Interview with Carmen Masías,
director of the Anti-Drug Authority Devida
(2012-2014 und 2016-2018)
60 percent of the cocaine from Peru ends up in Europe via Africa.
Tell us your analysis of the situation in the VRAEM Valley.
It is the stronghold of coca production in Peru. 54 percent of all Peruvian coca leaves are grown in the VRAEM valley. It is a highly profitable business. We counted 120,000 plants per hectare. In other coca farming regions we find no more than 40,000. Virtually every coca leave grown in VRAEM is used to produce drugs. The main social problem is that most peasants are no longer just poor coca farmers, but produce cocaine base or even pure cocaine themselves, because that yields a much bigger profit margin.
How is the drug trade organized in the VRAEM, which cartels operate there and how?
It is structured around family clans. Entire families are involved in the cultivation of coca and the manufacturing of drugs. There are huge quantities of laboratories and cocaine kitchens in the VRAEM. Every month, the military destroys about 20 such laboratories. The downstream logistics and transport is in the hands of Mexican cartels. In the bars, you hear Mexican music and can buy Mexican beer. We also have arrested Mexican drug dealers and professional killers.
How is the cocaine smuggled out of the valley?
We have an average of 6 daily flights that operate from secret landing strips in the jungle. These are small airplanes with a capacity of up to 300 kilograms. Most planes come in from Bolivia. In Santa Cruz there are several flight schools where the pilots pay $ 30,000 for a three-month crash course. They are trained specifically for illegal flights to Peru. Bolivia is not only a transit country for the drugs, but also a place where they can be refined.
And where does the drug go from Bolivia?
60 percent of the cocaine from Peru ends up in Europe via Africa. The rest is divided between the US and Brazil. In the US, cocaine consumption has decreased significantly in favor of synthetic drugs, but the country is still the largest consumer of cocaine worldwide. Brazil is the second largest buyer. The biggest suppliers are Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.
Bolivia recently passed a new law, allowing the military to shoot down suspected drug airplanes. Why doesn’t Peru implement a similar law?
We used to have a similar law, but in 2001 there was a tragic incident. A small plane carrying US missionaries was shot down by accident. The international protests were enormous, and our government has hence ratified various agreements that prohibit us from shooting down planes. Personally, I believe it is more effective to force a drug plane to land and then arrest the pilot. There is a higher chance to receive evidence about the structure and the command of the cartel behind.
And how many planes do you force it to land?
Very few. Our security forces have no money, and the mountainous terrain is difficult to control. Also because remnants of the Shining Path guerrilla are active in this region. Most of them are now serving the drug cartels as protection. It is dangerous for the police to operate there, and we had several losses after skirmishes.
Why can’t you expand the budget for the security forces? Is the President not interested in fighting drug trafficking?
Oh, the President is absolutely determined to fight terrorism and drug trafficking. But Peru's economy has only been growing for a few years now, and is not that strong. Besides, we have a huge bureaucracy that devours resources. Buying a helicopter can take years. We desperately need a constitutional and administrative reform. In addition, corruption is a problem.
One purpose of the military is to uproot the coca plants. What did you achieve in VRAEM?
We have not started yet. There is a debate within the bureaucracy, if we should first eradicate the plants and then start alternative projects or if it is better to launch projects first and then eradicate the plants. But there is no alternative to eradication. That’s the lesson from other valleys. And we cannot wait for the coca farmers to call for action, because that never will happen.
What are the military and the police doing then in VRAEM?
They arrest smugglers, destroy laboratories and runways. But the population supports the cartels instead of the state. When security forces tried to enter into Samugari in order to destroy laboratories, they were received with stones and shotguns by the population. To avoid a bloodbath, the security forces withdrew. If the police destroys a runway, it is rebuilt nearby within a week by the local peasants.
Is the population an accomplice of the drug cartels?
Not everybody, but many are. And they influence others. In the VRAEM we are working with 15 mayors. They submit projects for which we provide technical support and request funding. The mayors are under pressure from the coca farmers though, who don’t want any projects from the state. That’s why the mayor of Samugari, for example, refused our money in the beginning. Another part of the population wanted our project though and were able to change his mind.
There is a lot of money involved in drug trafficking. What did the drug trade bring to the VRAM valley?
