Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Security Challenges in Peru

Reading Time: 10 minutesThe next president faces a spike in crime, the return of drug trafficking and social turmoil.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

*Homepage photo courtesy of Jorge Andrade

While Peru has continued to grow at high rates over the past four years during the second Alan García presidency, public safety conditions have deteriorated. Drug trafficking has spread, the military offensive to defeat remnants of the country’s guerrilla movements has failed, urban safety has deteriorated, and social conflicts have become increasingly more violent.

The new administration, which will be sworn in on July 28, 2011, and govern the country until 2016, will have public safety as one of its greatest challenges. If this challenge is not met, Peru’s economic and democratic gains could be in jeopardy.

Security and public safety are now high on Peru’s national agenda. This is in part explained by the country’s economic success. But other factors are also at work. Peru has now surpassed Colombia as the world’s leading cocaine exporter. This is not because it produces more, but because Peruvian authorities have been able to intercept only a fraction of the country’s drug trade.

Military offensives in 2008 and 2009 in the Apurimac and Ene Rivers Valley (VRAE), the two main coca-growing areas, were dismal failures. These valleys also serve as havens for Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgents who, in turn, provide protection to drug traffickers. At least 50 security force members lost their lives, while no terrorists were killed in combat or arrested. In a similarly tragic outcome, a 2009 police raid in Bagua—intended to lift roadblocks manned for nearly two months by indigenous organizations opposing the opening up of lands for natural resource exploitation—resulted in the deaths of 10 indigenous persons and 24 police, and the subsequent resignation of Yehude Simon as the president of Peru’s Council of Ministers.

Meanwhile, public opinion polls register a growing perception that urban safety is deteriorating, exacerbated by media organizations sympathetic to former president Alberto Fujimori (now serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations during the civil war against Sendero) who have magnified public safety issues to promote the candidacy of his daughter Keiko in the April 2011 presidential election.

Drug Trafficking On the Rise

Drug trafficking has spread significantly in recent years. Several indicators point to this fact. Since 2000, the land area dedicated to coca crops has increased 38 percent. In spite of this increase, levels are still far below those seen during most of the 1990s. Although the figure steadily decreased between 1992 and 1999, from 296,526 to 96,371 acres (120,000 to 39,000 hectares), at the close of the decade it had climbed back to 148,263 acres (60,000 hectares).

What is most worrisome is that this has coincided with a 28 percent reduction globally in coca-growing areas, largely attributable to a 58 percent reduction in Colombia—the world’s largest producer of coca leaf—to 168,031 acres (68,000 hectares) in 2009. At the same time, the potential production of cocaine in Peru rose from 141 metric tons (MT) in 2000 to 302 MT in 2008, while Colombia’s decreased from 665 MT to 450 MT. As a result, Peru has increased its potential production of cocaine by nearly 115 percent while Colombia has seen a 32 percent drop. Today Colombia continues to be the world’s leading producer, but Peru is becoming the top exporter.

These numbers not only show disturbing production trends, but also demonstrate how ineffective the police have been. It is true that Peru did not receive the amount of cooperation that its neighbor to the north did through Plan Colombia. However, other indicators point to a lack of political will to tackle the problem.

Daily, thousands of liters of chemicals used in cocaine manufacturing enter the coca-growing valleys without any controls. Plans have existed for years to develop mobile checkpoints along major transit routes in those areas to prevent this from happening. But so far no such checkpoints have been purchased.

The institutions in charge of preventing the illegal diversion of these chemicals have not been able to agree on a computer system to track the movement of these components throughout the country. Furthermore, the justice department has not obtained any convictions in the hundreds of suspicious transactions cases reported by the Financial Intelligence Unit, totaling $3.46 million, 80 percent of which allegedly came from drug trafficking. This unit, created in 2002 and tied to the Banking and Insurance Authority, is responsible for prevention and detection of money laundering and financing of terrorist activity.

Today, Mexican cartels are responsible for purchasing cocaine from dozens of small local clans operating in a fragmented market. Mexicans are responsible for exporting the drug through the Pacific ports to consumer markets in the United States and Europe. Part of the Peruvian production has also been going to the Southern Cone and Brazil.

The growth in drug trafficking has been accompanied by an increase in killings by sicarios (hired assassins). In Lima, for example, such killings increased between 2005 and 2008 by over 50 percent. Although the public attributes the growth in crime to increased drug use, the rise in production of cocaine-related drugs in the country has not led to a significant increase in consumption.

Persistence of Armed Insurgency

When Sendero Luminoso was strategically defeated in 1992, what was left of its army withdrew into the wild, inhospitable and inaccessible regions of the VRAE and Huallaga. The insurgency remains largely ineffective, with only sporadic military action to counter the actions of security forces against illicit crop cultivation and drug trafficking. Today Sendero has two brigades: one comprising 60 men in the Huallaga and another comprising 500 fighters in the VRAE. The two are divided politically: the former, following Abimael Guzmán—currently a prisoner at the naval base—favors a peace agreement, amnesty and inclusion in political life; the latter is holding out for a military victory.

