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Peru's "narco-terrorists" bring economic boom

The resurgence of the Shining Path has brought pickup trucks and three-story glass houses to the Ayacucho region.

HUANTA, Peru — The Communist hammer-and-cycle adorns the black-and-green uniforms of the Shining Path guerrillas here, as well as the flags flying over their jungle encampments. But the main activity of the group is not ambushing military patrols and outposts, it is managing the area’s booming cocaine trade. Their real symbol ought to be the dollar sign.

Several hundred insurgents with modern weaponry and a penchant for carrying out effective and deadly attacks against government forces would be considered a major crisis in many countries. But in Peru, the Sendero forces are seen as “remnants” of an earlier failed revolution and they are barely talked about in Lima, the nation’s distant capital.

Meanwhile, the economic effects of Peru’s growing “narco-Senderismo” insurrection are vividly present here in Huanta, a formerly dirt-poor town about an hour’s drive from the regional capital of Ayacucho and the main commercial center near the tropical coca-growing area.

Ayacucho was the center of the massive Maoist Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement of the 1980s and early 1990s, which cost Peru about 70,000 dead along with hundreds of thousands of residents displaced. Today, the area boasts nearly a dozen banks, numerous internet cafes, ubiquitous and expensive imported 4x4 vehicles and two- and three-story glass and brick homes, often built in working-class or rural neighborhoods amid neighbors’ adobe shacks.

An estimated 150 tons per year of cocaine is now exported from Peru to Europe and other consuming countries such as Brazil. That makes it the second-largest producer of cocaine, after Colombia, according to the United Nations. A recent U.N. report said coca production in Peru grew 4.5 percent last year.

Imported four-wheel drive vehicles are increasingly ubiquitous in Huanta.
(John Enders/GlobalPost)

The coca leaves are processed into cocaine in small labs in the jungle and even in houses near here. The coca-growing and cocaine production areas are just hours east of Huanta and Ayacucho. Peasants who have no other markets grow coca for the producers, and much of the cocaine production is family-based, experts say. The growers, producers and Sendero guards have become part of the same business, and overland transport routes are now controlled by the guerrillas, said Jaime Antezana, the country’s foremost expert on the Shining Path.

The government knows what’s going on, but is limited in what it can or is willing to do. Until a few months ago, the National Police were in charge of fighting the drug traffic. But after attacks by Senderistas grew more bold and destructive, they were replaced by the army. In the boldest attack yet, in April a Sendero band attacked a military garrison and killed 15 soldiers near here. Sendero uses homemade land mines, grenades, and modern automatic weapons bought with the revenue from their drug sales.

Despite claims by the revitalized Sendero that it is a political movement based on the teachings of the group’s founder and chief, Abimael Guzman, who is now serving a life sentence for terrorism in a maximum-security prison in Lima, observers say the remnants of Sendero mostly are businessmen. They have increasingly taken over drug production and transport in a vast tropical watershed of the Apurimac and Ene rivers, a remote, virtually inaccessible area known as the VRAE.

“This is Sendero on a FARC model,” Antezana said, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which has fought for decades to unseat the civilian government in Bogota and is directly tied to the flow of drugs from that country.