MAZAMARI, Peru (AP) — Peru's defense minister has announced an investigation into possible drug-related military corruption following an Associated Press report that Peru's armed forces were turning a blind eye to daily drug flights to Bolivia.
The official, Jakke Valakivi, said Wednesday evening that the Defense Ministry and the joint armed forces command would jointly conduct the probe.
Peru's armed forces have failed to effectively impede the ferrying of more than a ton of cocaine a day to Bolivia from the world's No. 1 coca-producing valley, traffic that has picked up in recent years, according to prosecutors, drug police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents.
In part because of that nearly unhindered air bridge from the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, Peru surpassed Colombia in 2012 as the world's top cocaine exporter.
Police say the airborne flow accounts for roughly half of Peru's production, with each planeload worth at least $7.2 million overseas.
Peru's congress voted unanimously in August to authorize shooting down the single-engine planes. But the government this year inexplicably scrapped plans to buy the required state-of-the-art radar, a $71 million expenditure it announced last November.
Prior to publication, the AP repeatedly requested interviews with Valakivi, the armed forces commander and air force officials to discuss the issue. While they did not respond, Deputy Defense Minister Ivan Vega, who runs counterinsurgency efforts in the river valley, said that he knew of no military officials under investigation.
"Corruption exists, but we are always looking out for it," he said. "If we know of anyone involved, we'll throw the book at them."
After a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Valakivi tersely announced the opening of the investigation and called the AP's report "tendentious."
Drug czar Alberto Otarola accused the AP of "irresponsibly offending Peru's image," in an interview published Thursday by the La Republica newspaper. He did not return phone calls from the AP.
The "narco planes" have touched down just minutes by air from military bases in the nearly road-less region known by its Spanish acronym as the VRAEM.
About four times a day, they drop onto dirt airstrips, deliver cash and pick up more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of partially refined cocaine, police say.
The AP obtained video of two such transactions taken by drug police who said they were too outgunned by assault rifle-wielding sentinels to intervene.
One accused narco-pilot interviewed by the AP said some local military commanders charge $10,000 per flight to let cocaine commerce go unhindered.
The chairman of the anti-corruption nonprofit group Transparency International, Jose Ugaz, said he hoped AP's investigation would spur debate in the upcoming presidential campaign. The election is in April.
Military drug corruption "has been going on for some time, but unfortunately no one has done anything," Ugaz said. It was rampant during the 1990-2000 government of disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori, whom Ugaz helped put in jail as public prosecutor.
President Ollanta Humala, a former army lieutenant colonel, said on taking office in 2011 that combatting illicit drugs was a priority. His government has destroyed record amounts of coca leaf.
But that's not enough, says Sonia Medina, the public prosecutor for illicit drugs.
Trafficking and related corruption in the police, military, courts and criminal justice system have gone "from bad to worse" on Humala's watch, she said. "What we are doing in counter-narcotics is completely distorted, incoherent and inert."
Most of Peru's cocaine production has merely shifted to the Ireland-sized VRAEM region, where there is no eradication.
The area has been under a state of emergency for nine years owing to the persistence of drug-running Shining Path rebels. They have slain more than 30 police and soldiers during Humala's tenure but are now much reduced, down to about 60 combatants.
The government says destroying coca in the region would cause a bloody backlash by fueling Shining Path recruitment.
Some 6,000 soldiers are stationed at more than 30 bases in the valley, ostensibly to battle "narcoterrorism." By law, fewer than 1,000 counter-narcotics police operate there and must rely on the military for airlift as they have no helicopters or planes of their own.
In documents and testimony obtained by the AP, police and anti-drug prosecutors questioned the military's trustworthiness. One recalled asking about clandestine airstrips during a 2013 meeting with military officials and watching them "take out their maps, which showed airstrips here and there. They had never informed us of all this."
There were also suspicions of intelligence leaked to traffickers.
In a May 2014 letter to their boss, four anti-drug prosecutors said that on three occasions they had shared information with the military on when and where drug flights would land. In each case, the planes never showed.
The fourth time, they kept the information to themselves and acted alone with police, according to the letter obtained by the AP.
The pilot was captured, the co-pilot killed in a firefight and 357 kilograms of cocaine and $5,500 in cash seized. The March 2014 operation was the only one in the past two years in which drugs, money, plane and pilot were all taken into custody.
Over that period, more than two dozen suspected drug planes have been seized. Most were after crash landings. In all but five cases, the pilots escaped.
The pilot who said military commanders charged $10,000 per flight for safe passage said that "no plane arrives without at least half a million dollars to pay for the drugs, for the airstrip and to corrupt the authorities."
He agreed to speak only if given anonymity for fear of his life. The AP could not independently confirm his claim.
Before the narco-flight boom, the military sent people to the valley to be punished for transgressions, said Victor Andres Garcia Belaunde, an opposition congressman.
"But it has, alas, become profitable to be in VRAEM and today there are officers who ask to go."
Investigative researcher Carlos Neyra in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.