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Violent cartel culture now threatens Peru

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

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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."

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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."