In the Huallaga, Sendero has been reduced to its lowest point as a result of police action, crop eradication and alternative economic development initiatives. The greater relative strength of the group in VRAE is explained partly by the lack of government presence and a preference for military action at the expense of policing efforts. The 2008 and 2009 military  offensives were the largest of the decade after years of inaction. But the high casualties and lack of results brought them to a halt. Thus, although the VRAE force is geographically isolated, it remains a serious threat.

Deteriorating Urban Safety

This deterioration in public safety has occurred during a period that has seen rapid economic growth, poverty reduction and even a slight decrease in inequality. Paradoxically, the cities that benefited the most from this growth were those with reputations for being unsafe due to high crime rates.

At the same time, the police, far from growing stronger, have continued to show a tendency toward weakness and retreat. On the one hand, they suffer from serious management problems, lack of transparency and corruption. On the other hand, police workplace rules have seriously undermined the public nature of policing. The “24-hours on and 24-hours off” policy allows officers to work for pay for third parties, in uniform, during their days off. In practice, the days they work for the police department become their rest days.

In recent years, opinion polls reflect the widespread perception that there has been a sustained increase in crime with an accompanying deterioration in urban safety. With few exceptions, police statistics reflect this deterioration.

But this needs to be examined more closely. The most serious deterioration has been in homicides. During the period 2000–2004, the national homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants was five, while in the last five years it rose to 11—an increase of 120 percent. The rate of homicides in Peru is far lower than the most violent countries in the region, but it is also true that it exceeds those of several countries, such as Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay, where rates have been below the global average of 8.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

Reported felony crimes between 2000 and 2004 stabilized at 600 per 100,000 inhabitants, only to dip 10 percent and then average 536 over the next five years. At least two-thirds of these complaints were for nonviolent property crimes, especially those committed in public. This trend is not reflected by reported stolen vehicles, which increased 50 percent between the first and the second half of the decade.

Perhaps this deterioration has to do with declining police recovery rates for stolen vehicles, which decreased from 62 percent in the first five years of the decade to 50 percent in the second. Also bucking the trend of lower reported felonies is the increase in bank and financial institution robberies, which, although low, has doubled from 13 to 27 between the first and the second half. The same is true for the expansion of extortion, especially in the last two years in northern coastal towns like Trujillo and Chiclayo.

Reported misdemeanors also showed an inverse relationship to felonies, having increased by 26 percent from 600 to 756 per 100,000 inhabitants. To a large extent, this is explained by the increase in domestic violence and gender-related violence complaints, which were first recorded by the police in 2000 and have since continued to grow exponentially.

In spite of all of this, urban violence and crime have not overwhelmed the country. There are five reasons why.

First, the increasing role of local governments, mainly through the emergence and development of civilian constabulary units (serenazgos), which have begun to fill the void left by the police in crime prevention. The first of these units surfaced in Lima in 1990; today, 38 of the capital’s 43 districts have them, as do almost all major cities in Peru. Starting in 2005, the number of serenazgos increased from just over 5,000 to 8,000 in Lima. At the national level, the number has grown from 10,000 to 15,000.

A second factor is the growth of neighborhood watch groups, with police encouragement, along with the adoption of self-protection measures by the citizenry, and the exponential growth of the private security sector. Two-thirds of Lima’s residents invest in private or community security measures, e.g. private security guards (50 percent), neighborhood patrol (33 percent) or gates and security bars  (28 percent). The police have organized around 16,000 neighborhood patrols, comprising more than 150,000 individuals. There are 509 registered private security companies, with nearly 88,000 employees. It is estimated that there are at least 35,000 additional agents in informal companies, not to mention informal vigilantes who work for hire, especially in low-income neighborhoods. These figures are not negligible when compared with the 107,000 police and the 15,000 local civilian constabularies.

A third factor corresponds to the growing attempts at coordinating public, private and community efforts by local public safety committees (inter-institutional bodies chaired by mayors with the purpose of diagnosing problems concerning safety, violence and crime). Currently, there is a National Council, 26 regional committees, 194 provincial committees, and 1,638 district committees.

Fourth, specialized police units in the investigation and prosecution of organized crime have been reinforced, which has provided at least some level of control over more sophisticated criminal activities.

Finally, the 29 percent increase in the nation’s prison population between the first and second halves of the decade has contributed to the fight against crime. This may reflect the progressive toughening of criminal laws, the greater propensity of judges to order incarceration and a more effective penal system.

