LIMA, Peru – Facing a shortage of recruits, Peru's government has reinstated selective, obligatory military service. But it can be avoided by paying a $700 fine, prompting accusations that what is really being imposed is a draft for the poor.
Military service had been voluntary since 1998, but meager wages, scant job training and a lack of other incentives amid an improving economy left Peru's armed forces short 30,000 recruits this year.
So the government of President Ollanta Humala, himself a former army officer and military attache, decided to re-impose the draft by decree.
Military chief Adm. Jose Cueto announced over the weekend that a draft would be held in May. It applies to all 18- to 25-year-old males chosen by lottery. Parents and university students are exempt. So is anyone who can afford the fine.
"It seems to me completely improvised with the aggravating factor that it directly affects the poor," said human rights activist Wilfredo Ardito.
Ardito called the draft discriminatory on several counts. The poor get hit twice — they cannot afford neither higher education nor the fine, he said.
Adm. Cueto defended the decree as necessary given recent low recruiting results.
He told The Associated Press that Peru's armed forces have long since left behind a past tarnished by human rights abuses in the 1980s and 1990s when it was fighting fanatical Shining Path rebels. "It's a different era," he said.
Cueto said two years of obligatory military service can be beneficial, especially for the poor.
"Military service has been stigmatized as something bad and the exact opposite is true, because it provides a series of benefits to young men, principally those of humble means. It offers instruction, trains them, creates values and, in addition, gives them a profession."
Cueto said draftees would not be sent as "cannon fodder" into Peru's southeastern hot zone, the Apurimac and Ene river valley region where more than 80 soldiers have been killed since 2008 as the military battles cocaine-funded vestiges of the Shining Path. He said only soldiers from elite troops are deployed there.
But the pay for draftees is quite low.
Cueto said it starts at a little more than $100 per month and increases to $146 per month, with room and board included. Peru's minimum wage is $283.
Much of the opinion swirling online in social media and in Peru's news media opposes the draft.
"I'm against it. They would be depriving young people of their right to decide. A lot people here can't afford to pay (the fine)," said Eduard Rodriguez, a 24-year-old gastronomy student. Rodriguez said if he were drafted he would work in order to pay the fine.
Military service is obligatory in some nations neighboring Peru, including Bolivia and Colombia, where the ranks of the armed forces are generally filled by the poor.
In Colombia, students and priests are among those exempt from service but they must pay fees ranging from $278 and $1,000 depending on social class.
In Ecuador, military service is voluntary and also largely attracts the poor.
Chile has a draft only when recruiting falls short, and its armed forces organizes job fairs for soldiers leaving military service.
In Mexico, one year of military service is obligatory for all 18-year-olds. Few are able to get out of serving and avoiding service is punishable by up to a year in prison.
An independent Peruvian security expert, Luis Giacoma, said that Peru's reinstatement of the draft goes against the global trend of volunteer militaries "with fewer members and more technology. Massive armies are by now obsolete. Now, what is being sought is professional solders."
Peru's armed forces have more than 100,000 members.
Defense Ministry spokeswoman Sara Alcantara said she could not provide a more precise number for reasons of national security.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Franklin Briceno in Lima contributed to this report.