Narcotrafficking, the Shining Path, and the Strategic Importance of Peru


In April 2001, the U.S. pushed the Peruvian government to suspend its aerial interdiction program against suspected drug flights after the Peruvian Air Force mistakenly fired on a flight killing a U.S. missionary and her seven-month old daughter. Peru is now on the verge of resuming its interdiction program, and it might not be a bad idea.

On March 9, the National Defense Committee of the Peruvian Congress approved legislation authorizing the nation’s armed forces to interdict aircraft transiting its airspace without authorization. The proposed law, promoted by Peruvian congressman and retired Admiral Carlos Tubino, is a response to the increasing number of “narco flights” (now 6-10 per day) carrying cocaine and associated intermediate products from the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley region (the “VRAEM”), to neighboring Bolivia and Brazil.

The interception of presumed “narco flights” is not new. The Peruvian Air Force engaged in the practice between 1995 and 2001 until the accidental downing of a plane carrying U.S. Baptist missionaries. Nonetheless, the new legislative initiative highlights Peru’s role as the world’s number one coca producer, serving not only the U.S. and Canadian markets, but also Europe, Russia, Brazil, Chile, and Asia. The nation’s strategic position in the global drug trade links it with powerful transnational criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, the Urabeños in Colombia, and – most recently – the First Capital Command (PCC) in Brazil, interacting with other criminal organizations involved in the similarly lucrative illegal mining, logging, contraband merchandise, and human trafficking businesses in the country.

The Importance of Peru

The future of Peru as a prosperous, well-governed, democratic country is of great importance for the United States and the region. The nation occupies a strategic position in shaping both the future of Latin America and the forma and de facto rules, norms and governing structures that dominate the increasingly important strategic environment connecting Asia and the Americas across the Pacific Ocean.

It is a culturally rich country endowed with a wealth of natural resources, from petroleum and minerals to agricultural potential, yet beset by profound inequality, corruption and poverty. It is a nation with diverse ethnicities, reflecting its historic legacy as the heart of the Inca Empire, an important seat of Spanish colonial government, and a principal destination for migration from Asia.

Reflecting such a proud, but complex legacy, contemporary Peru is wrestling with virtually all of the fundamental choices facing other Latin American countries, including the relationship between the state, the market economy, trade, the global economy, and development, as well as the incorporation of ethnic diversity as a component of national identity.

As Peru balances market-oriented and rule-of-law based approaches to government with the temptations of the populist path pursued by governments such as Venezuela, the nation simultaneously maintains positive economic, political and military relationships with the United States, China, and Russia in roughly balanced proportions. Moreover, the nation is a key player in two key multilateral institutions linking Latin America to Asia: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) and the Pacific Alliance, and is a gateway to the Asian economy for much of South America. The decisions that Peru makes regarding its orientation toward democratic governance, free markets, and participation in multilateral organizations will be critical to defining not only Latin America, but also the system of international rules and norms that govern commercial, political and security relationships in the Pacific.

The security challenge for Peru involves an interdependent combination of terrorism, narcotrafficking and other illicit activities, which simultaneously feed off of, and help to sustain, poverty, inequality, and corruption in the context of an economy characterized by a large informal sector. The relative emphasis on narcotrafficking vis-à-vis terrorism as the defining aspect of this challenge has shifted in the past four decades with the rise, defeat, and reemergence of Shining Path as a terrorist organization, and the emergence of Europe, Brazil and Asia as important consumers in the global narcotics trade.

The Challenge of the Shining Path

The Shining Path is a terrorist organization founded by university professor Abimael Guzman in the remote Andean highlands of Ayacucho during the 1960s and 1970s. The group launched an armed struggle against the Peruvian government in May 1980 that has cost an estimated 69,000 lives. The group was substantially reduced in size and capability during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, including the imprisonment of its founder, Guzman, in 1992. The latter’s negotiation of a “peace accord” with the Peruvian state in 1993 led to a split within the remnants of the group between those led by Forindo Eleuterio Flores Hala (“Comrade Artemio”), operating in the Upper Huallaga Valley and following the Guzman ideological line, versus the Quispe Palomino “clan,” principally operating in the VRAEM, which rejected the Guzman truce and the specifics of his line of thinking.

The contemporary resurgence of Shining Path began in 2003 in the VRAEM, with the group’s 2003 attack against an oil installation operated by the Argentine firm Techint, including the taking of 71 hostages. Nonetheless, instead of concentrating on the more militarily capable faction of Shining Path in the VRAEM, the Peruvian government initially focused its military efforts against the faction in the Upper Huallaga valley which was militarily weaker, less extensively involved with narcotrafficking, and more closely aligned with the Maoist ideology of Shining Path’s imprisoned founder, Guzman. The decision was important for the subsequent outcome. On one hand, the government achieved important victories against the faction in the Upper Huallaga Valley, including the capture of its principal leader, “Comrade Artemio”, in February 2012. Yet the initial focus on the Upper Huallaga valley arguably permitted the ties between the VRAEM faction of shining path and the cocaine-centered local economy to deepen, allowing the region to metastasize into a much more serious player in the international supply chain for cocaine.

As the government consolidated its position in the Upper Huallaga valley and shifted attention to the VRAEM, it also increasingly dedicated efforts to a campaign against leadership targets, using an elite group of military and police units under the direction of the Vice-minister of the Interior (later Vice-minister of Defense) Ivan Vega. Augmented by support from the United States, the group produced important victories, including the killing of the organization’s principal sharpshooter, Victor Hugo Castro Ramírez (“Comrade William”) in the Upper Huallaga Valley in September 2012 (a key player in many of Shining Path’s ambushes of military patrols and attacks against military bases), followed in August 2013 by Operation “Lobo”, which killed VRAEM-based leaders Alexandro Broda Casafranca (“Comrade Alipio”), and Martin Quispe Palomino (“Comrade Gabriel”).

