Coca's Shining Path

September 25, 2007

of Barranca is in the village square, along with resi-
dents of 15 other towns visited by the column of Sen-
dero Luminoso guerrillas. "Don't worry," the man in
charge says. "No more injustices will be committed
here....That L6pez will get his due." The villagers have
just finished explaining that "Tito" L6pez, the valley's
principal coca producer, pays his workers poorly and
sponsors the worst sort of abuse.
L6pez is not at home, but the senderistas are in no
hurry. They spend the afternoon giving the usual
speeches to the crowd, explaining how and why they
must organize, how they should behave, and why the
party has taken up armed struggle. At eight in the eve-
ning, L6pez is apprehended as he arrives at his farm. He
is brought to the plaza, where he is interrogated in front
of the crowd: How much land do you have? To whom do
you sell your crop? How much do you pay your work-
The people listen in silence, interrupting several times
with applause. The final verdict is not surprising: L6pez
must be put to death. Ten senderistas take him to an
open field and oblige him to get down on his knees. He
exhorts, cries and begs, but it is useless. Until it occurs
to him to offer something in return: "I'm more useful to
you alive than dead." The senderistas exchange glances,
then the head of the column warns him that any trickery
will bring him death.
L6pez offers shoes, boots, pants, food, money...all
the money they need. The deal is made. They give him a
pick-up and send him off to the town of Picota to buy
what he has promised. The money will be paid the next
day: the price for staying alive.
The senderistas vow to return to make sure that L6pez
keeps his commitment to raise the pay of his workers
and to not allow any abuse or extortion. And from that
day on, that is what they do, nearly every week.
of the Amazon is a bastion of Sendero Luminoso,
the country's largest guerrilla movement, known for its
ruthlessness.' Settlers arrived in the region in large num-
bers in the 1960s when the government offered credit,
services and roads, promises on which it never made
good [see "El Dorado Gone Awry"]. Left on their own,
the settlers opted for an easy solution: They planted
coca, which in the Huallaga grows easily and abun-
dantly. Not coincidentally, the cocaine industry took off
at the same time. Everything began to change: The coca
buyers who flew in from Colombia wanted restaurants,
cars, discotheques, brothels...and workers. Towns sprang
Guerrillas proliferate in Peru's Huallaga Valley
22 REPORT ON THE AMERICASup, banks set up branch offices to change the dollars
brought by Colombian traffickers into national currency,
intis, in which all of the operations linked to coca pro-
duction are carried out.
The Upper Huallaga did not remain Peru's El Dorado
for long. In 1978 the military regime of Gen. Francisco
Morales Bermfidez decided to prohibit coca cultivation
and ordered that coca growers be prosecuted. Residents
had to face continual attacks from a specialized anti-
drug police force on the one hand, and the traffickers'
bands of hired guns, known as sicarios, on the other.
The sicarios set out to ensure that the producers would
continue growing coca as before. Because coca buyers
generally advance money well ahead of the harvest,
farmers are obliged to defend their crop from the police
if they wish to avoid reprisals against themselves or their
The level of violence in the region became incredibly
high. Contrary to what one might think, it was not the
police who set off the spiral of violence. Simple bribery
and lack of resources quickly neutralized them. It was
rather the bands of sicarios who tell the farmers how
many kilos of coca they have to sell, who mercilessly do
away with intransigent or ambitious officials, who ap-
pear at any place and any time to settle scores.
tion and the violence of the sicarios were members
of one of the factions of the Revolutionary Left Move-
ment (MIR), who worked among the coca and corn
producers of the region of Tarapoto to organize Defense
Committees. Their slogan: iCoca o muerte! iVencere-
mos! From 1978 to the end of 1982 they encountered
few obstacles, since the Committees responded to a real
need, even though the farmers did not share the MIR's
politics. Needless to say, the traffickers were not at all
pleased with the prospect of collective bargaining in the
coca fields. And the war was on.
The MIR's work was sharpened by a radical group of
leftist militants who broke away from the Revolutionary
Socialist Party. Both organizations took part in the for-
mation of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement
(MRTA), which took up arms in 1983.2 A year later, the
Peruvian government stepped up operations to eradicate
coca cultivation, driving the producers to seek protec-
tion from the MRTA and, in another part of the valley,
from Sendero Luminoso.
that Sendero's presence in the Huallaga dates from
1980 when a group of migrants from Ayacucho began
the slow and patient organizing that led in a few short
years to Sendero's domination of the region. Others
claim Sendero arrived in 1982, when they realized that
the MRTA had converted the Huallaga into its primary
base of operations.
