Authorities in Peru Feb. 4 announced the declaration of a no-fly zone over the conflicted coca-producing region known as the VRAEM, for the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers, in the country’s southeast jungles. The head of Peru’s anti-drug agency DEVIDA, Alberto Otarola (a former defense minister), spoke in blunt terms at a Lima press conference: “Any flight that is not reported to the aviation authority will be considered hostile and illegal. Peru must exercise the full sovereignty and jurisdiction of its airspace.”
As Reuters notes, this was a barely veiled swipe at Bolivia, which is believed to be the destination for most coca exported from the VRAEM. Peru’s government has long charged that leaf and paste is flown to Bolivia from clandestine airstrips in the VRAEM to be refined into cocaine and re-exported through Brazil to U.S. and European markets.
According to official figures, Peru produced 150 to 180 tons of cocaine last year despite the eradication of 31,200 hectares of coca, and the destruction of numerous clandestine air-strips. However, accounts of the no-fly announcement did not note that eradication efforts have still not been extended to the VRAEM, in recognition of the sensitive political situation there. The jungle valley is one of the last strongholds of the Sendero Luminoso rebels, and the government clearly fears fueling the insurgency by angering the peasants with eradication efforts.
Peru had a policy of shooting down suspected drug flights planes in the ’90s, a program carried out by the Peruvian air force with the aid of CIA-contracted surveillance flights. The program came to an end amid a public outcry in 2001 after a Cessna flying Christian missionaries was accidentally shot down in the northern Amazon near Iquitos, leaving a young missionary and her baby dead. The move to revive the shoot-down policy will have to be approved by Peru’s Congress, which is scheduled to vote on the proposal in March—although this time authorities say it will be confined to the VRAEM.
The US evidently to again be a party to the new shoot-down program. Back in November, President Ollanta Humala told reporters: “We are holding talks with the United States to work together in what is intended to become a real interdiction program… During prior administrations, agreements were signed to reject air interdiction due the accident. With the US government we are precisely reviewing these agreements, so we can become more efficient in the war against drug trafficking.”