Peru stunned by military aid to drug cartels

Army, navy and air-force personnel are helping druglords, Phil Davison reports

Phil Davison
Sunday 21 July 1996 23:02

Callao - The President's custom-fitted DC-8 jetliner sat on the tarmac, engines running, all set for an important trip to Europe. President Alberto Fujimori was not on board for this one, just a Peruvian Air Force crew who told their mechanics they were on a "secret mission". They were not lying - but it was hardly an affair of state.

The aircraft never got off the ground. Out of nowhere at Air Force Base Number 8, in the port of Callao next to Lima's international airport, Peruvian police and senior air-force officers surrounded the jet and began an on-board search. Behind the wall panels, where the President's bodyguards often sit, they found more than 380lb of pure processed cocaine, worth around pounds 4.5m on the street.

The discovery, on 12 May, was just one of many drug hauls in recent weeks which stunned Peruvians because of the involvement of the air force and navy. More than 200 army officers had been prosecuted by military courts in recent years for involvement in narcotics-trafficking but the other branches of the armed forces were widely thought to be clean.

The navy has ordered a search of all its warships and cargo vessels after two naval cargo vessels were found to be carrying cocaine earlier this month, one at Callao, the other docked in Vancouver, Canada.

Each had more than 100lb of cocaine on board, hidden in the engine room or in the funnel, enough to make a few naval officers very rich.

The recent seizures suggested army, air force and navy personnel were helping to ship both coca paste and refined cocaine out of Peru on behalf of Colombian druglords feeling the heat from US-backed anti-narcotics sweeps in their own country.

Sixteen air-force officers or technical personnel, including one of Mr Fujimori's elite group of pilots, were detained after the cocaine haul on the presidential aircraft, which had apparently been due to stop in the US and both Western and Eastern Europe. Some of the detainees said the same plane - one of at least two used by the president - had shipped cocaine several times in the past, including when Mr Fujimori was on board but without his knowledge, according to police sources.

"I don't deny that there's been infiltration [in the armed forces by drug mafias] at some levels but capturing that amount of cocaine is good news," Mr Fujimori said after the seizure.

After the military suppression of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in the early Nineties, army troops set up bases in isolated mountain and jungle areas and often took on one of the guerrillas' lucrative roles - taking "quotas" from druglords to protect their coca fields, laboratories or shipments, according to anti-narcotics agents here.

Peru is the world's biggest producer of coca leaf, the basis for coca paste and ultimately the refined powder, with a harvest last year of 183,000 tons. Mate de coca (tea from the coca leaf) is widely available in cafes and stores, although it is illegal in the US.

Whereas Peruvian gangs have long made coca paste from the leaf and shipped it to Colombian cartels for chemical refining in Colombian laboratories, the Colombians have themselves recently moved south to set up labs within Peru. "Recent crackdowns in Colombia have made things tighter up there," said one anti-narcotics agent here. "Now, it's easier for the Colombians to set up down here, in isolated mountain and jungle areas, refine their product on the spot and ship it directly to the US or Europe. "All they have to do is get chemicals in and their shipments out. That's where pay- offs to the military come in."

The agent said recent anti-narcotics sweeps on both sides of the Peru- Colombia border have led to a doubling of smuggling from the Iquitos area in northern Peru, east along the Amazon, often by speedboat, into Brazil. Former Shining Path guerrillas are among smugglers who pay local peasants to carry the drugs across the jungle border.

A Brazilian woman, two Colombian men and two Peruvian policemen were among a gang of 25 smugglers arrested in Lima and Iquitos at the weekend. More than 460 pounds of cocaine paste was seized by anti-narcotics police who said the gang was led by a Colombian druglord who operated in his own country and who was still at large.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments