El VRAE: Alan García’s Failed Domestic Policy

Since early 2006, almost fifty members of the Peruvian armed forces and the national police have died in the region of el VRAE (a Spanish acronym for the valley of the rivers Apurimac and Ene). For approximately two decades, this region has been the setting of an ongoing series of lethal encounters between government and criminal forces. These events have produced a political nightmare for the President, Alan Garcia, whose mismanagement of the escalating conflict is widely acknowledged. His critics charge that these lamentable events are also a clear sign of the government’s inadequate, insensitive, and hapless response to the major social problems affecting the Andean nation, in particular the status of the indigenous population living outside the capital city, Lima.

The central government has a history of alternating violence and indifference in its policies toward this distant region. El VRAE remains an isolated area seized by extreme poverty and the persisting presence of the Maoist terrorist group Sendero Luminoso. After years of low-levels of conflict and episodic government outbursts aimed at taming the violence, relative indifference to this extremist group has resulted in Sendero establishing growing connections with the well-organized and locally active criminal network of drug traffickers. The virtually nonexistent state presence in the region and a failed U.S-sponsored drug policy (which some would argue was somewhat inappropriate for Peruvian society from its inception) has created a dangerous mix that escalated until the resumption of large-scale conflict in 2006, after a number of years of relative quiescence.

El VRAE has effectively been a no man’s land since 1993, when the Fujimori-led government deactivated most of its anti-subversive forces in the region. El VRAE’s function as a refuge for subversive forces is an indicator of how the economic development and modernization undergone in the elite areas of the country have bypassed the poorest of the poor in the rest of Perú. Both the cautious foreign policy and the obliging neoliberal doctrines propelling the García administration were commended as the main reason behind the country’s high GDP growth in recent years; however, the President’s focus on growth, and little else, has led to failure in his handling of internal security affairs and matters of social justice.

In a misbegotten series of initiatives, according to his detractors, García is further sanctioning the expansion of the gap between the have and the have-nots in a country in desperate need of social reform. As a result of an emphasis on macroeconomic policies aimed at narrow economic growth and political change, the stagnant and patently unfair social structures in the country remain unaltered.

A History of Abandonment: The 200,000 Forgotten Peruvians

Mahatma Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst kind of violence. These words find meaning in the often inhumane living conditions suffered by most of the 200,000 Peruvians who reside in el VRAE. Today as well as prior to the recent escalation of combat, el VRAE continues to be one of the most marginalized and impoverished areas in Perú. In early 2007, the total police force in the valley amounted to 6 policemen, housed in one single station. After failing to pay their bills on time due to lack of funding, the headquarters lost phone service and were consequently isolated for a protracted period of time. Moreover, regional social indices compiled by several independent organizations establish that 54.3% of the population lives in poverty, out of which 44.8% lives in extreme poverty. Government-sponsored studies from 2006 qualified 22.9% of infants in the region as malnourished, and a total of 51% of the population suffering from chronic malnutrition. Life expectancy in the region for men ranges from fifty-five to sixty-four years while women live an average of sixty years.

The poor quality of the education system further highlights the lack of government involvement in el VRAE. Basic services and better educational infrastructure remain, in the words of one local, “an electoral promise.” A report in El Comercio, a Lima daily newspaper, indicates that rats and bats infest the schools in the area. On April 2008, Elizabeth León, congresswoman for the Department of Ayacucho declared that the VRAE region lacked 192 teachers, even though classes had started two months before her census had been staged. In other words, 5,000 pupils in the region were not receiving their right to a basic education. Additionally, 30% of the total population of el VRAE and 49% of women are illiterate and only 5% (10,000 out of the c. 200,000) finish secondary school.

Infectious diseases are not uncommon among the native population, where inhabitants of isolated communities sometimes have to walk for hours to receive basic medical treatment in small medical centers, which are typically understaffed and inadequately equipped. Eighty percent of all households lack potable water, and less than 30% have electricity. Water is obtained from rivers laced with lead and other contaminants used in the refining of the base cocaine, the remnants of which are unceremoniously dumped into the streams and rivers by drug traffickers. It is estimated that about 160,000 people inadvertently consume this deadly brew on a daily basis.

Following the rationale of Gandhi, it is understandable why the region remains in a state of constant violence. The terrorists and drug traffickers have helped to contribute, cynically taking advantage of the poverty and unsatisfied human needs for over twenty years. On the part of the government, these years were marked by indifference at best and a dedication to the implementation of misguided economic policies centered on Lima and other urban areas.

In 2006, following a series of brazen attacks by the Sendero Luminoso against government installations, Lima presented its new integral plan to combat the insurgency in a “holistic and responsible manner.” The program, titled “An Option for Peace and Development for the VRAE,” commonly referred to as Plan VRAE, consisted of a multi-sector intervention in order to develop the area socially and economically and strengthen the presence of the state in the process. The plan, which entails socioeconomic and military/police components, has been grossly criticized by both national defense specialists and political analysts because of its lack of coherence, inadequacy, and for its poor strategy of implementation.

