Peru's rebels stage drug-fuelled revival

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The Independent US

Peru's Maoist guerrilla movement, the Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path, is reinventing itself as an international drugs gang, police say. The group, dormant for almost 10 years, is regaining momentum in the rugged highlands.

Peru's Maoist guerrilla movement, the Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path, is reinventing itself as an international drugs gang, police say. The group, dormant for almost 10 years, is regaining momentum in the rugged highlands.

Last spring, Colombian drug barons, who lose acres of supplies each time US-donated helicopters spray their crops with herbicides, were quick to seize an unexpected opportunity to move into Peru. Washington had stopped using its aircraft to prevent drug flights between Colombia and Peru after a CIA blunder led to the shooting down of an American missionary's plane. Border surveillance was badly affected, and within months world attention turned to Afghanistan.

With the Afghan heroin trade in a shambles, Colombian traffickers are poised to penetrate Europe, using cocaine distribution networks. They already dominate the US trade.

Police in the Upper Huallaga Valley, Peru's principal coca-growing region, claim Colombian entrepreneurs have begun to supply farmers with poppy seed, arrange start-up credits for new planters and furnish weapons to protect the lucrative new fields. Sticky opium gum sells for twice the price of coca base, incentive enough for most subsistence farmers to begin cultivation. Guerrillas exploit the trade by demanding protection money from opium farmers and traffickers.

The Shining Path, which began in the early 80s as a Maoist reform movement in the Andes, was all but vanquished by widespread arrests in 1992. But the rebels have begun to ambush security forces and menace peasants again. The 600 remaining guerrillas take their cue from narco-guerrillas across the border in Colombia and fund themselves through heroin trafficking.

The Shining Path movement, which once threatened to topple the Peruvian government, became dormant after the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzman. More than 5,000 guerrillas, bent on slaughtering the wealthiest 10 per cent of Peru's population to create a new social order, went underground or into exile.

Only two Shining Path leaders remain at large, but with political transition under way in Peru, violent Maoists are resurfacing. Guerrillas killed four rural police officers in the summer, and after "Yanks out of Afghanistan" flyers and graffiti were spotted in October, intelligence agents claimed to have uncovered an alleged Shining Path plot to blow up the US embassy in Lima.

A hundred new police outposts will be manned next year in the former Shining Path strongholds. Luis Cruzado, an anti-narcotics officer, told The Washington Post: "The guerrillas are trying to capitalise on new strategies to expand the reach of their subversion. The Shining Path is at the very least maintaining its size and expanding its presence." Police say they see all the signs of a new narco-guerrilla organisation.

Poppy cultivation has increased sharply in central Peru – the narrow valleys and misty crags where the Shining Path's Commander Feliciano, also known as Oscar Ramirez Durand, hid until his capture in 1999. Since then, drug seizures have increased fivefold. Nine Colombians were arrested recently on drug charges. Police said two morphine laboratories found near the town of Tingo Maria last month, must have come from Colombia.

Because Colombian anti-drug troops concentrate on the coca crop, the number of opium poppies destroyed in 2001 was less than a quarter of the previous year. Demonstenes Garcia, the head of the police anti-narcotics base in Tingo Maria, says: "Peru has the capacity to be the heroin capital of Latin America."

Coca cultivation, rife in the 1980s, was cut by the former government of Alberto Fujimori. Over the past 10 years crop substitution with palm oil plantations had gained ground. But farmers have balked at government limits on coca plants and want a promised pay-off before destroying them. Just three acres of coca are allowed per family, enough for a personal supply of traditional medicine, but poppy fields are now flourishing alongside.

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