On the 17th of December this past year, a joint police and military operation commenced in the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (VRAEM) in which Peruvian forces launched multiple synchronized strikes against clandestine airfields used to smuggle an estimated 1.2 tons of cocaine per day. Four 30-man teams were reportedly launched from a base in Pichari to begin the process of disabling the illegal airfields with explosives, probably cratering charges in this case. The Peruvian troops were drawn from the police counter-terrorism directorate known as Dircote, a counter-narcotics units called Dirandro, and a Special Forces unit reported as being called FEC, however as Navy personnel are reported to be conducting the operation with law enforcement, it seems more likely that this unit was actually Fuerza de Operaciones Especiales which is more akin to America’s Navy SEALs.
Twenty of the narco-airstrips were destroyed during the course of the two day operation as well as a series of drug caches found near the airfields themselves. As can be seen in the pictures, the VRAEM region is riddled with these clandestine airfields. The flat river valley is surrounded by mountains, making it ideally suited for drug cartel and terrorist activities. Using demolitions to create craters in jungle airfields to prevent the planes from landing is a temporary measure at best because the holes can be quickly filled in by the drug traffickers, but this is one of the measures that Peruvian forces are not limited too. In the past, Peru had an air interdiction program but it was shut down after they shot down an airplane carrying US missionaries in 2001.
While Peruvian Special Operations and law enforcement operations in VRAEM limit drug trafficking operations, it seems clear that ground operations need to be combined with renewed air interdiction operations in order to be effective. Cooperation with nearby Brazil and Bolivia will also be critical to shutting down drug trafficking in the region. Until then, Peruvian troops may very well be fighting the tide with one arm tied behind their back. The successful VRAEM operations demonstrates the professionalism and commitment of Peru’s police officers and Special Operations soldiers, but a successful long term strategy needs to be hammered out, perhaps with US assistance in order to ensure that these efforts do not go to waste.