Nothing. There is huge poverty, no infrastructure, no water or sanitation. In the coca-growing areas, the state was virtually absent for decades. The poorest of the population would really benefit from alternative development. However, we must first create confidence in the state.
How do you convince the population that cooperating with the state is better than with the drug mafia?
In other valleys, we started by issuing identification. It’s incredible, but most inhabitants weren’t even registered! Firstly, because public offices are often a day's journey away, but also, people are not very interested in IDs as most of them are operating illegally. Once people have an ID card, they can, for example, apply for public welfare. Another successful strategy was the allocation of land titles. It provides legal certainty and enables the farmers to borrow money. Then we have to start regenerating soils that are totally exhausted after 20 or 30 years of coca cultivation. It’s only after all these steps, that we can start with organic gardens and banana plantations, that yield fruit quickly. Afterwards it’s cocoa and coffee plantations, which take longer to carry fruit.
But none of those products is as profitable as the coca. Aren’t there any other incentives?
The threat of pulling out the coca bush is of course a motivation. And then there are the children. In the VRAEM, many teenagers work as smugglers for the mafia. They carry two, three or even ten kilograms in their backpack out of the valley. Many of them are caught; the prisons are crowded with them. Others are killed on their way, mostly because of internal revenge between mafia groups. The parents are concerned and they want a better future for their kids.
Does it work?
Yes. In the region of Monzón, we have worked with 41 of 100 peasant communities. Of these, only one started to grow coca again, but gave up when others pressed him. They feared for their financial aid from the government. On average, 50 percent of destroyed coca fields are replanted.
And in the VRAEM: How much money did you invest there and where specifically?
In 2013, we transferred 32 million soles (9.7 million dollars), especially for building roads and bridges, but also for alternative products such as coffee. This year, we have 22 million soles available. Overall, this government has invested 900 million soles (about 564 million dollar) in the VRAEM. But we are just intermediaries. There is a special presidential commission for the development of the VRAEM, led by military officers and an admiral.
How are your results?
Well, there is not a single hectare less coca. We have recently counted 20,000 hectares. It's not just a question of money. Especially wealthier communities are resistant.
How can you explain that despite your efforts, there is still so much coca in the VRAEM valley? Why didn’t you start there with your pilot programs? Because of corruption? Are politicians and security forces involved in the drug trade?
There are many hypotheses. I do not want to speculate.
But that's a reality. Every month, mayors, regional presidents, members of Parliament are associated and even arrested because of their links to the drug business. What is being done to prevent the infiltration of drug trafficking into politics?
In the last local election in 2014, we had more than 100,000 candidates. It is very difficult to find out who is related to the drug trade. The election authority together with civil society is trying to establish filters. But in Peru, the mafia is everywhere. You find it n the construction industry, also in property development. And usually, politicians and their families are involved. In the VRAEM, there are dozens of credit cooperatives. Of course, one can wonder what they are even active in such a poor region and why they would borrow 100,000 dollars to a poor farmer, without any collateral?
It would be logical to inquire and perhaps start a money-laundering investigation.
In Peru not everything is logical.
The European Union has announced a major aid package for the fight against drugs. What, specifically, are you planning to do with the money?
The EU has almost doubled its aid from 24 to 44 million euro. Part of it is for projects of alternative development, another for prevention and treatment of drug addicts, an area where we are behind the industrialized countries for about a century. In Peru, there are 100,000 drug addicts and only 700 treatment spots. This is a huge problem. We have created outpatient treatment sites and trained doctors in all regions. We want to legalize many private rehabilitation centers and commit them to certain standards. They haven’t been monitored and some are terrible.
Europe is probably also interested in stopping the inflow of drugs. Is there also money for the security forces?Europe is probably also interested in stopping the inflow of drugs. Is there also money for the security forces?
The EU also supports the training of the police and the fight against money laundering. The hardest part is the coordination between the police, military and civil authorities. Everyone wants to impose his view and defends institutional interests, instead of considering drug trafficking as a national threat which can only be controlled with a united effort.
So when are you going to start to implement your strategy in the VRAEM?
Sometime this year.
(Shortly after the interview in mid-2014 Carmen Masías was deposed. Her successor has cancelled the plans).