Violent cartel culture now threatens Peru

Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers are importing a far more brutal operating style to Peru, say authorities.

By , Staff writer

This message chilled Sonia Medina the most: "Listen, we know who your daughter is," the anonymous threat came via text message over her cellphone. "And we think she is good-looking."

As Peru's top drug prosecutor, Ms. Medina, a former judge who stands just 5 feet tall, is confronting the nation's increasingly violent drug-trafficking problem head on. She is whisked around by bodyguards – sometimes one, sometimes three – and never rides in a car without tinted windows.

Authorities in Peru, the world's second-largest producer of cocaine, say that the kind of carnage that makes headlines in Colombia and Mexico is now finding its way to Peru, making the task of fighting organized crime and corruption an increasingly risky business. In July, a judge overseeing a case involving alleged members of a Mexican drug cartel was killed. Last month, a radio reporter who covered local crime and corruption was murdered in front of his wife and children.

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Production of coca, cocaine's main ingredient, has increased 38 percent in Peru in recent years, according to the US Department of State. But authorities blame international mafias, mainly Mexican, for the more sophisticated and high-stakes cartel culture that now plagues Peru. They say that traffickers have also aligned with members of the infamous Shining Path rebel group in remote subtropical valleys – forming new trafficking routes and prompting a new level of concern among authorities here.

"We are moving toward becoming a narco-state," says Medina, who has received dozens of death threats at her office, home, and on her cellphone. "Of course I feel afraid. I am a human being. But you can't hide in a corner watching what is happening in your country."

A leading coca producer

Peru was once the leading producer of coca, but US-supported eradication efforts in the 1990s and falling prices turned many farmers toward alternative crops. But since then, massive US and Colombian efforts to stem coca production in Colombia, coupled with a persistent demand in the US and Europe, has shifted production demand to Peru, luring many poor farmers back. Today, Peru produces about a third of all coca leaf in South America, according to Gen. Juan Zarate, the former antidrug czar and now the head of eradication efforts in Peru's Interior Ministry. It is grown on fewer acres than in previous decades – about 120,000 today compared with 445,000 in the 1980s. But technology – mostly in the form of new fertilizers – has spurned far greater yields.

In 14 major coca-growing regions across the country, some 110,000 metric tons of coca is cultivated annually, and then turned into 180 metric tons of cocaine, according to government figures.

What is more worrisome to authorities here is that traffickers from other countries, principally from Mexico, have changed the face of the industry. Bypassing Colombian traffickers, Mexican cartels are working directly with farmers, demanding that Peru not only export the leaves or paste that is part of the process of synthesizing cocaine, but the cocaine itself.

It's a multibillion-dollar industry, which authorities say has given rise to corruption at all levels of society.

"For a while Peru's problem went down," says General Zarate. "Now again, we have this problem. There is an invasion of mafias in Peru."

Colombian rebels, he says, are vying for control along the border with Peru. But the bigger concern is Mexican-run cartels, he says, which have been active in the country for the past 15 years but have recently become more violent. "They have invested a lot of money to claim space here," Zarate says. "They are savage, and they pursue and pursue."

The slaying of the federal judge, Hernan Saturno Vergara, in July, was a wakeup call for many Peruvians about the grip of Mexican cartels, say observers. The judge had been overseeing a case involving alleged members of the Tijuana Cartel, and was gunned down while at a restaurant near his Lima office.

"It was a threat by these mafias to the entire judicial system," says Medina.

On a recent day, Medina stands in the back of a courtroom at the Callao prison in Lima, while a case involving three suspects charged with selling cocaine plays out. The case is one of an estimated 7,000 her department will hear this year – a number that has increased by 30 percent in the five years since Medina was named to the post.

The high case load has made her an easy target for the rancor and revenge that marks the narcotics industry. Unlike Medina, her predecessor, she says, didn't need to have bodyguards at all hours. Medina also had to change her e-mail to an obscure address so that her name doesn't appear at all, lest she receive a barrage of intimidating messages.

"People get mad. They say it breaks up their marriages. Some realize this is my work. Others want to harass me," says Medina, a devout Catholic who is married with two teenage children. "I don't want to be a hero, I don't want a monument. Someone has to do it."

Contributing to that hostile environment is a reemergence of the Shining Path, the organization that practically went defunct after the 1992 arrest of its leader. According to a recent report by the US Department of State, Shining Path members give protection to coca growers and traffickers alike.

In December, eight suspected Shining Path members were arrested after an attack on a police convoy in a coca-growing region killed eight people.

Pressure on Colombia causes shift

Nearly all the cocaine that enters the US comes from Colombia. But pressure – not to mention the $7 billion that the US has given to the country in recent years – has produced a so-called "balloon effect," in which production has expanded to other countries.

"Because there was real pressure in Colombia, Peru became a very interesting alternative," says Gustavo Gorriti, a Lima-based reporter who studies the drug trade.

In his inaugural address in July, President Alan Garcia acknowledged the challenge facing the country today. "Today kidnappings and narco-trafficking are growing," he said. "The international cartels have arrived in our homeland. We must be firm with them."

But Medina says that real changes have yet to take place. She faults an increase in the drug trade to a lax judicial system, one that often lets traffickers off with lenient sentences, and the corruption that has infiltrated the system. "It's easy to come to Peru to traffic drugs," she says plainly.

"If the state decides to focus on this, we can overcome it," she says, as she leaves the courtroom with three armed bodyguards who constantly look out side mirrors, her cellphone ringing incessantly. "Otherwise it is going to consume us."

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