It happens about four times a day, right under the nose of Peru’s military: A small single-engine plane drops onto a dirt airstrip in the world’s No. 1 coca-growing valley, delivers a bundle of cash, picks up more than 300 kilos of cocaine and flies to Bolivia.
Roughly half of Peru’s cocaine exports have been ferried eastward on this “air bridge,” police say, since the rugged Andean nation became the world’s leading producer of the drug in 2012.
Peru’s government has barely impeded the airborne drug flow. Prosecutors, narcotics police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents say that while corruption is rife in Peru, the narco-flight plague is the military’s failure because it controls the remote jungle region known as the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley.
Wilson Barrantes, a retired army general who has long complained about military drug corruption, said giving the military control over the valley is “like putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.”
Deputy Defense Minister Ivan Vega, who runs counterinsurgency efforts in the region, said that he was not aware of any military officials under investigation. “Corruption exists, but we are always looking out for it,” he said. “If we know of anyone involved, we’ll throw the book at them.”
But an Associated Press investigation found that “narco planes” have been loaded with partially refined cocaine at landing strips just minutes by air from military bases in the remote, nearly road-less valley where about two-thirds of Peru’s cocaine originates.
Videos obtained by AP show small planes landing on clandestine air strips in the jungle region about the size of Ireland. Elite squads of narcotics police hidden on nearby hilltops videotaped the landings, but were too outgunned to intervene, said two narcotics police officers who provided the videos but declined to speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs. Cocaine regularly disappears aloft in Cessna 206 planeloads, each worth upward of $7.2 million overseas.
The operations normally last about 10 minutes, usually just after dawn and are tightly choreographed: A dozen or so cocaine-laden backpackers appear on a landing strip’s fringe as the GPS-guided plane, its pilot having broken radio silence a few minutes earlier, approaches. Men with assault rifles guard the strip. Money is offloaded, drugs are jammed into the cabin. The motor re-engages. The plane departs.
One pilot told the AP that some local military officers charge $10,000 per flight to allow the planes to land and take off unbothered.
Concern overthe flights spurred Peru’s congress to pass a law in August that authorizes shooting down drug planes. But critics say the government lacks the will to do the job, having inexplicably scrapped plans to buy and install the necessary state-of-the-art radar.
PERU’S DRUG WAR: “DISTORTED, INCOHERENT AND INERT”
When President Ollanta Humala took office in 2011, he declared combatting illicit drugs a priority. His government has destroyed record amounts of coca leaf. His government has spent more than $60 million on eradication, and is supported by the U.S. government and the European Union. In a July 28 independence day address four years after assuming office, the former army lieutenant colonel said trafficking in the valley had been reined in.
“Drug trafficking is no longer a parallel power in the VRAEM,” Humala claimed, referring to the cocaine valley’s Spanish acronym.
But critics say he has allowed most of Peru’s cocaine production to migrate to the valley, where there is no eradication of coca crops and rule of law is weak.
Humala also points to more than 550 missions to blast craters into the clandestine airstrips as a triumph. National police director Gen. Vicente Romero has said repeatedly that traffickers fill the holes in a matter of days using local labor.
Sonia Medina, the public prosecutor for illicit drugs, said in an interview that trafficking has gone “from bad to worse” on Humala’s watch – along with narco-corruption in politics, the criminal justice system, the police and military. “What we are doing in counter-narcotics is completely distorted, incoherent and inert.”
Compared to Colombia, the world’s second-largest cocaine exporter, Peru’s drug war performance pales:
-Peru seized 28 metric tons of cocaine or coca paste a year on average from 2011-2014, compared to 170 metric tons by Colombia or partners acting on Colombian intelligence. For Peru, that’s less than 10 percent of potential production, for Colombia it’s more than half, by U.S. estimates.
-While Colombia has systematically arrested major kingpins over the past decade, extraditing many to the United States for trials that yield lengthy sentences, Peru has not jailed and convicted a major trafficker since 2005.
-Peru’s narcotics police operate on a $12 million annual operating budget, with no planes or helicopters. Their Colombian counterpart has a $45 million budget, and some 50 planes and 70 helicopters including U.S. Blackhawks.
Drug corruption was rampant in the military the 1990s during the government of now-imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, when the narco planes were heading north to Colombia, and many Peruvians understand the perils of weak enforcement.
A special congressional committee in Peru was convened to probe drug corruption in politics after state and municipal elections last October in which Medina counted 700 candidates either under investigation for or convicted of drug-related crimes. Its chairwoman, Rep. Rosa Mavila, said Peru’s government is in danger of capture by narco-criminal syndicates.
“It is not yet a narco state,” she said in interview. “But it is at risk of becoming one.”
A $10,000 BRIBE
The cocaine river valley has been under a state of emergency for nine years owing to the persistent presence of drug-running Shining Path rebels, who have slain more than 30 police and soldiers during Humala’s tenure.
Police say they are just one of about 15 cocaine-producing syndicates operating here and are down to 60 fighters. But the government says if it destroyed coca plants in the valley, it would cause a backlash.
“What we’d be doing is encouraging Shining Path recruitment,” said Vega, the deputy defense minister.
Some 6,000 soldiers are stationed at more than 30 bases, ostensibly to battle “narcoterrorism.” By law, counter-narcotics is the job of the fewer than 1,000 narcotics police in the valley. But police rely on the military for airlifts and many chafe at having to go on joint drug missions with soldiers.
