Peru: protests over militarization of coca zone

Peru's coca-producing Apurímac-Ene River Valley (VRAE), where a remnant faction of the Shining Path remains active, has seen growing protests over militarization and abuses by the security forces. On May 21, Fedia Castro, mayor of La Convención province (Cusco region), led a "March for Peace and Dignity" at the provincial seat of Quillabamba, to demand justice in a recent incident that left nine local residents wounded by army gunfire—including four women and a one-year-old infant. In the May 6 incident at Kepashiato village, army troops opened fire on a combi (commercial minibus) filled with local campesinos. The army says gunfire first came from the combi, and that a G3 assault rifle was later found on board. The passengers—including the wounded driver and owner of the vehicle, Rómulo Almirón Fuentes—deny that any firearm was found, challenging the army to produce it. They are also demanding compensation, including for damage to the combi. (Enlace Nacional, May 21; RPP, May 9; El Comercio, May 6)

The army's version of the incident is backed up by Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano, but flatly rejected by Castro, who also charges that army troops failed to inform local authorities that they had established the checkpoint. Castro says the combi was hit with some 150 bullets as a patrol of 18 troops from the army's 33rd Brigade fired on the vehicle.  She protests that peaceful peasants are being tarred as "terrorists" to cover up for the army's error. An official statement from the armed forces Joint Command says the passengers included "DDTT" (terrorist delinquents), the military's official designation for the remnant Shining Path forces in the zone.

Combi owner Almirón denies any link to the guerillas, calling himself a "humble campesino." Another wounded the attack, Saturnino Pozo, said, "I'm not a coca-grower, but a coffee-grower."  (Yo no soy cocalero, sino cafetalero.) The victims have requested an audience with Cateriano or President Ollanta Humala to discuss the matter.

Cusco representative Hernán La Torre has pledged to open a congressional investigation into the incident if the Defense Ministry remains intransigent. He notes that while one of the combi's passengers, José Astur, had once been investigated for "terrorist" ties, he had been cleared by the Fiscalía, the attorney general's office. None of the passengers were wanted on any legal charges. "The Defense Ministry wants to discredit the passengers, in a hurry to minimize the actions of the patrol," he said. 

Kepashiato (Ozonampiato sector, Echarate district), on the edge of the lowland jungles, is in the most conflicted part of La Convención province. All of La Convención has been under a state of emergency for more than a year. (Diario16, May 12; La Primera, May 11; La Primera, El Comercio, May 10; Perú21, May 9; La Primera, May 7; El Comercio, May 6)

The Cielo Punko case
Controversy also surrounds an incident last Oct. 13 at Cielo Punko, another community near Kepashiato, where Michel Civiris Damián, a special anti-drug intelligence officer with the National Police, was killed in a supposed firefight with the guerillas. Civiris was part of a 20-strong police patrol sent to raid a drug lab reportedly run by local Sendero Luminoso commander "Gabriel" when they supposedly came under fire from senderistas. But an investigation by INFOS news agency determines that the bullets that killed Civris and fellow officer Henry Santa Cruz were from a hunting rifle of the kind used by the local Asháninka indigenous people, not a Galil or AK-47 of the kind used by Sendero. Documents and video reviewed by INFOS also indicate that the two dead and one injured were not evacuated by the National Police but by the "Serenazgo" of Kimbiri district, an unarmed municipal patrol—apparently, another case of the national security forces abandoning their own casualties in the VRAE. Civiris' family is demanding a full accounting of the case. (La Republica, May 19)

Populace criminalized
Authorities say an annual 400 metric tons of coca paste passes through the VRAE, bound for Brazil and Bolivia, where traffickers pay $4,000 per kilo. Local youth are employed as cargachos or mochileros to back-pack the stuff through the jungle to Kiteni, where the local airstrip is apparently used to ferry the illicit cargo to the border, deep in the jungle. The trade is supposedly overseen by the notorious brothers Víctor, Jorge and Martín Quispe Palomino, known as comrades "José," "Raúl" and "Gabriel" of the zone's Shining Path column.  

Mayor Castro on May 8 pleaded the innocence of a young man arrested by army troops near Kepashiato, accused of being a courier for the senderistas,  saying he is known in the community as a campesino. She charged that the local populace is being "satanized as terrorists," and that the state of emergency allows impunity by the security forces. "They are humble citizens, campesinos whose rights are being violated," she said. "I am sure that if the state of emergency is lifted, we can demonstrate that we are a peaceful province." (La Republica, May 12; RPP, May 8)

Clashes in Upper Huallaga
Tensions are also high in the Upper Huallaga Valley, a second pocket of coca production and remnant Sendero activity to the north of the VRAE. On May 6, National Police troops took control of Ciudad Constitución, Pasco region, a town on the edge of the Huallaga Valley, after days of clashes with local campesinos. Police said a detachment of the Anti-drug Operations Division was attacked the night of April 30 by hundreds of armed cocaleros and their supporters, who fired on their camp under cover of darkness. Three officers were reported wounded. Mayor Moisés Acuña Gómez protested the police occupation of the town, and called on the government to suspend its coca eradication program in the Upper Huallaga, which he said only fueled violence. (Correo, May 6)