IN THE early 1980s Peru’s government founded Ciudad Constitución to be the capital of the country’s Amazon region. Today, it serves as the capital of Peru’s war on drugs. Clandestine airstrips etched into the jungle make the area a hub for smugglers. They form part of an “air bridge”, with small planes flying in from Bolivia to pick up cocaine paste or refined cocaine, stopping in Bolivia to refuel and then heading to Brazil, from which the drug is dispatched to Europe. A single plane can carry 300kg (660lb) of cocaine, worth some $350,000.
Peru and Bolivia, which co-operate to disrupt the air bridge, are an odd anti-drug duo. Peru is a partner of the United States, from which it gets $120m a year to fight the narcotics trade. Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, once led a coca growers’ union and in 2008 expelled the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration. Both countries allow some coca cultivation (for traditional uses like chewing). Bolivia nearly doubled the area on which farmers can grow coca to 22,000 hectares in 2017.
The United States has “decertified” Bolivia’s anti-drug programme every year since 2008 and contends that Bolivia, like Venezuela, has “failed demonstrably” to carry out international and American drug-control policies. Yet Peru is the bigger producer. It grows enough coca to make 410 tonnes of cocaine a year, while Bolivia’s potential is 275 tonnes. Most of the cocaine seized in Bolivia comes from Peru.
Neither country is winning the battle against it. In Peru, smugglers restore airstrips as soon as police dynamite them, says Héctor Loayza, the general in charge of Dirandro, the anti-narcotics agency. Bolivia has more aircraft and airstrips, in part because “air taxis” are used as transport in forested areas, such as the Beni department. Dirandro and FELCN, Bolivia’s anti-drug police, identified hundreds of flights in the first half of this year but seized only six planeloads of drugs, partly because of the time it takes to scramble helicopters.
Sometimes the narcs’ perseverance beats the smugglers’ ingenuity. Last October Mr Loayza’s agents found 1.3 tonnes of cocaine that had been shaped into irrigation pipes. But such successes are exceptions. FELCN and Dirandro each interdicted only around ten tonnes of coca-based products in the first half of 2018.
Marco Ibáñez, FELCN’s chief, complains that his force of 1,400 agents is about “one agent per airstrip”. Policing Bolivia’s 1,000km (620-mile) border with Peru, as well as its 3,300km border with Brazil, is a “struggle”. Both agency chiefs plead for more manpower. Even more important, they say, would be authorisation to shoot down suspected drug flights. “All we need is the green light, and the next day” smugglers will abandon the air bridge, says Mr Loayza. He points out that, in 2016, traffickers mistakenly thought that two aircraft had been shot down. The drug flights “disappeared for two months”, he says.
If the governments had their way, their agents would get that tool. Bolivia approved a law in 2014 that allows air interdiction. The defence minister, Javier Zabaleta, said in July this year that it would be implemented as soon as a new radar system was operational. Peru passed a similar law in 2015.
In fact, neither country is likely to shoot down drug flights. The United States has been opposed to the tactic since 2001, when Peru mistakenly downed a plane carrying American missionaries. The European Union will dissuade Bolivia, to which it gives €35m ($40m) a year in anti-drug aid. Shoot-down laws violate international law, wrote Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg, a legal scholar, last year. Besides, the practice would encourage armed groups to chaperone drug shipments overland, spreading criminality.
A better idea, until drugs are legalised, would be to strengthen co-operation between Peru and Bolivia. Peru, for example, does not share intelligence. The United States could encourage teamwork, by treating Bolivia not as an enemy, but as an ally in the drug war.