By 2014, the Shining Path organization in the Upper Huallaga Valley had largely been eliminated, and its faction in the VRAEM had been reduced to an estimated 80 core combatants, with 300-500 members in total.

In the political arena, Shining Path’s de facto front organization, the “Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights” (MOVADEF) aligned itself with the remnants of those following the ideological line of Shining Path’s founder, Abimael Guzman in the Upper Huallaga Valley. The group had been formed in 2011 by lawyers and previously imprisoned members of Shining Path to champion the social and economic agenda of the group, although it was blocked in November 2011 in its attempt to register as a political party.

Since that time, the group has continued to organize and proselytize in Peruvian universities where Shining Path had previously had some following among students, as well as working to rebuild the strong presence that it once held within the national teachers’ union, SUTEP.

The Shining Path and Narcotics

While Peruvian government military successes against Shining Path in the VRAEM and Upper Huallaga Valley are laudable, they mask an even greater and more insidious problem: a criminal economy growing to dangerous proportions, enabled by, and reinforcing the profound malaise in the Peruvian government’s relationship with the population in the interior of the country. That criminal economy, and its ties to transnational criminal actors beyond Peru, has the potential over the long-term to destabilize the country and the region and regenerate Shining Path or organizations like it.

From the perspective of narcotics, the activities of Shining Path in Peru are a small piece of a much larger dynamic. An increasing array of international criminal organizations including the Sinaloa cartel, and to a lesser degree Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana, Colombian criminal bands, and most recently Brazilian groups such as Primer Comando Capital (PCC) each coordinate with a myriad of local “family clans” to obtain cocaine and intermediate products from the country.

Although representatives of the external narco-organizations are present in the country and may finance the planting and acquisition of coca crops, transportation operations, and production of cocaine and intermediate products, it is the “family clans” who comprise the narcotics infrastructure within Peru. These family clans buy the coca leaf from local farmers, smuggle precursor chemicals to production sites, produce intermediate products and cocaine itself, and arrange the transportation of those products out of the region, via persons on foot (“mochileros”), in hidden compartments of vehicles, via river, and with light aircraft from clandestine airstrips “rented” from local landowners. Throughout the process, with the financing of the external organizations that are their clients, it is the family clans who pay “protection money” to both Shining Path and local guards, and manage other details of the local operation and its security.

In this process, the Mexican, Colombian and Brazilian organizations reportedly take delivery of the product only at the final collection points before it is to leave the country, including the “narco airstrips” in the VRAEM, or the ports on the north Pacific coast, such as Callao (Lima), Chimbote, and Piura. Indeed, in one recent high-profile case, cocaine was moved to Trujillo where it was packed into artificial abscesses in blocks of coal, for shipment from the port of Salaverry (Trujillo).

With increasing controls by the state over precursor chemicals and narco-routes, narcotrafficking groups are also adapting their tactics, reportedly shifting from producing cocaine itself in the VRAEM, to exporting intermediate products to Bolivia for finishing there, where controls are less strict and precursor chemicals are easier and cheaper to obtain. Some groups have even transported intermediate products to the suburbs of Lima, rather than incurring the costs of smuggling precursor chemicals into the center of the country to make cocaine there. Collection and transportation points within the interior of the country also continue to evolve, with Pichis Palcazu, north of the VRAEM, reportedly becoming an important hub, and with some coca growing and production activities returning to the Upper Huallaga valley, despite the virtual defeat of Shining Path and a widespread eradication campaign there.

Interdiction and the Future

Given the dynamics of the illicit economy in the VRAEM and other parts of Peru described in the previous paragraphs, if the Peruvian government authorizes interdiction of narco-flights, the benefits will be limited, with undesirable side effects.

Legal implementation of the interdiction norm will require several months, as will the establishment of procedures and the training of pilots and other personnel. The acquisition of radars to provide adequate coverage in the complex terrain of the VRAEM will similarly require both time and funds that have not yet been publicly allocated.

Once in place, if implemented, the interdiction program will certainly have some deterrent effect on the cocaine flights to Bolivia, lowering the demand for and price of coca from the VRAEM, and displacing part of the production to other areas. In recent years, narcotrafficking activities in the vicinity of Peru’s border with Brazil and Colombia have reportedly increased, driven in part by the growth of coca and production of cocaine on the Colombian side of the border in Putumayo, prompting the Peruvian government to deploy an additional infantry brigade to the region. Thus an effective interdiction against narco flights leaving the country from the VRAEM may lead to some displacement of narcotrafficking activities into the northeast (Loreto), the east (Ucayali), and the southeast (Puno), even though the soil and climatic conditions in these regions yield coca with a lower alkaloid content, requiring more hectares of coca to produce the same amount of cocaine.

Government success against cocaine production in the region alone would also not imply an end to the illegal economy in the region. To some degree, other illicit activities such as informal mining are becoming even more important sources of revenue than cocaine.

Peru’s success in managing the challenges of Shining Path, cocaine production, and other parts of the illegal economy will be key to shaping the future dynamics of organized crime and governance in the region. The ability of the United States to help Peru prosper as an ethnically pluralistic democracy committed to free markets and the rule of law will stand as an example, either positive or negative, for the rest of the region, as it wrestles with its own challenges of development, inequality, ethnic pluralism, and engagement with the world economy. The United States has a strong vested interest in Peru’s success in this struggle.


Dr. R. Evan Ellis is Research Professor with the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. Dr. Ellis would like to thank those who dedicated time to speak with him in Lima, Peru about the issues discussed in this article during his recent research trip to the country, as well as his research assistants, Allen Church and Isaac Schlotterbeck. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.