In documents and testimony obtained by the AP, police and anti-drug prosecutors questioned the military’s trustworthiness as a counter-narcotics partner. One recalled asking about clandestine airstrips during a 2013 meeting with military officials.
“We explained that we wanted to go to these airstrips,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “So they started to take out their maps, which showed airstrips here and there. They had never informed us of all this.”
There were also suspicions that intelligence was being leaked to traffickers.
Four anti-drug prosecutors complained about it in a May 2014 letter to their boss that the AP obtained.
Three times they shared information with the military on when and where drug flights would land, they said. In each case, the planes never showed. The fourth time, they kept the intelligence to themselves and acted alone with police.
The pilot was captured, the co-pilot killed in a firefight and 357 kilograms (787 pounds) of cocaine and $5,500 in cash seized. The March 2014 operation was the only one in the past two years in which drugs, money, plane and pilot were all taken into custody.
Over that period, more than two dozen suspected drug planes have been seized. Most were crash-landings. In all but five cases, the pilots escaped.
The pilot who said some military officers charged $10,000 per flight to let narco planes through said the payments are called “cupos,” a local term for bribes.
“No plane arrives without at least half a million dollars to pay for the drugs, for the airstrip and to corrupt the authorities,” said the pilot, who only agreed to speak if not identified for fear of his life.
The AP could not independently confirm the pilot’s claim, although a senior police investigator in Lima, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect his job, called military corruption in the valley endemic.
“It’s all negotiated invisibly,” said independent narcotics researcher Jaime Antezana. “Even when they’re destroying air strips, ‘cupos’ are being collected.”
Before the narco-flight boom, the military sent people to the valley as punishment for transgressions, said Victor Andres Garcia Belaunde, an opposition congressman and nephew of the late President Fernando Belaunde.
“But it has, alas, become profitable to be in VRAEM and today there are officers who ask to go.”
DEA PILOT: “IT WAS VERY EMBARRASSING”
Modern radar coverage combined with aerial pursuit and on-the-ground interception can dramatically reduce drug flights – without shooting down planes, experience has shown in Colombia and Brazil.
Peru’s border radar network fell into neglect after a Peruvian fighter pilot mistakenly shot and killed a U.S. missionary and her infant daughter in 2001, ending a CIA-administered “air bridge denial” program.
But even as Peru’s export numbers topped those of Colombia, the U.S. has been mute on Peru’s shortcomings.
Patrick Hardwick, a DEA pilot, was on the U.S. team sent home after the debacle, and was back on the job in Peru six years later. He watched in dismay from his King Air 350 as the drug flights grew into an epidemic. He collected narco-plane tail numbers he recorded on intelligence missions – to little effect.
“It was very embarrassing,” said Hardwick, who retired last year.
DEA spokesman Joseph Moses in Washington, D.C., said that if the intelligence Hardwick collected was good, his supervisors would have shared it with Peru’s police.
“We obviously want that intelligence exploited and – because in these countries we’re not the police – we pass it on to the host-country counterpart.”
The U.S. government says Peru’s counterdrug efforts are improving. In a mid-September assessment, the White House said Peru has demonstrated “highly effective leadership in countering illegal drug trafficking and transnational crime.”
The U.S. spends more than $50 million a year on counter-narcotics in Peru. It funds police academies, assists in money-laundering investigations, trains police and armed forces units and backs eradication and alternatives to coca.
It does not, however, regularly fly surveillance aircraft over the country as it does for Colombia, the source of most of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. And in 2009, the U.S. State Department stopped loaning Peru’s narcotics police choppers from its fleet of 22 UH-2H helicopters.
Now, all those choppers, based in the jungle city of Pucallpa, are only allowed to support coca eradication missions.
The U.S. Embassy, which declined an AP interview request, said in response to written questions that it simply lacks the assets “to support both eradication AND interdiction operations.”
The top U.S. military commander for Latin America, Marine Gen. John Kelly, told the AP in June that Peru’s airborne smuggling routes are not a priority because most of Peru’s cocaine is exported to Brazil, Argentina and Europe.
“The drugs that are going to the United States, in my opinion, are the most important I can track,” Kelly said.
The European Union’s ambassador to Peru, Irene Horejs, said it is an EU priority to help Peru fight the drug trade.
“It is feeding corruption,” she said. “Illegal money is going into politics. It is destabilizing the country.”
FUNDS FOR NEW RADAR CUT FROM BUDGET
Enforcement of Peru’s aerial interdiction law will depend chiefly on the installation of radar for which its congress has yet to approve spending.
In November, then-Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano announced plans to acquire four modern radars for $71 million. But under questioning by reporters, his successor disclosed that the money was cut from this year’s budget.
Instead, the government decided to repair two U.S.-made TPS-70 radars initially acquired in 1995.
The first radar became operational in May. Located in the southeastern city of Puerto Maldonado, its 250-mile (400 kilometer) radius covers only a fraction of Peru’s airspace.
And that’s not enough, said retired air force Maj. Gen. Cesar Torres, who designed an 11-radar air defense canopy for Peru’s vast Amazon region before stepping down in 2013.
“One way of being able to corral and diminish drug trafficking’s speed and efficiency is to get control of the air space,” he said. “But the government has shown that it’s not interested.”
Investigative researcher Carlos Neyra in Lima, Peru, and Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.