13 Peru soldiers killed in guerrilla ambush led by former teacher

One of the deadliest terrorist operations in years — suspected to have been planned and staged by a former teacher turned guerrilla — has left 13 soldiers dead in Peru’s remote Apurimac and Ene River Valleys, or VRAE, said Defense Minister Ántero Flores Áraoz.

“The attack carried out with dynamite and grenades occurred on Thursday, and the victims include a captain, a junior officer and 11 soldiers,” Áraoz said during a press conference on Saturday, adding that the remote and jungle-covered VRAE and arduous communication in the region explain why there was such a delay in announcing the deadly ambush.

The attack was staged by “Olga,” a close friend of Víctor Quispe Palomino, or “José,” the Shining Path’s political leader in the region.

Alberto Cerrón Palomino, or “Camrade Artemio,” is the only known Shining Path leader from the group’s original directorate never killed or imprisoned. He still commands a force of some 200-300 insurgents in Peru’s central jungle region.

The Shining Path has been largely dormant since 2000. The once 10,000-strong Maoist rebel group nearly brought Peru’s government to its knees during the 1980s with car bombings, assassinations and brazen attacks on police and military outposts.  But the group lost momentum following the 1992 capture of its founder Abimael Guzman, who is serving life in a naval prison.

Nevertheless, sporadic Shining Path attacks still claim lives every year.

The recent spike in deadly attacks is largely attributed to a fresh offensive by the Peruvian military, launched last August by Peru President Alan García.

The isolated VRAE is located at the confluent river borders separating the rural departments of Ayacucho, Cusco and Apurímac. The zone is a hotbed for drug traffickers and their hired guns — mostly guerrilla remnants of the Maoist Shining Path insurgency — who regularly carry out deadly roadside ambushes against police and assassinate local officials in retaliation for raids on cocaine processing labs.

Last November, four police officers were killed and four others wounded by Shining Path rebels armed with machine guns on the outskirts of Tingo María, in the Huánuco region of Peru ’s central jungle. Some 40 guerrillas armed with automatic weapons and hand grenades ambushed a four-car police convoy in the coca-producing Huallaga valley at the height of kilometer 23 of the Federico Basadre Highway, as the convoy was leaving Tingo María, on its way toward Pucallpa.

Then, on Oct. 10, 2008, Shining Path guerrillas ambushed a column of military trucks with a bomb and gunfire, killing 13 soldiers and two civilians and wounding 14 other soldiers and three civilians. The rebel attack was the past decade’s deadliest.

Civilians were riding with soldiers in trucks returning to the Cochabamba Grande base in Huancavelica – near the jungle-covered VRAE, where about 30 percent of Peru’s coca leaf is harvested – when they were ambushed near the town of Tintaypunco. Rebels detonated a bomb as the convoy rounded a bend, and then opened fire with automatic weapons. In days prior to the ambush, the army claimed that five rebels were killed in the area, and that 15 others were captured.

On Nov. 16, four police were killed in another ambush by narcoterrorists on the road just outside the city of Huanta, in the department of Ayacucho. The highway patrol was attacked by about 30 men armed with machine guns and rifles.

At the time, then Minister of Interior Remigio Hernani said the attack appeared to be in revenge against continuing police raids in the area to combat illegal coca and cocaine production.

According to Jaime Antezana, a sociologist and expert in illegal coca and cocaine production, these attacks indicate that the anti-narcotics program is not achieving its objectives. He reports 21 rebel ambushes since July 2003. These attacks have killed a total of 35 soldiers, 23 police and more than a dozen civilians.

Peru was once the world’s leading producer of coca. But the country slashed its production by 70 percent between 1995 and 2001 primarily because of low coca prices, interdiction, forced eradication of coca fields and programs that encourage farmers to grow alternative crops.

But by 2002, the number of hectares used to illegally grow coca in Peru increased as efforts to eradicate the crop in Colombia forced production southward.

This can be explained by the balloon effect, or the drug fields’ tendency to shift elsewhere and sometimes to smaller and harder-to-reach plots in response to local eradication campaigns, and the fact that for farmers, the coca harvest provides more money than any other crop: up to five times as much can be earned for a kilogram of coca than for a kilogram of coffee.

In June 2008, a study conducted by Peru’s National Commission for the Development of Life without Drugs, or Devida, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicated that coca crops had increased by 4.5 percent in 2007 and that approximately 92 percent of Peruvian coca production is destined for the fabrication of cocaine paste and cocaine hydrochloride.

In the VRAE, production of the alcoloid-packed leaf has risen steadily from 14,170 hectares in 2002 to 16,019 hectares last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

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