By Diego Ore and Terry Wade
LIMA, Dec 12 (Reuters) - The Shining Path rebel group, which led a bloody civil war in the 1980s, has expanded its foothold in Peru’s cocaine trade to run lucrative drug labs and coca farms, the country’s top counterterrorism official said on Friday.
The Maoist insurgency, whose war against the state beginning in 1980 killed 69,000 people, largely collapsed in the early 1990s after its leaders were captured.
Holdout members of the group have since provided protection services to drug traffickers. Members have mostly scrapped their ideological struggle but recently stepped up attacks against police and soldiers.
Antenor Rosas, director of Peru’s counterterrorism police, said the Shining Path was moving increasingly into more profitable parts of the drug trade in the world’s No. 2 coca grower, including cultivation and production.
In an interview with Reuters, Rosas said the Shining Path’s growing involvement in the cocaine trade had allowed it to stockpile weapons and hire recruits.
"They have realized that if they produce, then obviously the profits are much larger, and they can spend much more," he said.
The Shining Path’s riches have grown along with its businesses, which include illegal logging and stolen fuel, allowing it to buy more powerful arms and improve organizational networks, Rosas said.
"Their logistics have improved," he said. "With money, you can buy arms, tents, food and even perhaps support of the local population," he said.
Noting that the rebel group had given up on the strategy of kidnapping teenagers to gain recruits, Rosas said: "Now they go in and offer money and a monthly wage. It’s more attractive for the youth now."
Although the Shining Path has more powerful weapons and more cash than in years past, the ranks of the group have dwindled from tens of thousands to just a few hundred.
Police estimate there are about 300 members of the Shining Path, split into rival groups that operate in the mountainous coca-growing regions of Huallaga and the Ene and Apurimac rivers.
BUSINESS TRUMPS IDEOLOGY
The band in Huallaga professes allegiance to Abimael Guzman, a former philosophy professor who founded the Shining Path and was imprisoned in 1992, while the group in Ene and Apurimac has abandoned him as an ideological guru.
"They’ve stopped believing in their ideology. They’ve left it aside and are more motivated by economics," Rosas said.
The Shining Path’s deeper involvement in the cocaine trade comes as cartels outside Peru, especially the violent Sinaloa gang of Mexico, extend their networks into South America, worrying anti-drug officials.
Rosas said that direct relationships between the two groups had not been proven and that any cocaine shipments from one group to the other were likely handled by intermediaries.
He said the Shining Path had not been linked to FARC rebels from Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer, who often cross Peru’s porous border to regroup or rest.
But like FARC, the Shining Path still relies on violence to defend its turf.
In the past two months, the Shining Path has killed two dozen police and soldiers in a series of brazen ambushes, including one that blew up a military convoy with dynamite.
Conflict has increased since August, when President Alan Garcia started sending soldiers to coca-growing zones to try to wipe out the Shining Path.
Flush with cash, the Shining Path can win friends in small towns, making it harder for the government to defeat it in places where there is little in the way of basic services like water, healthcare or electricity.
"The state needs to be present in areas where it still doesn’t have a presence," Rosas said. "It’s the only way to win the support of the local population." (Editing by Dana Ford and Peter Cooney)