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South America: The Selectively Remembered Continent

Gambini supporters gather in support for his 2014 Ucayali gubernatorial campaign. Frank Bajak, Associated Press
Gambini supporters gather in support for his 2014 Ucayali gubernatorial campaign. Source: Frank Bajak/AP

Post Fujimorismo Whiplash. It is a phrase that might describe the current state of affairs in Peru over a decade after the removal of authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori, who went to extremes to combat narcotics such as engaging in the systematic elimination of citizens associated with the narcotics industry and the Shining Path, a Maoist terror group that operated it. These activities would be used to later indict him before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. Yet Peruvian gubernatorial candidate for the Ucayali region, Manuel Gambini—lauded as a “dynamic new partner” by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—was only recently accused of drug trafficking and money laundering on October 4th, demonstrating a profound resurgence of drug cartel activity in the country years after Fujimori’s departure. This is indicative of a new front of the “war on drugs” that America can no longer neglect.

There is a reason that Michael Reid coined the term “Forgotten Continent” for South America, and there is a reason that the term stuck. While U.S. intervention once aggressively combated drugs by forming local partnerships with governments, promoting clean politics, and providing or withdrawing support for programs depending on democratic reform and the implementation of enhanced security measures, the military efforts and aid packages provided have come to an impasse. Peru has responded to this trend by once again falling into a routine of collusion and a resurgence of Shining Path activity.

Understanding Peru’s historical relationship with drug activity provides important insight into the scope of drug collusion in Peru, and the U.S. role in abetting—and, often unintentionally and inadvertently aiding—cartel activity. In 1992, international journalist Stephen G. Trujillo authored a piece for the New York Times analyzing the government crackdown on the Shining Path, an internationally recognized, Maoist terrorist group notorious for cocaine smuggling. He recognized that much of the instability and violence instigated by the Shining Path was exacerbated by the fact that the government had little control over the military, and that top ranking military officials often collaborated with cocaine traffickers or let them continue operations without serious repercussions, often under the belief that cocaine posed only a minor threat to national security. Drug police were also corrupted by profits from cocaine sales at this time, leading to a narco-military complex aggravated by government violence against the Shining Path, including the military death squads that later became key evidence in the case against Alberto Fujimori for crimes against humanity. A crackdown on democratic entities under the guise of ensuring civil order and restoring democracy shortly thereafter also characterized this oppressive period of Peruvian history.

However, after the 1992 capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán, much of this direct military and political intervention ceased. This may have been largely positive; indeed, much of the U.S. aid to the Peruvian military to crack down on the Shining Path had instead been redirected to traffickers due to military collusion with narcotics. Yet the decline of the Shining Path also led to a general decline in U.S. interest in Peru’s democratic reform. This has gravely hurt Peru. In 2009, 14 government soldiers were murdered in a resurgence of violent Shining Path activity. On September 4th, 7.6 tons of cocaine were discovered inside lumps of coal and stored within a Peruvian warehouse, intended to be shipped to Spain and Belgium, where drugs sell at higher prices than on the U.S narcotics market. Furthermore, this stash was managed by Lee “El Duro” Rodriguez, a Mexican drug trafficker working remotely in Peru. This suggests a rapid globalization of the illicit drug industry and demands international attention and concern.

For years, the U.S has provided aid to South American countries like Peru to eradicate drugs, often combining narcotics elimination strategies with greater development packages. Farmers have been encouraged to replace the production of the coca plant, used as a raw ingredient with cocaine, with cocoa production. Moreover, development caravans have partnered with the Peruvian military on the community level to engage in local support and provide healthcare, education services, and economic assistance to low income, rural, and indigenous groups. There is no doubt that Peru has been a beneficiary of these efforts. However, there is a lack of follow through on the aggressive action that was taken against the Shining Path and other Peruvian drug trafficking groups during the 1980s and 90s.

For example, one current USAID “alternative development” program seeks to encourage communities historically captured by narco-interests to find new outlets for economic activity. According to one report, in 2012, nearly 47,000 of coca crops in Huáncao, San Martín, and Ucayali, Peru—where Gambini launched his gubernatorial bid—were replanted with oil palm, coffee, and cacao, leading to reduced drug cultivation in the region. These are laudable developments. But they address only the narcotics supply issue, and thus miss both the issues of international demand that drives production, and the effect the drug trade has had on the political sphere.

Amidst reports of scenarios like that of gubernatorial candidate Gambini, we are faced with a humbling reminder that following through on multilateral aid programs is crucial to ensure that drug reduction continues. This follow through cannot exclude government reform and accountability and the potential use of foreign aid as a carrot to encourage clean elections and politics unsullied by trafficking gangs. It also includes tackling demand in the U.S., where insatiable appetites for drugs continue to fuel human rights abuses, gang violence, and poverty in the remote areas where drug kingpins control government affairs and economic development, at the expense of social stability and high human cost. The United States’ southern neighbors have the potential to significantly impact international politics as drugs continue to go global. Peru’s future again grows cloudy, but one thing has become increasingly clear: we cannot afford to selectively remember Peru for long.

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