A Failure in Domestic Policy

The original stance of the government on the conflict – that is, prior to the birth of Plan VRAE – included a prescription for a full military strategy. Not surprisingly, such an approach proved futile. The involvement of local peasants in base coca production and refinement had already established an entangled web between the rebels, drug traffickers, and the local communities. Police experts estimate that at least two-thirds of the resident population is involved with drug traffic-related activities in el VRAE. The lack of alternative opportunities has made it relatively easy for these poor and ignored peasants to choose to commit a crime against the state (a largely absent entity for the most part) and cooperate with the drug lords.

Any of García’s neoliberal advisers would recognize supply and demand machinations in what has become part of an established, if informal, economic arrangement between the poor and these criminal organizations. This alternative system, which often runs parallel to the much larger formal economy, extends throughout the region. This arrangement is the product of a lack of viable options and adequate governmental support (lack of public infrastructure, social services, job creation mechanisms, industrial capacity, etc.). Moreover, the alternatives created by the government (such as Plan VRAE) have invariably proven to be major disappointments up to now.

Pathetically, one year after its introduction, the greatest and most visible change in the area was the construction of a new police base and the purchase of one van to patrol the immense area. Nevertheless, as the fighting and casualties increased, a growing criticism from the public forced the government to shift its focus to alternative projects which would be tackled by Plan VRAE. Ironically, political conflicts within the government continued, reflecting upon a lacking of consensus in the National Congress over a comprehensive approach to the dilemma. At the same time, a series of scandals involving García’s APRA party have further impacted his administration by discrediting a wide range of the government’s domestic policies. In less than nine months, García has been forced to shuffle the president of the Council of Ministers twice due to bristling political scandals. The first to be dismissed was Jorge del Castillo, as a result of the oil scandals of 2008; then came the ousting of Yehude Simón, as a result of violent uprisings over land rights of Amazonian Indians. These ended in brutal clashes in Bagua with the police earlier in the year, which involved considerable casualties on both sides.

The political bickering in Lima has resulted in substantial concern among the security forces, particularly the national police. According to internal security sources and anti-subversive experts from the Peruvian National Police, the only predictable outcome of such stress has been the weakening of the socioeconomic programs which were intended to support law enforcement efforts in el VRAE. At the same time, there have been a number of complaints about the way some NGOs and political groups have looked to “harvest votes and support” for their specific interests, at times by unfairly charging members of the armed forces and the police with crimes against humanity. In the eyes of some experts, the mere fact that we have such allegations, and the difficulty involved in confirming their veracity, “provide us with substantial evidence of the lack of authority and coordination in the central government to conduct a holistic development and anti-subversive program in the region.”

Vice-Admiral Jorge Montoya, former head of the Peruvian Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes the conflict in el VRAE is primarily social. However, given the presence in the region of Sendero Luminoso, it also has an important military dimension. He states that it is fundamentally important to create sustainable alternative development paths for local peasants, while he defends the presence of large security forces in the area so as to ensure the safety and proper implementation of construction projects. According to Montoya, development in the area proceeds at a very slow pace, due to the “many hands managing the programs” which, in his eyes, are “not very well coordinated.” Even though the plan is currently under the direct control of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and has established a field office in the region, the structure of Plan VRAE remains unclear to most Peruvians whom it affects. In almost two years, the presence of the state has been relatively ineffective in preventing the advent of corruption and clientelism in impacted areas. For example, a kerosene transportation ring has been discovered operating in the area under the nose of the police and armed forces. Kerosene is a key component in the elaboration of base cocaine and supposedly is a regulated substance in el VRAE. In fact, a number of government officials have been accused of participating in illicit endeavors associated with it, resulting in an investigation which is now underway.

Since its commencement, implementation of the somewhat controversial Plan VRAE has attracted a considerable amount of criticism due to its disorganized and weak structure. According to a number of NGOs and local institutions concerned about the program, its major flaw lies in its management and how long it is taking for palpable results to materialize. Security experts from both the armed forces and the police have also been unsparing in their criticisms of Plan VRAE. They consider it to be “infected” by political interests. In their view (which may be self-serving and meant to cover up their own shortcomings at times), the lack of a central voice makes the task of ameliorating the appalling social conditions in el VRAE extremely difficult to explain or defend, thus increasing the risk of hostility to the very concept from security forces.

Overall, Plan VRAE is considered by many to be the typical “too-little-too-late” type of state-sponsored reaction that Peruvian society is so accustomed to seeing. Even though the problems of the region have been present for quite a long time, the government failed to act until chaos and violence threatened to swallow up Lima’s stability and even compromise its security. Public opinion indeed has proved extremely skeptical of the authorities. For many, the hours-long parliamentary presentations and debates were more a sign of demagoguery and disingenuousness than of good governance. Such attitudes are, unfortunately, well founded. Former president Alejandro Toledo’s response to the problem was, to say the least, apathetic and weak. Once in office, Alan García and his APRA party also have shown very little sign of having either the strong political will or an effective plan that would prove to be able to end the long stalemate and bring the necessary relief which would lead to the development of the area. Back in 2003, a governmental decision put el VRAE’s security operations under the direct control of the Ministry of Defense, but it was not until 2006 that any cohesive policy was put into action in order to follow through on the plan. Nevertheless, the resulting slow-paced government reaction has prevented any meaningful social or security initiative from materializing in a region that has been under the virtual control of mafia-type influences for over a decade.

The overpowering presence of extremist groups in the region has served to complicate the efforts of the security forces. The political vacuum left in el VRAE after the pull out of the armed forces in the 1990’s opened the door for small remnants of Sendero Luminoso to filter back into the region. The population, poor and isolated from the traditional centers of power, fell prey to these rebels and the drug traffickers to which they often owe their financial support and sustenance. Episodic raids by military and police units in the area uncovered a series of camps and other installation where local villagers were forced to work for the terrorists in virtual slavery. At the same time, incoming intelligence reports indicated that the Shinning Path had resumed the kidnapping of young children to be later indoctrinated, brainwashed, and forced to join their cadres of fighters against the state and its backers, a strategy designed to demoralize the government security force. This broadening of terrorist activities has further fueled criticisms of the ineptitude of the government. In the words of an upper level Peruvian police official who preferred to remain anonymous, “The death of 52 members of the armed forces and police in terrorist attacks are crimes against Peruvian society as a whole. Unfortunately, the response of the authorities has been woefully inadequate. It seems like they were all waiting for another bomb to explode in some Lima suburb like Miraflores, as happened on Tarata Avenue a few years ago. These crimes, as heinous and violent as the ones taking place in el VRAE, actually managed to mobilize the entire government and society, not because of the particularly atrocious outcome of the attacks, but because it happened here in the capital.” Indeed, the now brisk security responses of the government reflect this “Lima-centric” mentality, the primary explanation for the failures in el VRAE.

What is wrong with García’s domestic policy?

The chronic reports on the Peruvian economy’s miraculous growth in the last decade could not put up better numbers or produce a more attractive future outlook for the Andean nation. In fact, the steady growth of over 4% in its yearly GDP has been so outstanding that experts have renamed this phenomenon, the “Peruvian Miracle.” The almost elegiac threnodies to the future-oriented approach taken by the last three administrations are all but embarrassing, and the prospect of Peru prospering and becoming a regional leader is, in the words of World Bank and International Monetary Fund experts, “beyond question,” as long as Peru remains on its current track. This trend was begun by the neoliberal government of Alberto Fujimori, who went on to win the dubious distinction of becoming the first president in the history of South America who has been indicted by a sitting court on counts of crimes against humanity. He has been piously followed by the governments of Alejandro Toledo and, more recently, by Alan García. From a macroeconomic perspective, the recipe of neoliberalism resembling the traditional prescription of the Chilean Chicago Boys seems to be serving García handily. Statistics show a sharp increase in the dynamism in the country’s economy, yet such optimistic reports fall somewhat flat when confronted with the social reality of a large majority of the population.

The data cited above presents us with a puzzling economic conundrum when contrasted with the rural conditions in Peru, as exemplified by el VRAE. This dichotomy between economic growth and widespread social inequality has remained a constant in Perú since the arrival of the Spaniards and the founding of Lima accelerated since the inauguration of the period of “oligarchic democracy” in 1885, known as the Aristocratic Republic. Since that time, the Andean nation witnessed very little change in its geopolitical configuration; the Lima-centric model of development remains intact and the coastal elites still command a lion share of the national wealth in an almost kleptocratic fashion. On the other end, the provinces remain relatively underdeveloped as foreign capital plunges into the storage bins of the urban elites, thus obstructing the process of decentralization. By relying so much on a model of narrowly contracted internal power, as well as on a political system overflowing with corruption and demagoguery, García is further alienating the largely indigenous provinces from the national political process.
As long as both political and economic power remains concentrated in Lima, a speedy solution to episodic flare-ups of violence, such as the one in el VRAE, is unlikely. Overall, the evolution of Plan VRAE once again has highlighted the major flaws in a system that claims to make political and social reform imperative. The situation in el VRAE is but the tip of a massive iceberg of frustration and misery. García would be wise to pay closer attention to the voting trends in his country’s various regions and in its continental neighborhood, as it is clear that South Americans are tired of long-term development programs that last decades, and never seem to accomplish substantial change to the socioeconomic situation of the poor.

This trend holds true in Perú, as witnessed by the 2006 election. Aristotle once said that poverty is the mother of revolution; and perhaps García should act in accordance with that universal principle which has certainly proved true in rural Perú. Under his aegis, Perú’s domestic policy has been impeccable, if judged in terms of attracting foreign capital and ensuring the continued economic predominance of Perú’s urban elite. Despite certain success, the benefits of this stability and growth only reach a narrow slice of society. As the highly regarded reporter Rosa María Palacios told President Toledo at the end of his term: “Nobody criticizes your handling of the economy, but how about basic social reforms?” This same question is now being repeatedly posed to the incumbent president, and the people are waiting for his answer.