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Latin America Blog

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?

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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.

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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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