According to the UNODC, the number of hectares of coca cultivated in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia has decreased. Somebody should tell that to the drug traffickers in Peru's VRAEM region, where aerial drug transit continues at a feverish pace with little state ability or action to stop it.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) claims there was a reduction in the surface area planted with coca of nearly 50 percent in Colombia between 2007 and 2012, 17.5 percent in Peru between 2012 and 2013, and 26 percent in Bolivia in the past three years. However, in Peru's Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM), the humming of narco-plane motors not only has failed to come to a halt -- it has increased.
Information from flight monitoring (which does not include radar coverage in Peru, since the country still does not have any) currently indicates that four to six drug planes are entering the region each day. Each airplane carries some 300 kilos of drugs.
However, according to human intelligence sources, the number of drug flights has increased to between eight and 10 per day, when both the regions of the VRAEM and Pichis Palcazu to the north are taken into account.
And it is no longer just light aircraft. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, a couple of weeks ago a twin-engine plane with the capacity to carry 800 kilos of drugs landed in the VRAEM. The plane, according to sources, took off with a full load and without incident.
The increase in flights has in a variety of ways changed drug trafficking in the VRAEM. The transport and storage of cocaine are now activities undertaken with a feverish energy, due to the demand for timeliness and rapidness of movement that dominates the drug trafficking world.
Six flights a day equal 180 per month. Eight flights a day represent 240 per month. At 300 kilos of drugs per flight, between 54 tons and 72 tons of cocaine are being exported monthly by air. Whether it is the smaller or larger of the two amounts, it is a quantity that has thrown drug trafficking into hyperactivity.
As IDL-Reporteros has reported in the past, the reaction of the Peruvian state to this phenomenon has been strangely passive. This year they have intercepted just a few drug planes on the ground, and Peru has neither radars nor adequate satellite mechanisms to monitor the air space.
In fact, a reliable source informed IDL-Reporteros that some of the most recent operations in the region have been undertaken with the direct collaboration of Colombian intelligence bodies, which are much better equipped than their Peruvian counterparts.
Is this a national security concern? If every day six to 10 illegal flights are arriving from the exterior and leaving again with total impunity in the country's most militarized zone, what is there to say?
It could, of course, be argued that cocaine trafficking is not, in and of itself, a threat to national security.
But if the planes are currently arriving empty, then the idea that arms could be trafficked from Paraguay to Bolivia and from there to Peru is not at all preposterous, given that an established route already exists, as well as an available carrying capacity. This gives a different view of the situation.
Some security sources agree that this is a serious problem that Peru should confront before it worsens.
Conversation with the Defense Minister
On the afternoon of Thursday, June 26, I had a phone interview with Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano and found that he had a less troubling view of the problem.
Cateriano did not "necessarily" agree that the problem of drug planes was, at the moment, the principal national security problem facing the country.
"Seven years ago," he said, "[the government] tried to purchase an aerial defense system [that not only included] radars, but also anti-aircraft missiles. And unfortunately, the former government was unable to acquire these."
A process for negotiating the purchase of radars last year, said Cateriano, "collapsed because the proposal of the country that had occupied first place [in the bidding process], Italy… when they presented the [sales price] they were proposing, it was higher than what had been established."
"Now," said Cateriano, "we are in the process of acquiring four radars."
How long will it take to acquire those radars?
"We are in the process of implementation," said Cateriano. "Later will come the stage of presenting proposals and technical, economic and financial evaluations. And then, the Air Force, which is the institution in charge of carrying out this process, will make a recommendation regarding which proposal is most advisable."
How much time will that take?
"It is not an overnight process," responded Cateriano. "After that comes the process of training the personnel that is going to operate those radars. That is naturally going to take some time."
Cateriano said that his information did not indicate that there were eight to 10 flights each day. "That is a journalistic figure, and I cannot verify it. I do not have that number. There are statistics and claims that indicate that around four light aircraft are flying [each day]."
Do you agree or not that there is an upward trend in the number of drug flights?
"The thing is that with the fall of 'Alipio' and 'Gabriel' [of the Shining Path], the drug traffickers stopped having to pay a fee to the terrorists. Paradoxically, despite being a blow to terrorism, this unfortunately helped facilitate illicit aerial trafficking in parts of the VRAEM."
"Why have we failed to take action?" continued the Defense Minister. "Because Peru [following the accidental shoot-down of a missionary plane in 2001] agreed not to utilize the radar [lent by the United States] for aerial interdiction. Additionally [that radar] needs to be repaired. That is why the government decided to acquire four radars… Unfortunately, the process is slow. [When it has been completed], Peru will have radars to perform interdiction tasks."
So there is no approximate date indicating when the radars and personnel that will operate them will become functional?
"That will be known after the countries present their technical proposals. The delivery date, the technical quality -- those are elements that the FAP [Peruvian Air Force] will use to rate the bidders. Quality, technological transfer, training of personnel, delivery date -- those are all technical criteria that will have to be rated to see who gets the bid. But that will be known once the proposals are presented."
So we are talking about months, in a best case scenario.
"We are speaking of months, in effect, of the coming months in the second half of this year," said Cateriano.
Patience is often a modest but positive virtue. Sometimes, I think, it even has a strategic advantage. But when each month that the slow purchase process lingers on represents at least 180 more drug flights, with all the consequences (beginning with corruption) and dangers that this implies, patience begins to look dangerously like negligence.
*Gustavo Gorriti is a Peruvian journalist and the current director of IDL-Reporteros, where this article originally appeared. The piece was translated and reproduced with permission. See the Spanish original here.