By Carla Samon Ros
Mantaro River Valley, Peru, Jun 13 (EFE).- The battle against drug trafficking in Peru, the second largest producer of cocaine worldwide, is an everyday job for some men in the Peruvian Armed Forces.
Equipped with helmets, backpacks, rifles and ammunition vests, 12 young men cross themselves before boarding a helicopter from the military base of Pichari, in the central Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (Vraem), the largest coca growing region in the country.
Today’s mission is to neutralize an airstrip used by traffickers to export drugs from the impoverished region blighted by drug trafficking and terrorism.
The journey is over an hour long. The men, barely in their 20s, remain in silence, pointing their rifles up to the sky throughout the flight.
Their destination is the so-called Alto Pichas 9 runway, a sandy terrain 800 meters long and 6 meters wide at the edge of the Pichas River, in the Cusco district of Megantoni.
The area, a stronghold of the communist guerilla group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), is considered a ‘soft zone’ of the Vraem.
The runway is nestled in the middle of the valley and is only reachable by air. The closest town is a two-week walk away.
It must have taken some 30 local residents to manually cut through the jungle and build this runway, the officer in charge of the operation, who for security reasons remains anonymous, tells Efe.
Today is a good day to neutralize the runaway as the Peruvian army has not reported any activity in the zone in a few days.
The soldiers start digging up dozens of holes, each at least 1.80 meters deep, to fill up with the over 300 kilos of explosives they have brought with them from the military base.
They work for 3 long hours in the scorching heat before the rain allows for an improvised break.
Overnight, they take turns to guard the area in two-hour shifts.
At dawn, the 11 detonations programmed for this operation are triggered.
It takes just a few minutes for the runway to be reduced to rubble and for a six-meter deep crater to form itself along the track.
“It is so destroyed that it is cheaper for them (the narcos) to build another one rather than try to recover this one,” the head of the operation says.
The Alto Pichas 9 runway is one of 8 clandestine airstrips across the Vraem region to have been disabled by Peruvian Armed Forces in the last week.
The number of planes dedicated to drug trafficking has dropped from 12 and 16 in March and April of last year to 6 and 1 in the same months this year, according to the army.
The reduction also coincided with a 30% drop in the price of the coca leaf, which fell from $24.3 to $9.75 US dollars per bushel.
The head of the operation adds that so far this year, some 30 clandestine airstrips have been neutralized in the Vraem region alone. In 2021, over 100 were reported, he adds.