IQUITOS, PERU — A rebel army that struck fear in Peru in the 1980s has dropped its Maoist ideology and evolved into a multimillion-dollar cocaine-smuggling gang with suspected ties to Mexican drug cartels.
The Peruvian government, which thought it had defeated the Shining Path guerrillas, has reopened an intense military campaign after the rebels, who once styled themselves the “army of the people,” kidnapped employees of a natural gas company.
“This group should not be called the Shining Path,” said Jaime Antezana, who is considered an authority on Peruvian terrorism.
“This is a family clan that is driven by money. It is purely a trafficking operation that we believe has ties to Mexican cartels.”
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala in early April prematurely declared the Shining Path “totally defeated” after the arrests of two of the group’s remaining leaders in a rain forest in north-central Peru known as the Upper Huallaga Valley.
But on April 9, in a southeastern jungle area, busloads of heavily armed fighters belonging to a faction lead by Martin Quispe, known as “Comrade Gabriel,” took 40 natural gas workers hostage.
The daring attack prompted a mobilization of 1,500 government agents in U.S.-owned helicopters. The hostages were freed, but six security agents were killed.
Mr. Quispe appeared for the first time on television, ridiculing Mr. Humala and claiming that his guerrilla faction is operating under a new name, the “Militarized Communist Party of Peru.”
Gen. Jose Saturnino Cespedes of the Peruvian National Police told The Washington Times that Mr. Quispe’s group “has no ideological affiliation.”
“They are purely a drug-trafficking organization,” he said.
On April 20, Peru’s top military officials declared a major offensive to hunt down Mr. Quispe and his band of fighters.
His organization controls cocaine-growing operations in the Ene and Apurimac river valleys, a thickly forested, lawless region of serpentine valleys in the country’s southeastern Amazon.
A U.S. official speaking on background said the group primarily buys drugs from small-scale farmers in the region and smuggles the cocaine to international trafficking organizations.
“They don’t typically operate in a top-down, corporate-like structure, as the Mexican cartels do,” he said.
The Peruvian government suspects that the Mexican cartels maintain a shadowy presence in shipping ports along the country’s southern Pacific coast.
There are other indications that the Mexican cartels are moving into Peru, which the U.S. government says has surpassed Colombia in cocaine producing potential.
In January, Peru’s public prosecutor, Jose Pelaez, asked the foreign ministry to reinstate the requirement that Mexicans traveling to Peru obtain visas as a way to curb drug smuggling. In 2010 and 2011, Peruvian authorities arrested 98 Mexican citizens with suspected ties to cartels.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counternarcotics analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an email that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations increasingly appear to be operating in Peru, mostly by arranging shipments.
“Their presence does not seem to rise to the level of their actually directing production or cultivation,” she said. “More often, they operate via local Peruvian drug enterprises.”
She warned that “an increased presence of Mexican organizations could provoke greater criminal violence in Peru.”
Last year, a Peruvian prosecutor, Luis Arellano Martinez, claimed that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel has two armed gangs operating in Peru. In legal papers, he said the criminal organization comprises 40 to 60 people equipped with long-range weapons, grenade launchers, hand grenades and satellite-communications technology.
W. Alex Sanchez, a researcher for the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said Mexican cartels are a concern, but he thinks Colombian rebels crossing the border and Brazilian drug gangs pose more immediate threats to Peruvian security.