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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.

Meanwhile, local residents here on the edge of the jungle region know well the direct impacts of the drug traffic: an economic boom for a region long mired in abject poverty. Peasants growing coca can afford to build a house, buy a truck and perhaps send a child to school in the city. That was never possible when the cash crop was oranges or corn.

Even area taxi drivers have benefitted. Thousands of “Toritos,” three-wheeled covered taxis imported from India, now jam the streets and unpaved roads in and around Huanta, Ayacucho and other towns in southern Peru.

New bank branches open regularly here. In nearby Ayacucho, once the center of Shining Path insurgency, international banks include Banco Weise, connected to ScotiaBank, Banco Continental, Citibank, Banex, Banco Santander, Banco de la Nacion, BCP and Banco Comercio.

The Sendero guerrillas are not only well-funded but also connected to the world. They have internet access at their jungle retreats, according to Antezana. And, he said, “Today they are controlling all the drug routes.”

Carlos Bassombio, an analyst in Lima, said the biggest problem facing Peru is not the armed insurrection represented by the remnants of Sendero Luminoso, but the increasingly ubiquitous narcotics trafficking in the country and the endemic corruption it engenders. Low-paid policemen are easily corrupted, and farmer and their families are easily attracted to the kind of wages paid by traffickers.

Young men, sometimes pre-teen adolescents, who live in the coca-growing region and have no other sources of income, often go to work as "mochileros," literally backpackers, carrying the drugs along jungle and highland routes to trans-shipment points in Brazil or on the long, unpopulated coastline of Peru. Ex-soldiers also are being recruited by Sendero, Antezana said, and are paid $1,000 a month. That compares to Peru’s minimum wage of about $150 per month.

Sendero has an estimated 350 irregular soldiers under arms. Fifty police and army soldiers have been killed this year. But Peruvians appear willing to look the other way. Compared to the Sendero of 15 years ago, when large swaths of territory were under their control and they were striking with bombs and gunfire in the heart of Lima, the threat is seen as minor.

One-third of the residents of Huanta are tied somehow to the narcotics trade, whether directly or indirectly, he said. Wealthy area families send their children to study in Lima or outside the country, to neighboring Latin American countries or to the United States or Europe.

“Pepe,” who owns a computer store in Huanta and who did not want to give his last name, should by all measures be a beneficiary of the drug boom, but he says he isn’t. He says he sells most of his goods to schools and local agencies.

“The people involved in the narco-traffic don’t buy much here. They build their big houses and buy their new cars in Lima. They buy foreign brands, brand new. Every once in a while someone in the narco-traffic business will buy a computer,” Pepe conceded.

The region’s economic boom in obvious. What is less clear is the long-term effect this business will have on Peru and its people.

“Current narcotics trafficking is generating extreme forms of social and criminal violence, and increasingly affecting the security of the society and the Peruvian state,” Antezana said. A black market in international weapons is also developing in the region, he said.

John Youle, an American who has lived in Peru for many years and publishes a popular newsletter on politics and the economy, believes Peru is not far from becoming another Mexico in terms of the violence emanating from the drug traffic. “You’re getting increasing violence," Youle said. "This could get quite a bit worse.”