- Last month, an aircraft was intercepted in Bahuaja-Sonene National Park by the Anti-Drug Directorate of the National Police of Peru. It was carrying multiple passengers, who engaged in gunfire with police.
- A bag containing 30 kilograms of alkaloid cocaine found inside the plane.
- Cocaine is produced from the leaves of coca plants. Bahuaja-Sonene has the largest area of illegal coca cultivation of any protected area, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with at least 118 hectares (292 acres) of coca grown within the park.
LIMA, Peru — A joint operation by law enforcement agencies in Peru managed to seize 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of cocaine from a plane intercepted in Bahuaja-Sonene National Park last month.
The operation on Sept. 25 built on intelligence reports from earlier in the week that identified a clandestine airstrip inside the protected park, in an area near the district of San Pedro de Putina Punco, in Sandia province. The agencies involved in the operation included the Peruvian armed forces; the office of the National Prosecutor under the Public Ministry; and the special investigation unit of the police’s anti-narcotics directorate, known by its Spanish acronym, Dirandro.
According to information provided by Dirandro, the drug-trafficking criminal organization Los Injertos de Tambopata planned to transport the cocaine from the park to Bolivia.
Based on that tip, Janampa Oscategui, a provincial prosecutor specializing in fighting the illicit drug trade, met with Dirandro staff and armed forces officers on the morning of Sept. 25. They then went by helicopter to the suspected location of the 600-meter (2,000-foot) airstrip. At 8:30 a.m., they heard the sound of an aircraft approaching, and upon investigating found a white plane, carrying the Bolivian registration number CP-2936, with 15 people on board.
A confrontation ensued between the officers and several passengers during which gunfire was exchanged. During the 10-minute clash, the pilot attempted to accelerate the plane for takeoff, but it was halted by police. The officers eventually seized control of the plane, along with a GPS unit and a sack containing “approximately 30 kg of alkaloid cocaine,” according to a statement from Dirandro. However, the passengers were able to flee and no arrests have been made. Dirandro officials say they are still searching for the individuals involved.
According to police, the syndicate Los Injertos de Tambopata operates mainly in the valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (also called Vraem), carrying out “activities of processing, acquisition, storage, security, transportation and marketing of alkaloid cocaine.”
The group also operates in the regions of Cusco, Ayacucho, Apurimac and Puno. According to Dirandro, they send the drugs to Bolivia on board small planes that depart from “uncontrolled airfields located in the jurisdiction of the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park.”
“It is a very serious matter that the Bahuaja Sonene National Park is being eaten away by drug trafficking and illegal mining,” Alicia Abanto, assistant director for the environment and indigenous peoples at the Ombudsman’s Office, told Mongabay. “Although the operation was important (and without ignoring the outcomes), we cannot deny that the mafias have the control of the area, besides the territorial control capacity of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (Sernanp) and the police force.”
Abanto said ever-expanding fields of coca crops and the proliferation of clandestine airstrips “show the urgency of a resounding change in the management of territorial control in that area.” She called on the country’s prime minister, César Villanueva, to lead that change of strategy.
Abanto said she had previously sent letters to the National Prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior, and the national tax administration to urge them to combat illegal mining. She now wants to the authorities to focus on the groups controlling illegal mining and drug trafficking inside protected natural areas.
Bahuaja-Sonene in danger
Cocaine is produced from the leaves of coca plants. Deforestation for coca production is seen as a major threat to Bahuaja-Sonene, as well as the district of Putina Punco. Much of the district is located within the park, and the remaining area sits within its buffer zone.
For years, coffee crops in the areas outside the park have been increasingly replaced by illicit coca crops. In the Puno forest, for instance, the area devoted to coffee crops has decreased by more than 70 percent in the past six years, which illegal coca cultivation increased by more than 50 percent during the same period.
Coca cultivation has already encroached into Bahuaja-Sonene itself. The national park has the largest area of illegal coca cultivation of any protected area, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with at least 118 hectares (292 acres) of coca grown within the park.
Authorities say that in addition to deforestation for coca farms, about 5 square kilometers (1.9 square miles) of forest inside the park have been cleared for airstrips and other activities related to drug trafficking.
Reported threats of violence have increased in tandem with the spread of coca cultivation in Bahuaja-Sonene. In 2015, four rangers working in the park and who had an office in Putina Punco were removed from their posts due to constant threats. Sernanp’s director said these threats also reached the former head of the park, who consequently resigned.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on Sept. 26, 2018.
Banner image: The plane used to transport cocaine out of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, which was seized by police Sept. 25. Photo courtesy of Dirandro.
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