Sendero first set about organizing in the areas un-
touched by the MRTA, such as the territory between
Tingo Maria and Tocache. Their military prowess im-
pressed the farmers: Lucas Cachay, president of the San
Martin Defense Front, explains, "The narcos often claim
that the price of coca is low because of overproduction.
They [the farmers] know that's not true, but they have
no one to protect them. That is what Sendero offers:
protection. Besides, in this region, since there is a lot of
money, there is alcohol, partying, violence....Sendero
puts an end to all that and puts everyone to work. And
they close the discotheques, the brothels, they kill the
homosexuals and they send the prostitutes packing."
Later Sendero infiltrated the zone where the MRTA
wielded influence, questioning the leadership of the ex-
isting committees and accusing them of having cut deals
with the traffickers on the price of coca-a very believ-
able charge. Sendero could count on all the support they
needed from the drug traffickers, since their real purpose
was to destroy the MRTA-influenced organizations.
According to one government official, "It is true that the
narcos attacked the producers' organizations, but that
was only in the beginning. Later on they reached some
accord with the leaders, and even gave them guns. Once
Sendero became strong enough, they [Sendero] turned
on the traffickers and claimed the right to fix the price of
coca." When the traffickers caught on to Sendero's
game, they began to back the MRTA-sponsored organi-
zations in some areas, while in others they allowed Sen-
dero to move in to keep the police at bay.
By the end of 1986, Sendero was moving freely in
and out of towns in groups of no less than 30 heavily
armed men, calling out the residents to hear their ha-
rangues, judging the local authorities, in some cases
killing sicarios, and finally "electing" leaders.
through 1986, MRTA leaders believed they had
achieved total and absolute control in their zone. They
then called out five to ten young men from each town for
military training. More than 100 volunteered, but the
guerrillas lacked sufficient arms and trainers to prepare
them all for battle. After much discussion, it is believed
they requested assistance from Colombia's M-19 guer-
rillas, who apparently provided it. In March 1987, some
of those who received training were sent to attack the
town of Tocache, where Sendero had begun to make its
presence felt.
The MRTA detachment carried automatic rifles and
were armed to the teeth. Nevertheless, Sendero knew
what was in the wind and had reached an agreement
with the local narcos to keep the city from being taken.
Dozens of sicarios and senderistas ambushed the MRTA
on the outskirts of the town. Residents give conflicting
accounts of how many tupacamaristas were killed, but
the numbers fluctuate between 40 and 60. The MRTA
column retreated, and over the next few days Sendero
pursued them to liquidate them. From that moment on,
Sendero was free to do whatever it wished in the Hual-
In April 1987 Sendero began to take control of each
town, evicting the police from wherever they were sta-
tioned working with the narcos to wipe out all vestiges
of "official" authority. They literally began to govern a
zone which in the strictest sense of the word was "liber-
ated." What is more, they turned on their erstwhile al-
lies, the narcos, and insisted they dissolve the gangs of
sicarios which had run roughshod over the zone. This
won for Sendero the residents' appreciation and left the
group virtually unchallenged as the de facto government
of the Huallaga Valley.
Then on July 15, the government stepped in with a
series of operations led by the anti-drug police. Sendero
and the traffickers were forced to flee or fade into the
population. The remains of the MRTA guerrillas were
sitting ducks, and they received the brunt of the police's
fury. When the operations were finished at the end of the
year, and the extra contingents of police returned to
Lima, the zones that had been MRTA-influenced were
wide open for Sendero, as was the rest of the valley.
Juanjuf and Tarapoto tells us not to worry. "The
cumpas won't attack us. They're hidden among the
people and you won't find them." The conversation con-
tinues and the more the driver talks the less he seems
Coca's Shining Path
1. Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path") is one of several organi-
zations which proclaim themselves to be the true "Communist
Party of Peru." It separated from the original communist party as a
result of the Chinese-Soviet split in the 1960s. While proclaiming
itself to be the authentic carrier of the banner of orthodox Maoism,
Sendero maintains that it is the founder of a fourth stage of Marx-
ism: "the thought of Gonzalo," the name of Sendero's undisputed
and undiscussed leader. They took up arms on May 17, 1980.
2. The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement is made up of
several small factions of the United Left (IU) coalition. They claim
they plan to constitute the armed wing of that coalition once the
current democratic conditions end, as they expect will happen.

Tags: Coca, Peru, Shining Path, drug trade, US drug war

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