Cocaine’s Flight

On Friday October 18th, Dirandro agents found a Cessna aircraft in a clandestine runway.

Romina Mella.- [Versión en español]

Peru is a cocaine mega-producer. Alongside Colombia (with Bolivia in a distant third place), they export almost all of the cocaine the world consumes.

As the amount of Peruvian cocaine keeps growing, the swift changes in methods of exportation have gone by mostly unnoticed.

Cocaine flights are back. Light aircraft are entering Peruvian territory with increasing frequency, landing in rustic jungle camps, loading and promptly taking off with drug loads… usually of around three hundred and fifty kilos (772 pounds).

So far, it has been a fairly safe business for traffickers. During the last few months, the only two light aircraft ‘captured’ by the Peruvian National Police (PNP) had been in fact abandoned by the drug traffickers because of landing mishaps.

The early morning rough purring of the aircraft as they take off with their loads, bring back memories of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, a time when a lively air bridge between Peru exported cocaine paste from Peruvian jungles to be refined into cocaine in Colombian labs.

At that time, Peru’s coca fields reached a staggering 130 thousand hectares. The air bridge was made out of dozens of flights a week from the Huallaga and the VRAE (the valley formed by the rivers Apurímac and Ene, for its acronym in Spanish) valleys to Colombia. It was a vertically integrated and stratified business with clear Colombian control and dominance.

All that changed when Peru and the United States enforced a tough aerial interdiction in the second half of the 90s. After shooting down many Colombian aircraft, the aerial network was destroyed; the price of cocaine, coca paste and coca leaf collapsed; and this brought about the reduction of almost a hundred thousand hectares of coca.

By the end of 1990s, cocaine trafficking in Peru was making a literally slow recovery. Drugs from coca production valleys were exported out of the production areas first by porters and beasts of burden.  A few years afterwards specially fitted cars and pickup trucks became more widely used.

A few months ago this year, however, cocaine flights returned in force to the Peruvian jungle. At first from the Pichis Palcazú jungle area and then right from the heart of the VRAE, the number of flights have been growing at an epidemic rate.

But no longer to Colombia, like in the 80s, but rather towards the South, to Bolivia.

In 2012, Pichis Palcazú became a commercial center for cocaine stemming from the VRAE and Huallaga. From the outskirts of Ciudad Constitución an increasing traffic of light aircraft took off, mainly to Bolivia and also to Brazil.

Clandestine runway in Ciudad Constitución, Pichis Palcazú.

Clandestine runway in Ciudad Constitución, Pichis Palcazú.

A percentage of drug families dedicated to production in the VRAE moved to Bolivia’s cattle areas, to set up cocaine labs, to chlorinate the cocaine base, as chemical precursors are cheaper and more accessible there.

In the last few months, the air drug trafficking grew stronger. Cocaine shipments were moved in a Bolivian light aircraft, 3 to 4 times a day.

“Between May and December 2012, 59 light aircraft took off from Ciudad Constitución, each one loaded with an average of 300 kilos of drugs. That meant an aerial export of 17,7 tons of cocaine. This year, 58 light aircraft (17,4 tons of cocaine) were detected in the same area just during the first four months of the year,” IDL-Reporteros revealed in “The return of the ‘drug flights,’ last July.

At that time, Peru’s drug enforcement agency (Dirandro, for its acronym in Spanish) developed an extensive operation in Pichis Palcazú, cratering with explosives almost all the clandestine runways.

Dirandro agents destroying clandestine airstrips in Pichis Palcazú.

Dirandro agents destroying clandestine airstrips in Pichis Palcazú.

It was the same approach used at the beginning of the 80s and it failed just as quickly.

The drug dealers rebuilt the majority of the landing strips in a short amount of time: Police blew up 57 airstrips, 15 were repaired, and 10 new runways were built.

They did not need more because something else was rapidly developing. The beginning of the ‘drug flights’ from the VRAE to Bolivia.

Until this year the most common way of smuggling the drugs out of the VRAE was through loading trucks and pickups. The latter, especially the Toyota Hilux models, were an effective façade given that they are the kind of vehicles used by construction and mining companies in the area.

From rustic backpackers, the smugglers evolved into drivers and now, in a very short period of time, into pilots. There are approximately 40 clandestine runways in the Valley although only around 15 or 20 are active, according to information supplied by various sources to IDL-Reporteros.

Cocaine loads smuggled in a four door pickup.

Cocaine loads smuggled in a four door pickup.

The weather this time of year has allowed for the creation of natural runways, small islets, on the Ene River’s shores. In spite of the geography’s complexities, compared to Pichis Palcazú’s rather level terrain, the Bolivian pilots – novices, mainly – manage to land with ease.

The landing strips are in the main cocaine production areas, located in Llochegua, Santa Rosa, Pangoa, Sivia, Corazón Pata, San Francisco, Cutivireni, Canaire, Puerto Cocos, and Mayapo. These last three locations register the highest volume of air traffic.

