In March 2017, Peru was impacted by El Niño Costero, a weather event characterized by an unusual heating of the ocean along the coast of Peru and Ecuador. In Peru, the phenomenon affected more than a million people nationwide and left more than 100 dead. Despite the tragedy, Peru co-hosted the 2017 South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) along with the United States, through U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Peruvian Minister of Defense Jorge Nieto Montesinos addressed the participants during the opening ceremony. Diálogo took the opportunity to speak with him about some national security issues.
Diálogo: Many of the countries present at SOUTHDEC helped Peru with its humanitarian aid efforts after El Niño Costero.
Peruvian Minister of Defense Jorge Nieto Montesinos: I want to thank them for that, and I want to thank all of the countries as well as the government, but also everyone here who helped us during the emergency this summer, giving us aid and sending us materials; for example, equipment to be able to respond to the emergency that we had to face in that moment. And I want to reiterate that your aid was very useful and that our Armed Forces and our entire government were able to effectively use it to benefit our people.
Diálogo: How is the Ministry of Defense participating in the reconstruction phase?
Minister Nieto: We have been very proud of the involvement of our Armed Forces during the response to El Niño Costero. Admiral [José] Paredes, [the chief of the Peruvian Armed Forces Joint Command] is with me on that. He was the one who led the operation for the deployment of troops at that time. Now we are in the reconstruction phase. We are helping with the work we were asked to help with. We are waiting for the process to move forward, for the project to develop further, and we will be expecting to participate in whatever ways we are asked to.
Diálogo: What is the significance for Peru of jointly organizing the South American Defense Conference with the United States?
Minister Nieto: In the first place, I want to express my gratitude that on this occasion this meeting is taking place in our country. It is a show of friendship and also of trust in the possibility of appropriately doing the work involved in organizing a meeting like this. The meeting, which begins today, is extremely important. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss experiences relating to issues of terrorism, the issue of cyber defense, and issues concerning trafficking, particularly drug trafficking. The experiences our various countries have had in facing these problems are gathered, knowledge is exchanged, and thus we try to improve the capacities of our Armed Forces in order to confront the problems they may be faced with.
Diálogo: Are these new problems or threats?
Minister Nieto: Just a few years ago, we thought we were entering a much safer world, but a decade, a decade-and-a-half later, that is not the reality. We have the same uncertainties as we had in the past, but they may have changed. Add to that a new kind of uncertainty, and as an old author says, those uncertainties were part of our lack of knowledge about the world. These uncertainties are often the result of our knowledge of the world. The problem that typifies this is global climate change, which stems solely from the actions of humankind and from our capacity for development applied to production without the controls necessary to avoid that aspect of the problem – the environment in which we live. And as such, these new uncertainties that often stem from our knowledge have to be studied from every perspective, given that they are global problems. And these global problems are seen in every corner of the world and therefore generate many perspectives through which to see them. Therefore, we need meetings like this one that allow for an exchange, analysis, and evolution, because we are facing problems that are often new or old problems that have taken on a new form, but about which we are receiving information, having experiences, and getting knowledge every day that needs to be put on the table and exchanged so that we all learn together and so that we are all able to find appropriate ways of making our world more secure.
Diálogo: What are the Ministry of Defense and the Peruvian Armed Forces doing to decrease the production of coca in Peru?
Minister Nieto: The issue of drug trafficking is an issue for our National Police, which is making enormous efforts to combat it. Our Armed Forces, especially in the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers [VRAEM, per its Spanish acronym], have a responsibility, and we support the work of our National Police. They are using every measure necessary to keep it under control. As you know, the problem of cocaine trafficking is not a problem that has only a political solution or only a military solution. There is a set of problems that have to be faced and addressed to be able to reduce cocaine trafficking: from the issue of the global demand that exists for this type of product to everything having to do with the supply of chemical products necessary for its production, or the flow of money through financial channels that allows for specifically controlling this process – this international criminal activity. Our Armed Forces are permanently engaged in this. We have just received various reports on this from VRAEM, and we are working hard on it. So much so, that the problem is beginning to evolve in our country, and areas where the work of criminal groups was mostly based are now being displaced to other areas around the country. We are also working to stay up to date on this. Recently, we had a conversation with Brazilian Minister of Defense [Raul Jungmann] about this issue, to work together in a combined way along our shared border, taking charge of this problem because it is a transnational problem.
Diálogo: Is there still a Shining Path presence in VRAEM?
Minister Nieto: What we have in VRAEM is the remains of, what is left over from what was once the Shining Path. In reality, it is a family clan, the Quispe Palomino family clan, which has now left behind practically any strategy for power and has basically devoted itself to providing cover and travel services to drug trafficking gangs. So we still have the problem, it’s there. The geographic setting in VRAEM is very complicated. It is a very complex jungle, very intricate, with many geographic complications. They are basically all in one area, and we are working on that. We are working to contain their activities.