La República: the Aztec Mafia in Peru

Once merely known as “mules” for Colombia’s indomitable cocaine cartels, Mexican groups such as the Juarez, Sinaloa, Tijuana and Gulf cartels have become significant players internationally, now bypassing the Colombians to buy cocaine directly from producers in countries like Peru.

Though the Andean region remains the “production heartland” of cocaine, for several years there have been indications that rising Mexican cartels are overtaking Colombia as the primary movers of cocaine to North American and European markets.

Some Peruvians worry that their country may spiral down into a maelstrom of drug-related violence and corruption similar to that which is now gripping Mexico and which afflicted Colombia during the late 1980s and the 1990s.

According to daily La República, which published a special report Sunday, 80 percent of drug production in Peru is financed by these “Aztec Mafias,” which are now occupying territories once controlled by the Colombian Cali and Medellín cartels.

The first clear Mexico-Peru “cocaine connection” came to light in 2006.

Colombian citizen Andrés Murcia Hernández was severely beaten, stabbed 100 times in his back and stomach and thrown from a second-story window before he died for allegedly betraying the Guadalajara-based drug cartel.

Soon after the murder, Peru’s Police Anti-Drug Unit, or Dirandro, confirmed the presence of Mexican cartel cells in Peru.

One of the assassins was identified as Mexican citizen Víctor Rivera Félix, the son of Manuel Rivera Niebla, known as “the Ranchera singer” or “Colonel Manuel,” then head of Mexico’s Guadalajara cartel in South America.

Rivera Niebla repeatedly entered Peru starting in 2000, strengthening production and transport operations as well as recruiting additional cocaine suppliers, until his arrest on October 9, 2006.

That same year, Judge Hernan Saturno Vergara, who had been handling the trial of 25 alleged members of the Mexico-based Tijuana cartel, was shot dead in a Lima restaurant.

At the time, Peru’s Justice Minister Alejandro Tudela, described the murder as “a threat and a challenge to all Peruvians.”

More recently, on September 8, Peruvian drug enforcement police seized two and a half tons of high-purity cocaine paste hidden in shock absorbers used as bumpers for ships. More than 20 people allegedly tied to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel were arrested. Just a week prior, the same cartel lost out on more than 700 kilos of cocaine paste worth approximately $24 million. The paste had been mixed with 8 tons of paprika, one of Peru’s major exports.

“The Mexican organizations have gained great power since the late 1980s,” said Eduardo Medina Mora, Mexico’s Attorney General.

At that time, the primary route for moving drugs out of Colombia, into the Caribbean and then into Miami or South Florida, which was referred to as the Caribbean corridor, began to be tightly monitored by anti-drug task forces. The presence of peacekeeping contingents in Haiti, a transit hub for drugs shipped from northern Colombia, has further disrupted — though perhaps temporarily — drug traffic in the Caribbean corridor.

The old route has been replaced by “that of Central America-Mexico,” said Medina, “(which) has become the most important for drugs coming from the South.”

As an indicator, the number of Mexicans jailed in Peruvian prisons has increased significantly since 2005. Currently, according to the Mexican Embassy in Lima, more than 70 Mexicans are locked up in Peruvian jails for either belonging to cartels or acting as drug mules.

But more Mexicans in Peruvian jails does not necessarily mean that the Mexican cartels are setting up new headquarters in Peru.

“There are more Mexicans because of the effort needed in illegally preparing, storing and exporting large quantities of drugs,” said Eduardo Castañeda Garay, a state prosecutor specialized in organized crime. “Millions of dollars are sent to Peru to finance the production of at least two tons (of cocaine).”

“Most Mexicans detained (in Peru) do not occupy important positions in the cartels,” added Castañeda. “The heads don’t come over here. That’s what the cartels’ trustworthy men are for. They come (to Peru) for the financial part and to certify that the drugs being shipped to Aztec lands is of acceptable quality.”

It is only recently that Mexico’s drug kingpins are making their way South. In the past, Mexican organizations willing to buy directly from Peruvians was almost anecdotal. Peruvian drug traffickers, rather, in their attempt to see their business flourish, were the ones who contacted Mexican gangsters by jumping over the “imposed Colombian filter.”

Such is the case of Peruvian gangster Reynaldo Rodríguez López, “the Godfather,” and the López Paredes family clan, who in the 1980s dealt closely with Mexican gangsters such as Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as “the Lord of the Skies” for his pioneering use of jet airliners to transport Colombian cocaine to municipal airports, and dirt airstrips around Mexico, including Ciudad Juárez.

Peru was, until 1996, the world’s largest coca leaf producer, and is now the world’s second largest producer of coca leaf, though it lags far behind Colombia.

Peru 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, in part, 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.

According to official data, Radio Programas radio reported, approximately 60,000 Peruvians families illegally produce coca for drug traffickers.

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