Increases in Social Violence

Peru is a country beset by socioeconomic and environmental conflicts. The majority of these conflicts are associated with the opening of the economy in the 1990s to large extractive industries such as mining, gas and oil, and opposition from coca growers’ organizations to policies of crop eradication.

Other conflicts are the result of disputes between regions for control over resources; opposition to public investment and infrastructure projects by the national government in those regions; disputes over access to jobs in the construction industry; disputes over prices, taxes and agricultural tariffs; and finally, claims by citizens against local governments. These are compounded by a crisis in political representation. Political parties are not seen as appropriate tools to solve these problems peacefully.

Often, such conflicts result in protests that easily turn violent, with demonstrators resorting to actions such as property invasions and the blocking of local roads to draw the attention of the national government. While representing a recurring challenge to democratic governance over the past decade, these conflicts have also been a particular challenge for law enforcement officials responsible for maintaining and restoring public order. A handful of interior ministers, and even cabinet ministers, have had to leave office because of public safety crises.

Protests reached their highest point following the fall of the authoritarian regime of Fujimori and Montesinos, in late 2000, which had repressed popular mobilization. But since then the number of protest actions such as hunger strikes, roadblocks and strikes—particularly in the interior of the country—has declined. At the same time, though, they have become increasingly violent, due to the use of firearms by some protesters and the authorities’ inability to maintain control.

Indeed, civilian deaths in demonstrations rose steadily, from one in 2005 to 17 by 2009, while injuries increased from 120 in 2005 to 374 in 2008. At the same time, the number of wounded policemen also increased steadily, from 90 in 2005 to 597 in 2008. More significant is the rise in the number of police officers killed: one in 2007, two in 2008 and 25 in 2009, the latter during the Bagua incident mentioned above.

Securing Peru’s Security

Peru can solve its combined security and public safety problems. But it will require a coherent and comprehensive set of measures.

First, it is necessary to stop the expansion of land cultivated with coca to minimize the production of cocaine. Though current levels of coca leaf production are far from what they were in the 1990s, the steady increase in output over the past several years is still worrisome.

Moreover, the nation’s tools in the fight against drug trafficking need to be strengthened. The installation of mobile checkpoints at strategic locations in the coca-growing valleys and the establishment of an electronic control system for the transportation of chemicals used in the manufacture of cocaine can reduce the chances of illicit diversions. There should also be more determined fiscal and judicial investigations into the suspicious transactions identified in recent years by the Financial Intelligence Unit.

Authorities should focus on the strategic pursuit of crime—that is, on investigations meant not only to arrest those responsible for the production and export of drugs, but to identify the modus operandi of criminal organizations, their main components and especially their leadership. These efforts should include the identification of micro-marketing drug networks in the country. Finally, it is crucial to treat drug addiction as a serious public health problem and allocate resources to expand treatment options, which are currently very limited.

At the same time, the next administration must put an end to the remaining insurgencies. The lessons learned from defeating Sendero Luminoso in the early 1990s and the experience of the Alto Huallaga should be applied to a new strategy that combines military presence, intelligence initiatives, alliances with the local population, and economic and social development efforts.

Significant improvements in public safety can be achieved by reinforcing the coordinated efforts of public, private and non-governmental organizations in the prevention and prosecution of crime at the local level, with support from the central government. This implies strengthening the Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Ciudadana (National System for Citizen Safety), with the establishment of a monitoring unit to collect and analyze criminal information on a regular basis.

It also requires the establishment of a fund to finance local crime prevention initiatives. Jurisdictions of national institutions should be changed to coincide with political jurisdictions to enable them to participate more effectively in the design and implementation of local security policies. Mayors should also have expanded powers in their role as chairpersons of local public safety committees. Moreover, police and municipal governments should join forces under a single command (the police commissioner), with a single political control (the mayor). The serenazgos should be professionalized, and their operational, communication and education efforts should be coordinated.

Finally, an interministerial committee for early warning and conflict management should be established under the control of the chief of the Council of Ministers. The committee should be assigned a technical team that analyzes and collects relevant data and facilitates the prevention and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

All of these measures imply the reform and modernization of the Ministry of Interior and of the police. It is imperative for the ministry to have a stable team of security professionals, immune to constant political shifts, while the police must rethink workplace rules, strengthen criminal investigation capacity, modernize resource management, and develop mechanisms for transparency and accountability. Legislation that rewards merit and good conduct, and which promotes police professionalization and specialization, should also be explored. And there needs to be a re-evaluation of police deployment of manpower, which currently favors more affluent areas to the detriment of the poorest.

The administration entering office next July must have an action plan for the next five years that is clear, coherent and bold. The new president must exert leadership, and he should have the broadest political support necessary to ensure implementation and continuity. There is really no alternative. The current situation threatens to undermine the country’s already precarious political stability and ultimately restrain economic growth and frighten off the investments necessary to make that growth sustainable.

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