There are other ways — and routes — to smuggle cocaine
by DAVID GAGNE
The destruction of nearly two dozen clandestine airstrips in central Peru suggests aerial drug traffickers are migrating away from the country’s main hub for cocaine production in response to stepped-up interdiction efforts.
Peru’s Interior Ministry announced that the anti-drug unit of the National Police demolished 23 airstrips between Sept. 3 and Sept. 7. The airstrips were located in six municipalities that span the regions of Pasco, Huánuco and Ucayali. (See InSight Crime’s map below.)
Members of Peru’s aviation police, state agents specializing in the eradication of illegal coca, and representatives from the Attorney General’s Office also participated in the operation as part of a new security plan for the first 100 days in office of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, whose term began in late July.
The objectives of the 29-point plan are grouped into five categories: citizen security, organized crime, corruption, policing and institutional reform.
InSight Crime analysis
The remote jungle valley known as the VRAEM has traditionally doubled as Peru’s main hub for cocaine production as well as drug flights leaving the country.
In just the first nine months of 2014, for example, Peruvian security forces destroyed 185 drug airstrips in the VRAEM region. One security expert told InSight Crime in 2014 that some 90 percent of the estimated 200 tons of cocaine produced in the VRAEM each year is flown out of the country on the crude runways hidden deep in the Peruvian forest.
But the demolition of almost two dozen airstrips north of the VRAEM suggests that may be starting to change.
In May 2016, the head of Peru’s anti-drug police force, known as DIRANDRO, said that the majority of cocaine now leaves the VRAEM by land following the implementation of a drug plane shoot-down law last year.
The continued destruction of clandestine airstrips has also made it increasingly difficult for cocaine traffickers to export their product using drug planes. Security analysts say increased interdiction in the VRAEM may have pushed more drug flights into areas such as the Masisea district in Ucayali.
In addition to lighter security pressure, drug traffickers in Ucayali benefit from having the option of shipping cocaine on the Ucayali River.
According to a 2015 report on Peru’s coca cultivation from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, airstrips in the region are located along the banks of the Ucayali, which renders them unusable when the river floods. But during the rainy season, traffickers can simply send the drugs down the river, which connects to the Amazon and eventually reaches Brazil, the world’s second-largest consumer of cocaine.
The apparent shift from the VRAEM to Ucayali and other nearby regions highlights the limited long-term impact that destroying clandestine airstrips has on the illicit drug trade. New airstrips are easy to set up, and even those that are destroyed can be restored on the cheap in as little as 24 hours.
Moreover, destroying airstrips has little impact on the profits made by illegal armed groups involved in the country’s cocaine trade, as traffickers simply find other ways to smuggle the drug shipments across borders.