Peru Aims to Tire Out Drug Traffickers by Destroying Airstrips

An elite security force is in a “war of exhaustion” with drug traffickers as it implements a plan to blow up clandestine runways in Peru’s jungle faster than  traffickers can rebuild the airstrips.

In the past year, the number of runways has Coca air stripsincreased in the Peru’s top cocaine growing region, the VRAEM, as drug traffickers are increasingly using small, single-engine aircraft to fly cocaine out of the area to Bolivia and Brazil.

The VRAEM stands for the Valleys of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers. It is a mountainous region of dense jungle that includes districts in the Cusco, Ayacucho, Huancavelica and Junin regions. The area now has the highest density of coca crops in the world, and is Peru’s biggest coca-producing region. It is also home to remnants of the Shining Path insurgency, who have exchanged their Maoist ideology for drug trafficking.

Newspaper La Republica reported that there are currently 72 hidden runways that are used by drug traffickers in the area. La Republica and the IDL-Reporteros news website both estimate that three or four planes leave the VRAEM every day, each one carrying some 350 kilograms each. In one month, traffickers move about 30 tons of cocaine out of the VRAEM to Brazil and Bolivia by air.

In the 1980s and 1990s, drug traffickers used small planes to transport coca paste for refining in Colombia (the full process is now done in Peru), from coca producing areas further north from the VRAEM, on the Huallaga river in the Huanuco and San Martin regions. At the time, the government’s interdiction program included the destruction of clandestine runways.  Additionally, its air interdiction program, with the assistance of the U.S. government, included a policy of shooting down light aircraft if the pilots refused to land.

Coca air strips-IDL-ReporterosHowever, that policy was suspended in 2001 when Peru’s Air Force shot down a small plane carrying a family of American missionaries, following a mistaken identification by a U.S. drug enforcement aircraft and the Peruvian military. An American woman and her infant daughter were killed in the incident, while her husband and six-year-old son survived.

However, by then the air bridge had been broken and smuggling of cocaine out of the country reverted entirely to land transport.

As drug traffickers increasingly use planes again to transport cocaine from Peru, a joint Peru military and police force is blowing up their makeshift landing strips, flying ground troops into the areas by helicopter to do the job.  The La Republica newspaper described the policy as a “war of exhaustion” as both sides try to wear the other down.

It takes Peruvian security personnel about two hours to destroy an airstrip, while drug traffickers take about three weeks to rebuild it.

“The objective is to continue with the destruction of the landing strips until we tire them out,” said the chief of the Peruvian police’s anti-drug office, Vicente Romero. “They are going to get frustrated and will have to take the drugs out by road, and that is when we will jump on them. We aren’t going to stop.”

Other reports said that authorities will not really be able to slow down the daily trafficking flights just by destroying airstrips.  Some of the strips photographed by IDL-Reporteros seem to have been built with heavy machinery and the current destruction program may not be sustainable in the long term.

Options are under discussion in the joint military-police force, but the U.S. will be reluctant to encourage air interdiction again within its financing agreement. 

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