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Monday, January 08, 2007

Mexican drug cartels move into Peru

Worry spreads as their presence increases coca production, violence

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

LIMA, Peru – Mexican drug cartels, once regarded mainly as couriers for South American cocaine producers, have spread their powerful tentacles deep into this Andean nation, sowing violence and nourishing the re-emergence of Shining Path guerrillas, authorities say.

Peruvian authorities suspect a Mexican cartel in the killing of a federal judge in July that shocked this nation. The allegations underscore the presence of Mexican cartels in the multibillion-dollar shadow economy in Peru, the world's second-largest producer of cocaine after neighboring Colombia.
An attack by suspected Shining Path guerrillas left eight people dead in a Peruvian coca-growing area in December. The terrorist group may have formed an alliance with Mexican drug cartels.

"Just like in Mexico, Peruvian institutions are being put to the test," said Gen. Juan Zárate Gambini, Peru's anti-narcotics czar and head of the National Police. "We're very concerned about the consequences, and we're committed to doing everything to meet the challenge and defeat the enemy."

Mexican cartels have become the most dominant drug-trafficking organizations in the hemisphere, authorities say. In his first weeks in office, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has sent thousands of troops and federal police to Michoacán state and the border city of Tijuana to confront entrenched cartels.

In South America, the Mexican groups are bypassing the Colombians and cutting their own deals with coca farmers in Peru and Bolivia, setting up dozens of tiny, state-of-the-art cocaine processing labs inside Peruvian territory, say Western diplomats and Peruvian authorities. The groups are opening new consumer markets throughout Latin America and elsewhere.

The Mexicans ship cocaine loads by boat to the Mexican coast, then up to the border with California or Texas, with its coveted Interstate 35 northbound corridor, Peruvian officials and experts said. South Texas remains the leading entry area for cocaine smuggled into the U.S., according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In addition, Mexican and Colombian scientists working for the cartels have introduced chemical fertilizers that are multiplying coca leaf production up to 1,000 percent per hectare, Peruvian authorities say.

"Instead of producing 300, 400 plants, new chemicals are ... producing 3,000 plants," said Jaime Artesana, a drug expert at the Peruvian Economic and Political Institute, an independent research organization. "The Peruvian government has dedicated just 3 percent of its budget to fight the drug problem. That has to change, because we need a new strategy to adapt to more powerful Mexican cartels."

U.S. aid to Peru for drug eradication is an estimated $300 million over the last five years, and the U.S. government has earmarked $60 million over the next three years for helicopters for counter-narcotics work. Virginia-based DynCorp International – which has a major operational hub in Irving – will provide maintenance and logistical support.

"Drug trafficking transcends all borders," said the U.S. ambassador to Peru, J. Curtis Struble. "No nation is free from its harmful effect, and [it] impacts all sectors of society."

Despite U.S. support, coca production in Peru has risen almost 40 percent in recent years, partly as a result of eradication efforts in Colombia, experts say.

Similarly, the Mexican cartel presence continues to grow. Between 2005 and 2006, about 35 Mexican cartel members were arrested in Peru. Twenty-five remain in jail, Peruvian authorities said.

U.S. policy

Others say U.S. drug policy is part of the problem. Kenneth Sharpe, a Latin American political and drug policy expert at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, said the U.S. "prohibition policy" has actually fed the rise of powerful criminal organizations.

"U.S. drug policy based on prohibition has nourished the drug wars in Latin America," Mr. Sharpe said. "There's absolutely no way a prohibition policy will ever work – here in the United States, in Latin America or anywhere else because all prohibition does is perpetuate the drug trade, rising crime and violence."

In Peru, the presence of the Mexican cartels was illustrated in July, when alleged Tijuana cartel hit men assassinated Federal Judge Hernán Saturno Vergara as he was eating with a nephew at the restaurant near his judicial office, Peruvian authorities said. Mr. Saturno was part of a three-judge panel overseeing a major case against alleged members of the Tijuana cartel.

The Tijuana cartel is allied with the Gulf cartel and its enforcers, the Zetas, who have been blamed for surging violence along the Texas-Mexico border and have been linked to drug killings in North Texas.

The attack on the judge served as a wake-up call on the presence of Mexican cartels in Peru, authorities say.

"The [Tijuana] cartel's message to authorities was very clear: Messing with us will cost you your life," said Ricardo Valdes, a former Peruvian interior minister and now head of the economic research organization Human and Social Capital. Mr. Valdes said the order to kill the judge came from inside the jail where members of the cartel were imprisoned.

Gen. Zárate, Peru's top drug officer, said the authorities' conclusion that Mexican cartels ordered the killing is based on interviews with jailed cartel members.

The Mexican presence in Peru has angered President Alan García, Peruvian officials said. Mr. García appeared with President Bush in Washington and pledged "total eradication of the drug trafficker threat."

Peruvian and Mexican authorities held talks in Lima and pledged greater cooperation in fighting drug traffickers.


The implications for this Andean nation of 28 million people are enormous, drug experts say. They point to the violence that has engulfed parts of Mexico and the drug money that has corrupted security forces, judges, journalists and businessmen and is reportedly supporting guerrilla groups.

"We must not allow the violence of Mexico to penetrate Peru," said Gustavo Gorriti Ellenbogen, a Peruvian journalist and author and president of the Press and Society Institute, which promotes media independence.

"Mexico is like one giant bowling alley, with heads rolling," he said, referring to a recent spate of beheadings in Mexico. "We cannot allow that type of violence to happen here."

Meanwhile, the once-violent and powerful Maoist guerrilla movement known as Shining Path is regaining strength, thanks largely to drug traffickers, said Peruvian experts, including Mr. Valdes and Mr. Gorriti. Nearly defunct after the arrest of its leader, Abimael Guzmán, in 1992, the movement is now offering protection to drug traffickers and protecting coca farms from U.S.-backed eradication efforts.

In December, eight suspected Shining Path members were arrested after an attack on a police convoy in a coca-growing region killed five officers and three civilians, including a boy. More than 20 police officers have been killed in ambushes in the past year.

"The two remnants of the Shining Path are in the drug-trafficking zone in Alto Huallaga and ... the Apurímac-Ene [River] valley," said Mr. Gorriti.

There, Peruvian coca leaves are converted into paste and transported to laboratories in the coastal region for final processing. From there, Mexican cartels, working with Peruvian drug producers, ship the cocaine to not only Mexico and the U.S., but also South Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and throughout Latin America, particularly Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

"Eradication measures in Colombia are having an effect, as cocaine production has shifted to Peru," said Mr. Artesana of the Peruvian Economic and Political Institute. "But that's not the only explanation for the growth. It's also about new and growing markets throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America."

Unlike the guerrillas inside Colombia, the Shining Path movement is now based more on profit than ideology, Mr. Gorriti said. "They protect routes and tax drug shipments. That, along with the money they charge ... has provided a source of income which has aided their re-emergence."

In 2005, Peruvian authorities confiscated 11.7 tons of cocaine. As of September 2006, cocaine confiscations for the year had already reached 14 tons.

"But what these figures don't tell you is that Peru is confronting a notable increase in cocaine production," said Ángel Páez, a Peruvian author and investigative journalist. U.S. and Peruvian authorities say 190 tons of cocaine are still being shipped out of the country, he said. "This means that interdiction is actually minimal."

Gen. Zárate said that figure "sounds right."

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