Peru announces probe after AP drug plane report

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Peru announces probe after AP drug plane report
In this May 14, 2015 photo at the counternarcotics police base in Mazamari, Peru, police Cmdr. Jaime Pizarro shows The Associated Press a Cessna 206 plane seized in April after it got stuck in sand on a clandestine airstrip. According to police, the plane was on a mission to pick up cocaine in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, the worldâs No. 1 cocaine-producing region. They said the pilot was arrested and the co-pilot fled with a satchel of cash. (AP Photo/Frank Bajak)
In this, Sept. 19, 2014 photo, soldiers carry a TV after descending from a helicopter at Mazamari anti drugs military base in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Junin, Peru. According to authorities an average of about 4-5 small planes daily fly into Peru from Bolivia, picking up about 300 kilos each of coca paste worth about a third of a million dollars in Bolivia, where it is further refined. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014, file photo, a military attack helicopter flies over Pichari, Peru in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, or VRAEM. It is the world's No. 1 coca-growing region. Roughly half of Peruâs cocaine exports have been ferried eastward, police say, since the rugged Andean nation became the worldâs leading producer of the drug in 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, explosives are detonate by Peruvian counternarcotics forces on a part of a clandestine grassy airstrip in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Ayacucho, Peru. The dynamiting of craters by Peruvian security forces into clandestine airstrips cuts into profits but hardly discourages cocaine traffickers who net tens of thousands of dollars with each flight flown from these airstrips. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, counternarcotics officers walk in a clandestine airstrip strewn with boulders, in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Junin Peru. The boulders are used as a way to camouflage the airstrips from air observation. Security forces say that traffickers pay local villagers to keep the runways hidden and to repair them when they are cratered in counternarcotics operations. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands over a message that reads in Spanish "Blades and good wind, Pilots of the Fatherland" at the Mazamari counter-narcotics military base in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, in Junin, Peru. The area, also known as VRAEM, is the world's No. 1 coca-growing region. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this, Sept. 19, 2014 photo, soldiers carry a TV after descending from a helicopter at Mazamari anti drugs military base in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Junin, Peru. According to authorities an average of about 4-5 small planes daily fly into Peru from Bolivia, picking up about 300 kilos each of coca paste worth about a third of a million dollars in Bolivia, where it is further refined. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In thi Sept. 19, 2014 photo, the Ene river is seen from a military helicopter as it flies over the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Pichari, Peru. According to authorities the area has no radar coverage and the neighboring nations' air forces are limited so drug flights can only be intercepted on the ground. Peru has blown craters into 132 clandestine airfields this year, up from 110 last year. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Friday, Sept. 19, 2014 photo, a soldier signals to his commander while standing inside a crater created by explosives planted by Peruvian counternarcotics forces on part of a clandestine grassy airstrip, in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region in Ayacucho, Peru. According to official data, Peru has blown craters into 132 clandestine airfields this year, up from 110 last year. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, soldiers sit, back dropped by an image of Jesus Christ embracing a praying soldier, inside a building at the Mazamari counternarcotics base in the Valley of the Ene and Apurimac and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Junin, Peru. An average of about 4-5 small planes daily fly into Peru from Bolivia, picking up about 300 kilos each of coca paste worth about a third of a million dollars in Bolivia. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, soldiers walk around a crater created by explosives planted by Peruvian counternarcotics forces on part of a clandestine grassy airstrip, located in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Ayacucho, Peru. According to authorities traffickers pay local villagers up to $100 each to fill the holes blasted into the landing strips that dot the floodplain. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, a counternarcotics officer explains to the press the two weeks campaign to eradicate clandestine airstrips at the Mazamari counternarcotics military base in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Junin, Peru. The dynamiting of craters by Peruvian security forces into clandestine airstrips in the VRAEM cuts into profits but hardly discourages cocaine traffickers who net tens of thousands of dollars with each flight. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
This Sept. 19, 2014 photo, shows the Mazamari counternarcotics military base in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Junin, Peru. According to authorites the area has no radar coverage and the neighboring nations' air forces are limited so drug flights can only be intercepted on the ground. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, clandestine airstrips are seen from a military helicopter in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Pichari, Peru. The area has no radar coverage and the neighboring nations' air forces are limited so drug flights can only be intercepted on the ground. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, counternarcotics officers make hole for placing explosives during the destruction of a clandestine airstrip in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region, in Ayacucho, Peru. The dynamiting of craters by Peruvian security forces into clandestine airstrips in the VRAEM cuts into profits but hardly discourages cocaine traffickers who net tens of thousands of dollars with each flight. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, a soldier stands guard during the destruction of a clandestine airstrip in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region in Ayacucho, Peru. Peruvian and Bolivian officials have agreed during a meeting in La Paz to share information in real time on cross-border drug flights. They did not, however, divulge details. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19, 2014 photo, a Peruvian counternarcotics agent signals to a military helicopter a landing area on a clandestine airstrip in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region in Junin, Peru. Security forces destroyed in the last two weeks more than 50 clandestine airstrips for drug planes in the biggest offensive that seeks to combat the intense drug airlift to Bolivia. According to authorities, two of the landing strips cratered in this latest operation have each been repaired four times this year, the 500-meter airstrips are fixed overnight. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 19 2014 photo, Peruvian counternarcotics forces watch the detonantion of explosives they planted on a part of a clandestine grassy airstrip in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys, or VRAEM, the world's No. 1 coca-growing region in Ayacucho, Peru. Peruvian authorities have launched an operation to destroy clandestine airstrips used by drug traffickers. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
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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.

Peru Now World's Largest Producer of Cocaine

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