Humala’s tenure but are now much reduced, down to about 60 combatants.

The government says destroying coca in the region would cause a bloody backlash by fueling Shining Path recruitment.

Some 6,000 soldiers are stationed at more than 30 bases in the valley, ostensibly to battle “narcoterrorism.” By law, counter-narcotics is the job of the fewer than 1,000 narcotics police here. But police rely on the military for airlift and many chafe at joint drug missions with soldiers.

In documents and testimony obtained by the AP, police and anti-drug prosecutors questioned the military’s trustworthiness. One recalled asking about clandestine airstrips during a 2013 meeting with military officials and watching them “take out their maps, which showed airstrips here and there. They had never informed us of all this.”

There were also suspicions of intelligence leaked to traffickers.

Four anti-drug prosecutors complained about it in a May 2014 letter to their boss that the AP obtained.

Three times they shared information with the military on when and where drug flights would land, they said. In each case, the planes never showed. The fourth time, they kept the intel to themselves and acted alone with police.

The pilot was captured, the co-pilot killed in a firefight and 357 kilograms of cocaine and $5,500 in cash seized. The March 2014 operation was the only one in the past two years in which drugs, money, plane and pilot were all taken into custody.

Over that period, more than two dozen suspected drug planes have been “captured.” Most were crash-landings. In all but five cases, the pilots escaped.

The pilot who said military commanders charged $10,000 per narco flight for safe passage said “no plane arrives without at least half a million dollars to pay for the drugs, for the airstrip and to corrupt the authorities.”

Like others, he only agreed to speak if not identified for fear of his life and the AP could not independently confirm his claim.

Before the narco-flight boom, the military sent people to the valley to be punished for transgressions, said Victor Andres Garcia Belaunde, an opposition congressman.

“But it has, alas, become profitable to be in VRAEM and today there are officers who ask to go.”