Interview with Army General César Augusto Astudillo Salcedo, commander of the Peruvian Armed Forces’ Joint Command.
Diálogo: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the activities of illicit trafficking? Are there any new illicit routes in your country?
Army General César Augusto Astudillo Salcedo, commander of the Peruvian Armed Forces’ Joint Command: Narcotrafficking activities were hit at the beginning of the pandemic (from March to April), to the extent that coca leaf prices went down considerably; this was the case at the global level, and the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers Valley (VRAEM, in Spanish) region was no stranger to it. People who worked in coca plantations returned to their towns of origin, and those who trafficked stopped doing it. However, this has changed with time, and narcotraffickers have resumed the activity and doubled their production efforts by planting more hectares of coca crop and increasing cocaine production.
There are many illicit routes in the VRAEM; it is not just on the roads, as narcotraffickers use air, sea, and land routes to move, especially at nighttime. The area is home to microtrafficking, which uses people who transport 10, 15, or 20 kilograms of cocaine individually and then meet at a specific point to collect the stash, which can reach 300 to 400 kg of cocaine.
Diálogo: What new resources do the Peruvian Armed Forces bring to the table to counter terrorist actions in the VRAEM?
Gen. Astudillo: Our main threat is narcotrafficking. The operations of the Shining Path terrorist group are tied to narcotrafficking; their main leaders and the Quispe Palomino brothers know the area. We have a strategy that is yielding excellent results in the fight against narcotrafficking, terrorism, and other threats, and this is what we are seeing in the captures and seizures. In the past, seizing 50 kg of cocaine was a huge achievement, and nowadays this happens more frequently.
Diálogo: To what do you attribute these successful results?
Gen. Astudillo: We work alongside the National Police, who have very successful intelligence strategies. We work together to combat all the threats in the VRAEM area, such as narcotrafficking, terrorism, illegal mining, and illegal logging. Crime is crime, so we go all in to disrupt what we find.
Diálogo: What operations do the Peruvian Armed Forces conduct in border areas to disrupt transnational criminal organizations?
Gen. Astudillo: Our borders are very dynamic in terms of illegal activities, especially illegal mining, smuggling, and narcotrafficking. We have a sizable presence of troops of the Armed Forces and the National Police at the borders, and we have the support of the Attorney General’s Office. For example, our Navy constantly monitors our main border with Colombia, which is the Putumayo River; it is a very hard job to control this riverine extension of almost 2,000 kilometers, and for that we carry out the Armageddon operations, which have already gone on for two years in the area and yielded very good results.
Diálogo: How does Peru cooperate with the United States in the fight against threats to regional security?
Gen. Astudillo: We have a very strong partnership, especially with U.S. Southern Command. With the United States we have a fairly considerable flow of support, particularly through the Embassy in terms of intelligence, strategies, and tactics.
Diálogo: How do the Peruvian Armed Forces work to support the population amid the COVID-19 pandemic crisis?
Gen. Astudillo: Since the president of the Republic’s announcement to confront the pandemic, the Armed Forces together with the National Police have entered a stage of care and protection for the population using various measures. The government closed borders, ports, and airports, and for that we used large-scale logistics. Between persuading the population and mourning their death, persuading them is a thousand times better. We have cared for not only citizens’ health, but also their lives, and we do so with our own lives. We still have curfews at 11 p.m., and some restrictions continue. The Armed Forces and the National Police have not lowered their guard at all when confronting the pandemic. “Firm and worthy,” as our motto says, on the front lines and committed to fulfilling our duties.