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Mexico's drug lords look south

Recent arrests and cocaine seizures point to the cartels' growing presence in Peru.

March 25, 2009|Chris Kraul

LIMA, PERU — A recent surge in arrests and cocaine seizures in Peru points to an increased presence of Mexican drug cartels, counter-narcotics officials say.

The cartels have also contributed to more drug-related violence in Peruvian cities, ports and in remote valleys in this Andean country where coca, cocaine's base material, is grown, the officials say.

Peruvian claims of Mexican cartels expanding echo those by officials in other Latin American countries, from Honduras to Argentina, where Mexican gangs have supplanted once-powerful Colombian cartels as kings of the illicit-drug underworld.

In an interview last week, Peru's top anti-narcotics official, Gen. Miguel Hidalgo, said 32 suspected Mexican cartel members had been arrested in Peru in the last two years, compared with "almost no one" during the previous comparable period.

Four of the arrests occurred in September, when police seized 2.5 tons of cocaine hidden in rubber ship bumpers that were about to be sent to Mexico from Lima's port district.

Mexican cartels have also established themselves in other Peruvian ports to facilitate the shipment of cocaine, said top anti-drug prosecutor Sonia Medina. The northern port city of Paita, near Piura, is considered by authorities to be especially corrupt.

Several Mexicans were arrested and tried along with 20 others in connection with the 2006 assassination of Judge Hernan Saturno, who was bringing a case against members of the Juarez cartel. Saturno's killing is one of 16 cases since 2006 in which Mexican sicarios, or assassins, are thought to have been involved. Medina said paid Mexican killers are operating in Peru as enforcers for their bosses back home.

That Mexican drug lords are sending emissaries here is no surprise to Hidalgo in light of Peruvian and U.S. estimates that 80% of all Peruvian cocaine -- which accounts for roughly one-third of world production -- is shipped to Mexico.

The final destination could include European as well as U.S. drug users, he said.

Authorities say cocaine production in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, was estimated at 290 tons, double the United Nations estimate for 1999. About 135,000 acres were devoted to coca growing in Peru last year, said drug expert Jaime Antezana, up 40% from 1999.

Hidalgo said Peruvian armed forces seized 30.6 tons of cocaine in 2008.

Most of Peru's coca is grown and processed in the remote Huallaga and Apurimac-Ene valleys. Those areas have seen a resurgence in recent years of the left-wing rebel group Shining Path, which was largely vanquished by the Peruvian government's anti-terrorism campaign of the 1990s.

Now, Antezana says, the Shining Path has resurfaced in two factions -- each small, but growing, cocaine-trafficking groups.

He called the factions mini-FARCs, a reference to Colombia's largest rebel army, which also finances its armed campaign with drug profits.

The rebels remain minor players, with no more than 1,000 fighters, intelligence officials say. But Antezana and others fear that drug profits could fuel their growth.

To make matters worse, said Medina, a Korean Chinese gang known as Red Dragon has also landed in Peru, allegedly trafficking in drugs as well as humans trying to reach the United States.

"Sadly," Medina said, "I must recognize that narco-trafficking is on the rise in Peru."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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