On Friday 18th, for example, Dirandro agents found a light Bolivian aircraft in a clandestine runway in Puerto Cocos. The aircraft had had a landing accident – the front wheel snapped – and the drug dealers quickly abandoned it. The agents arrived once the crew had already fled.

A week beforehand, in the same airstrip, officers found sacks loaded with 143 kilos of cocaine ready to be dispatched at the aircraft’s arrival.

Last Friday, Police agents found a Cessna aircraft (license plate CP 2782) in Puerto Cocos.

Last Friday, Police agents found a Cessna aircraft (license plate CP 2782) in Puerto Cocos.

In addition to the pilot, there usually is a man “in charge” of the drugs. A very common payment procedure is the so-called “under the wing” method, which consists of the man in charge being paid on delivery.

The costs of renting an aircraft oscillate between $20 thousand and $30 thousand per flight, while the price for use of the runway varies between $10 thousand and $20 thousand. The airstrips are used, at most, two or three times in a row by a clan. After this, the landing strip’s location is changed in order to avoid detection, according to what a source told IDL-Reporteros. “As a safety measure, just when they are arriving at the VRAE they do decide where to land. They rely on UHF radios to communicate.

The return flight from the VRAE to Bolivia takes an average of 5 hours. It is shorter when compared to the Bolivia – Pichis Palcazú journey; however, it is more expensive given the bribes drug dealers must on occasion pay the Shining Path and/or corrupt members of the security forces.

The average number of flights, as of this writing, is 3 to 4 per day. The aircraft take off very early, between 6 and 8 am, even though on occasion there are flights after 10 am.

Considering that, every day, three or four planes take off, each loaded with 350 kilos of cocaine, it is estimated that the VRAE exports 1.2 tons of drugs each day by air. In conservative estimates, this adds up to 7.2 tons a week and 28.8 tons a month. The annual projection is 345 tons of cocaine exported by air from the VRAE. It is important to understand, however, that this is a recent problem. (*)

In fact, the demand for cocaine has increased in the VRAE. The surge in price for cocaine base (PBL, for its acronym in Spanish), which is basically what is exported from the VRAE to Bolivia, is proof of this. PBL, which last year cost around $600 to $800 per kilo in the production zones, now fluctuates between $900 and $1000. The cost of cocaine hydrochloride, on the other hand, hasn’t varied significantly. The current value fluctuates between $1000 and $1200, very similar to last year’s price per kilo, which was around $950 to $1100.

The security aspect is much more worrisome. The dozens of aircraft loaded with cocaine flying over the Valley land, take off and fly very close to military or Police bases, in what is one of Peru’s most militarized zones.

"The dozens of aircraft loaded with cocaine flying over the Valley land, take off and fly very close to military or Police bases, in what is one of Peru’s most militarized zones."

In Esmeralda Valley there’s a combined-forces garrison from which everything is visible. The post is high up and strategically placed. […]. That’s where the planes fly past. Every day helicopters fly over while government agents are all over around the VRAE. (…) It is not new for people to see the planes take off…” a source informed IDL-Reporteros.

There is a total lack of control of the airspace over the VRAE. It is as if the aerial interdiction had never existed. The runways’ locations are known, but no radar system or air surveillance detects incoming or outgoing drug flights.

There’s no radar. We don’t /monitor our airspace. The FAP (Peruvian Air Force, in its Spanish acronym) doesn’t have the operational capacity to be able to do interdiction,” a military source said.

While the Armed Forces and the Police put up with the embarrassing drug flights buzzing around their heads, the government, instead of addressing this huge security gap, has announced the start of a coca eradication program in the VRAE. Which means attacking the usually poor cocalero peasants and leaving the drug traffickers, untouched, so as to make sure that no mistakes are left unmade♦

(*) This article incorrectly stated that the VRAE exported an average of 1.2 tons of cocaine a week by air. As corrected in the current version, this amount corresponds to daily flights rather than weekly ones. IDL-Reporteros regrets the error and expresses its apologies to its readers.

Publicado el viernes 25 de octubre, 2013 a las 22:05 | RSS 2.0.
Última actualización el lunes 08 de septiembre, 2014 a las 17:44

3 comentarios

  1. hermin piedra dice:


  2. Juan Vasquez Gorio dice:

    Es lo de siempre en la zona , nadie ve nada y no se hace nada , es nuestra realidad la cual debería cambiar.

  3. jorge m dice:

    Sres. Cocaina y otras drogas seran prontamente reemplazadas por drogas fatales fabricadas en pequenios laboratorios quimicos. Estas drogas destruyen la mente y el cuerpo humano muy rapidamente y son las drogas que la juventud esta tomando e inyectandose. Cocaina pasara a la historia,,,,las nuevas drogas son baratas y de facil acceso…Estamos yendo por un camino de autodestruccion. Con amor y educacion en el hogar en el colegio, cuidemos a nuestra juventud.

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