Peru to Build this Year 10 New Counter-Terrorism Bases in VRAEM

VRAEM soldiersPeru’s government plans to build an additional 10 counter-terrorism bases in a remote jungle region that is rife with remnants of Shining Path rebels, state news agency Andina reported.

Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano said that the bases are to be set up this year.

“This year we are planning to construct 10 more counter-terrorism bases and we are evaluating the possibility through government to government mechanisms, to acquire bases from Canada, with modern equipment that allows them to be transported easily,” Cateriano said.

The bases will be built in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valleys, a dense, mountainous jungle region that includes districts in the south-central regions of Cuzco, Ayacucho, Junin and Huancavelica. The VRAEM, as the area is known for strategic purposes, is where the last remaining Shining Path rebels have built a network providing protection to illicit coca growers and drug traffickers.

Cateriano also said that the government will revamp the few existing military bases in the area, which are known to be underfunded, and, in at least one small town, housed in local community buildings or schools. “President Ollanta Humala’s administration is taking steps to improve the conditions of all the bases,” he said.

The VRAEM is the biggest coca-growing region in the country. Coca leaves have many traditional uses in the Andes, including as a digestive tea, but the larger number of illicit crops are turned into coca paste and cocaine. Peru is the world’s biggest cocaine producer, along with Colombia.

At its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Shining Path terrorized Peru with a violent Maoist ideology, aiming to overthrow the established government order in a campaign of bombings, assassinations and massacres.  Following the arrest of Abimael Guzman in 1992, the organization fell apart, and a few of the rebels fled to montane forest regions, where they have been contained by the police and military since then.

The Shining Path today, however, bears no relation to its previous organization, in ideology or mission.  In the VRAEM the remaining rebels have been able to survive and even prosper, but thanks entirely to profits from the cocaine trade and the lack of state authority for many years in the area. In 2012, the Shining Path killed 10 soldiers and police officers that were sent into the region to rescue some 40 hostages taken by the rebels.  The father of one of the killed soldiers went into the area on his own to retrieve his son’s body, abandoned by the police. More recently, the rebels have downed cell phone towers to block police communications.

The building of the new military bases is part of the government’s plan to root out the rebels by increasing the military’s presence in the region. The plan also includes building infrastructure, such as roads and telecommunications, providing alternative development programs for coca farmers and for the first time ever, eradicating coca crops in the VRAEM.

The policy has been criticized by some analysts, including the former chief of Peru’s anti-drug agency, Ricardo Soberon, over concerns that the local population could find themselves stuck in the middle of a conflict between the state and the rebels, similar to that of the 1980-2000 years of conflict, when military and police response was poorly focused and often violent against the civilian population.

The recent shooting by soldiers of a public transport van operating between villages near Kepashiato, injuring nine passengers, is an example of  the nervous reaction of the military who are unfamiliar with the area.

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