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Peru's next president urges vigilantes to fight drug trafficking

To improve the security of Peruvians in far-flung parts of the country, President-elect Ollanta Humala has pledged to 'protect and empower' citizen self-defense groups. Is that a good idea?

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / June 14, 2011

Peru's President-elect Ollanta Humala speaks during a news conference at the Olivos Presidential residence on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, on Tuesday, June 14.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

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President-elect Ollanta Humala has worked hard to build his image as a moderate, moving away from the more nationalist and left-wing positions he had been associated with in the past. His stances on drugs and security policy fit with those backed by Washington, and he has called for greater cooperation on drug policy with the US, as well as with Peru's neighbors.

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In another key move, he rejected a recent paper on drug policy that argued for decriminalization, stating that such a policy would be very dangerous for a country that is the world’s second-biggest exporter of cocaine.

Mr. Humala seems keen to acknowledge the scale of the challenges posed by drug trafficking in Peru, saying that he will create a ministerial post to head a presidential commission, charged with drafting an anti-drugs strategy. He has also called for a "mano dura" or "iron fist" approach to crime.

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So far, relatively uncontroversial. Similar points and promises were made by rival Keiko Fujimori, as well as by other competitors knocked out in the first round of voting.

But one way in which Humala’s security policies differ from the rest of the pack is with his pledge to strengthen self-defense by rural communities. To improve the security of Peruvians in far-flung parts of the country, he has pledged to "protect and empower" Peasant Patrols and Self-Defense Groups (Rondas Campesinas and Comites de Autodefensa). Humala was the only candidate to express his support for these groups, and in return won the backing of some of their umbrella organizations for his election campaign.

Peasant patrol organizations praised Humala's commitment to work "hand-in-hand with grassroots organizations against crime and organized crime."

Peru's history of self-defense groups

Self-defense groups first sprung up in Peru in the 1970s, set up by isolated rural communities in areas where there was little state presence to protect themselves against thieves and bandits.

The groups took on a new importance in the 1980s with the rise of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla group.

In its 2003 report, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comision de la Verdad y Reconciliacion - CVR) distinguished two types of these groups.

Many of those in northern Peru organized themselves without weapons, and mainly worked to defend their communities against cattle rustling. Others, particularly in the south-central Andes region, were armed and backed, first by the army and then officially by the government, as paramilitary organizations to fight the rebels. They were known as Civil Defense Committees, (Comites de Defensa Civil) or countersubersive patrols.

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