Cocaine Trade Helps Rebels Reignite War in Peru
By SIMON ROMERO
CANAYRE, Peru — First the soldiers came to Río Seco, a coca-growing village in the lush mountain jungles of southern Peru. “They called us subversives and they opened fire,” said Benedicto Cóndor, 55, a coca farmer. They shot dead four people at close range, including a woman who was five months pregnant, witnesses said. Two children, ages 6 and 1, disappeared and are believed dead.
Four months later, the guerrillas arrived, accusing the villagers of helping the military. They abducted the village leader, who has not been seen since.
The harrowing tales of violence trickling out of the jungle as dozens of families have fled their villages in recent months raise an ominous specter: a brutal war that terrorized the country for two decades may be sparking back to life.
The war against the Shining Path rebels, which took nearly 70,000 lives, supposedly ended in 2000.
But here in one of the most remote corners of the Andes, the military, in a renewed campaign, is battling a resurgent rebel faction. And the Shining Path, taking a page from Colombia’s rebels, has reinvented itself as an illicit drug enterprise, rebuilding on the profits of Peru’s thriving cocaine trade.
The front lines lie in the drizzle-shrouded jungle of Vizcatán, a 250-square-mile region in the Apurímac and Ene River Valley. The region is Peru’s largest producer of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine.
As the military and the rebels skirmish for control of isolated coca-producing hamlets, the reports of rising body counts and civilians killed in the cross-fire, still far lower than the carnage at the height of the Shining Path war in the 1980s and early 90s, are rousing ghosts most Peruvians thought were long dead.
“The soldiers think we are all terrorists, and with that idea they believe they can destroy anything that moves,” said Alfredo Pacheco, 45, a coca farmer who fled his village, Nueva Esperanza, in September, after soldiers burned the mud huts there in pursuit of the rebels.
Military officials contended that the huts were coca-leaf maceration pits and cocaine labs.
Such conflicting views are practically built into the system. Coca, the mildly stimulating leaf chewed raw here since before the Spanish conquest, is largely legal; cocaine is not.
Coca, a hallowed symbol of indigenous pride, is ubiquitous here. Qatun Tarpuy, a pro-coca political party, paints images of it on mud huts. Women harvest coca in clearings along the winding dirt road, and children dry the leaves in the sun.
It is also nearly impossible to find a coca farmer here who admits that his crops are sold for anything other than traditional use, but somehow, studies have found, as much as 90 percent of the coca goes to produce cocaine.
In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, coca cultivation in Peru increased by 4 percent, reaching the highest level in a decade, according to the United Nations. At the same time, Peru’s estimated cocaine production rose to a 10-year high of about 290 tons, second only to that of Colombia.
Since the Shining Path retreated here after the capture of its messianic leader, Abimael Guzmán, in 1992, it has followed the much larger Colombian rebel group, the FARC, in melding a leftist insurgency with drug running and production.
While the Shining Path was involved in coca before, now it is a major focus. According to military and anti-drug analysts, the faction here, while still professing to be a Maoist insurgency at heart, is now in the business of protecting drug smugglers, extorting taxes from farmers and operating its own cocaine laboratories.
“The guerrillas now operate with the efficiency and deadliness of an elite drug trafficking organization,” said Jaime Antezana, a security analyst in Lima, Peru’s capital, who estimates that the Shining Path employs about 500 laborers in the cocaine trade, in addition to about 350 armed combatants.
Concerned about the resurrected rebels and mounting cocaine, the government intensified the counterinsurgency campaign last August, and the killings spiked.
The guerrillas killed at least 26 people in 2008, including 22 soldiers and police officers, the bloodiest year in almost a decade, according to security analysts.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, are demanding inquiries into claims that Peruvian soldiers killed at least five civilians, as well as into the disappearance of the two children in Río Seco and the displacement of dozens of families from far-flung villages.
Military officials chafe at the reports of abuses. “Human rights people say, ‘Some civilians have been killed, how horrible,’ ” Defense Minister Ántero Flores Aráoz said in an interview in Lima. As for Rosa Chávez Sihuincha, the pregnant woman killed in Río Seco, he suggested that she got what she deserved.
“What the hell was she doing in Vizcatán?” he said. “Was she praying the rosary? No way. Either she was transporting coca leaves for processing or she was taking chemical products or she was part of the logistics of this Shining Path group.”
While the United States is not directly involved with the counterinsurgency campaign here, it provided about $60 million in anti-drug aid last year, about 11 percent of what it spends annually on anti-drug and counterinsurgency efforts in Colombia.
Officials here admit that they were slow to recognize what they were up against when Mr. Guzmán, a former philosophy professor, unleashed his peasant revolt in the 1980s, an experience they bring to bear as they try to decipher today’s rebels.
“There are those who say, ‘Why worry about a few hundred fighters in the jungle?’ ” said Alberto Bolívar, a counterinsurgency expert. “But they easily forget the Shining Path began their armed struggle in 1980 with just a few hundred guys. Two decades later, 70,000 people were dead.”
But the Shining Path appears to have learned lessons, too.
Coca farmers here describe today’s Maoists as a disciplined, well-armed force, entering villages in groups of 20 in crisp black uniforms. Little is known about their leaders, aside from the belief that two brothers, Victor Quispe Palomino, known as José, and Jorge Quispe Palomino, alias Raúl, are at the helm.
Soldiers speak respectfully of the rebels’ command of the jungle terrain and of their ability to harass with gunfire more than a dozen forward operating bases that have been established in recent months. “Their columns seem to melt into the jungle,” said Maj. Julio Delgado, an officer at a base in Pichari, one of the largest towns in the valley.
A resupply mission from that base on a Russian-built MI-17 helicopter offered a glimpse into the counterinsurgency’s challenges. For half an hour, the helicopter flew over what Peruvians call the “ceja de selva,” the eyebrow of the jungle, where green canopy on jutting peaks provides impenetrable camouflage.
The helicopter landed at a tiny special forces base in Sanabamba, where commandos pointed rifles at the surrounding terrain, waiting to hear from their hidden quarry. Once the helicopter took off again, green jungle quickly swallowed the mountaintop outpost.
Coca harvesters below did not even bother to glance up.
The rebels contend that they no longer assassinate local officials or sow terror with tactics like planting bombs on donkeys in crowded markets, atrocities the group was infamous for in the 1980s. This metamorphosis was confirmed by testimony from villagers who had come in contact with them, interviews with imprisoned rebels and a 45-page analysis written by the rebels, tracing the group’s evolution from its origins under Mr. Guzmán, that was captured by military intelligence here in December.
According to the document, they consider Mr. Guzmán a “revisionist” traitor and condemn another Shining Path faction, in the Upper Huallaga Valley in the north, for its openness to negotiations.
Perhaps the most notable difference between the new Shining Path and the old is the new group’s relationship with the villagers, which ostensibly favors paternalism over terrorism.
The villagers refer to the guerrillas as “los tíos,” the uncles, although any familial affection is enforced by the threat of violence.
It is a volatile arrangement well understood from the highest generals to a fruit peddler like María Auccatoma, 48, who sells mangoes near the village of Machente at a spot marked with crosses for the three civilians and five policemen killed by the guerrillas in an ambush.
“We can live in peace,” Ms. Auccatoma said quietly, “as long as we obey the uncles.”
Andrea Zarate contributed reporting from Lima, Peru.