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 , Guest blogger

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    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.
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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.

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.

Widespread abuse

These second type, the militia groups, were responsible for widespread abuse. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that some “went beyond self-defense tasks” and committed serious crimes. The commission ruled that, while Shining Path and the armed forces were responsible for around 83 percent of the almost 70,000 killings in Peru’s conflict between 1980 and 2000, many of the remaining crimes were committed by these paramilitary forces. In some parts of the country these groups were funded, in part, through alliances with drug traffickers, according to the commission.

The first type, the peaceful peasant patrols and self-defense groups, were first legally acknowledged in 1986 as groups subject to the police. In 2003 they were recognized by law as independent organizations who provide security in rural areas. This legalized the status of some 200,000 patrol members.

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The government at the time highlighted the role of the groups in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking. Under the law, they are meant to "support the military ... in rural and indigenous communities," and "assist in conflict resolution." Each group is registered with the authorities. Some campaign for the rights of indigenous and rural people, and work to protect the environment against big business.

According to the Peace Commission, when the conflict ended, many of the armed countersubversive militias took on similar roles to the northern groups, protecting their communities from cattle thieves and common crime.

Different views on vigilantes

Humala’s inclusion of these organizations as a key part of his security policy could be read as a pragmatic acknowledgement of the depth of the problem faced in many rural parts of Peru, where there is little state presence and drug trafficking has eaten into the social fabric. However, it could be argued that the president should be extending that state presence instead of seeking to substitute for it with antiquated vigilante groups.

Even today's legal and well-organized self defense groups have faced allegations of abuse, including accusations of torture, murder and mistreating suspects they have apprehended.

The Shining Path, the old enemies of the self-defense forces, have become resurgent in recent years, drawing new strength from their deepened involvement in the drug trafficking business.

The group’s ambush of a military patrol the day before the presidential election, killing five soldiers, showed that they are still capable of taking on the army and inflicting damage.

However disciplined and well-intentioned today’s self-defense groups are, such groups have a history, in countries around the world and especially in Latin America, of descending into brutality when they are set against rebel organizations. As Humala prepares his security policy for when he assumes office, this may be a key part of history to bear in mind.

--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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