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Violent cartel culture now threatens Peru

Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers are importing a far more brutal operating style to Peru, say authorities.

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This message chilled Sonia Medina the most: "Listen, we know who your daughter is," the anonymous threat came via text message over her cellphone. "And we think she is good-looking."

As Peru's top drug prosecutor, Ms. Medina, a former judge who stands just 5 feet tall, is confronting the nation's increasingly violent drug-trafficking problem head on. She is whisked around by bodyguards – sometimes one, sometimes three – and never rides in a car without tinted windows.

Authorities in Peru, the world's second-largest producer of cocaine, say that the kind of carnage that makes headlines in Colombia and Mexico is now finding its way to Peru, making the task of fighting organized crime and corruption an increasingly risky business. In July, a judge overseeing a case involving alleged members of a Mexican drug cartel was killed. Last month, a radio reporter who covered local crime and corruption was murdered in front of his wife and children.

Production of coca, cocaine's main ingredient, has increased 38 percent in Peru in recent years, according to the US Department of State. But authorities blame international mafias, mainly Mexican, for the more sophisticated and high-stakes cartel culture that now plagues Peru. They say that traffickers have also aligned with members of the infamous Shining Path rebel group in remote subtropical valleys – forming new trafficking routes and prompting a new level of concern among authorities here.

"We are moving toward becoming a narco-state," says Medina, who has received dozens of death threats at her office, home, and on her cellphone. "Of course I feel afraid. I am a human being. But you can't hide in a corner watching what is happening in your country."

A leading coca producer

Peru was once the leading producer of coca, but US-supported eradication efforts in the 1990s and falling prices turned many farmers toward alternative crops. But since then, massive US and Colombian efforts to stem coca production in Colombia, coupled with a persistent demand in the US and Europe, has shifted production demand to Peru, luring many poor farmers back. Today, Peru produces about a third of all coca leaf in South America, according to Gen. Juan Zarate, the former antidrug czar and now the head of eradication efforts in Peru's Interior Ministry. It is grown on fewer acres than in previous decades – about 120,000 today compared with 445,000 in the 1980s. But technology – mostly in the form of new fertilizers – has spurned far greater yields.

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