LIMA (Reuters) – Peru arrested more than 50 people on Monday, the majority Colombian, as part of an operation against drug trafficking in a jungle border province where dissident former Marxist FARC rebels have reportedly taken refuge.
Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra said his country’s security forces coordinated with Colombia’s military to carry out operation “Armageddon” early on Monday.
Vizcarra and several of his ministers declared a state of emergency on Sunday for the province of Putumayo near the border with Colombia and Ecuador. It went into effect on Monday, according to a decree published in the official gazette El Peruano.
“More than 50 people have been arrested, the vast majority Colombian nationals who were involved in illegal drug trafficking,” Vizcarra said in broadcast comments from the remote region.
The operation in Peru’s Amazonian province of Putumayo followed repeated attacks by dissident FARC rebels on security forces in nearby Ecuador.
Some 1,200 fighters for the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) refused to demobilize under a 2016 peace agreement with Colombia’s government and have continued with drug trafficking activities, according to Colombia’s defense ministry.
Peru’s state news agency Andina reported that four cocaine labs were deactivated in what Defense Minister Jose Huerta called the biggest bust on Peru’s northern border.
“We’re going to defend our sovereignty, our territory, and we’re going to use force to do so,” Huerta said.
Under the state of emergency civil liberties are suspended and military force is authorized to maintain order in Putumayo for 60 days. Segundo Julca, mayor of Putumayo province, said the measure was aimed at pushing back against an incursion of armed Colombian dissident FARC rebels.
He said rebels had been recruiting farmers to grow coca, the main ingredient in cocaine and a lucrative crop in the poverty-stricken province.
“The Colombian military carries out a lot of patrols. The Peruvian side offers more security. They can grow coca easier,” Julca said by phone from Iquitos. He said he has received so many death threats that he now largely lives outside Putumayo.
Rebels distributed pamphlets in May, one of which was seen by Reuters, calling on Putumayo to welcome them.
“We are not a group of criminals or drug traffickers as they call us. We are FARC rebels,” it read. “We ask for financial support from the mayor … and we call on the youth to join our ranks.”
It said Peru’s military should maintain “our good ties” to avoid reprisals.
Peru’s defense ministry and police did not respond to requests for comment.
Representatives for the FARC could not be reached for comment.
Reporting By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino