July 3, 2015

Political Report # 1052 US: Peru's Shining Path members are narcotics traffickers by W. Alejandro Sanchez


                            VRAEM, a region heavy with terrorism and poverty 
                        (Photo: Andina/Cortesía)

By W. Alejandro Sanchez
The U.S. Department of the Treasury has labeled the Peruvian insurgent movement as a "drug trafficking organization." This decision will come as little surprise to the Peruvian government, security forces, or the Andean nation's population in general, as Shining Path is widely known to have morphed into a narco-terrorist organization that profits from drug trafficking, specifically cocaine, in the Peruvian highlands. Hence, while the U.S. government's decision is self-explanatory and any person can rationally ask what took Washington so long to decide this. Nevertheless, it is important, as it will further limit Shining Path's options by curtailing its U.S.-based assets. Moreover, this could open a new era of Washington-Lima security cooperation, which the Ollanta Humala government would probably welcome.

While discussing the history of Shining Path is beyond the scope of this commentary (a more in-depth look is taken here), a brief assessment is necessary. Nowadays, the organization is a shadow of what it was at the height of its power in the late 1980s. It currently has a few hundred fighters, many of whom are child soldiers. Moreover, Shining Path's area of operations is limited to two major regions in the Peruvian highlands, the Huallaga Valley and the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM). But while the movement may not pose a threat to Lima in the sense that it is not capable of violently overthrowing the government, it remains a national security threat.

Over the past years, Shining Path fighters have remained a consistent threat to the Peruvian security forces and the population of the highlands and Andes. This situation is best exemplified by attacks carried out by the narco-insurgents. In 2009 Shining Path guerrillas successfully shot down a security helicopter. More recently, the insurgents attacked Peruvian Army bases four times in the VRAEM during a period of five days in May 2013. In other words, even though they are on the run, the Peruvian narco-insurgents do not shy away from engaging the country's security forces. Another concern is the appearance of Shining Path flags in isolated towns, which has justifiably raised alarms among the local population.

This does not mean that the Peruvian security forces have not carried out successful operations against Shining Path in recent years. Case in point, the narco-insurgent movement's leadership has been decimated, as its senior leadership is either under arrest or eliminated. In 2012, the Humala government achieved a major blow thanks to the arrest of Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, AKA Artemio, the last remaining Shining Path leader that remained free (the group's founder and ideological leader, Abimael Guzman, was arrested in 1992). In recent months there have been the arrests of other insurgents, including the January 2015 detention of Teofilo Guerra Puentes, AKA Julinho, accused of killing at least fifteen police officers. Moreover, the Peruvian armed forces are upgrading their equipment in order to better patrol the VRAEM, as the country's Russian-made helicopter fleet is getting new aircraft, while new rifles have also been purchased.

Nevertheless, the problem that Shining Path poses is not so much its threat to the Peruvian government per se, but rather its growing involvement in drug trafficking, a transnational problem. According to the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, Peru is now the world's largest producer of cocaine, surpassing even Colombia. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Peruvian cocaine is not aimed at reaching the U.S. market but rather Europe. Case in point, in 2014, a shipment of coal was searched in the Peruvian port of Trujillo before it left for the Netherlands; hidden within the coal were over six tons of cocaine. Moreover, there is a narco-air bridge, which Peruvian and Bolivian drug traffickers use to fly cocaine from improvised airfields in the Peruvian highlands to Bolivia; from there it is smuggled to Brazil and then to Europe.

Given Peru's evolving internal security situation and Shining Path's morphing role into a drug trafficking entity, it is a positive development that Washington has decided to label the insurgent movement as a narco-entity. The question then becomes how, if at all, will this affect the current situation.

The one specific action carried out by the Treasury Department's press release is that "all assets ... based in the United States or that are in the control of U.S. persons are frozen, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them." The individuals in question are the aforementioned Artemio, already behind bars, and two Shining Path leaders who are still free: Victor Quispe Palomino and his brother Jorge Quispe Palomino. The Treasury Department will also apply sanctions pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act), but it is unclear how effective they will be.

It will be interesting to see whether this initiative will increase U.S.-Peruvian cooperation in the near future. The two countries, and their respective security and intelligence forces, have enjoyed decades of good relations, so increased security-cooperation would not be surprising.

As a caveat to this analysis, it is necessary to stress that, while Shining Path is now labeled by the U.S. as a drug-trafficking organization, it is not the preeminent narco-organization in Peru. Unlike Colombia or Mexico, Peruvian drug entities are not big, cartel-like entities but rather small (often family-run) enterprises. Hence, while Shining Path is close to being defeated, the real problem of drug trafficking in Peru persists.

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