LIMA, Peru (AP) – A Peruvian army lieutenant arrested for allegedly letting small planes ferry cocaine unhindered from the world's No. 1 coca-producing valley was getting bribes of $10,000 a planeload that he apparently shared with his superiors, the prosecutor said Friday.
Lt. Wilmer Eduardo Delgado Ruiz, 35, is the first Peruvian military officer arrested on drug trafficking charges in at least a decade.
Organized crime prosecutor Irene Mercado said conversations recorded in legally executed wiretaps indicated that he shared with his superiors the bribes he collected.
"That's what's understood," she said. "In the conversations it's understood that it was for everyone, for the bosses, for everyone."
Mercado said additional arrests could not be ruled out.
Delgado's arrest Thursday followed an eight-month investigation, Mercado said, and it follows last week's Associated Press report that found Peru's armed forces have turned a blind eye to the daily airborne ferrying to Bolivia of more than a ton of cocaine from Peru's Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley.
The AP report cited police, prosecutors, former military officers, current and former U.S. drug officials and an accused narco pilot who said local military commanders charged $10,000 for each smuggling flight.
Peru's military has controlled the Ireland-sized region known as the VRAEM for nine years and it's commander, Gen. Cesar Astudillo, denied Friday that the armed forces had failed to vigorously combat drug trafficking.
"Never has drug trafficking been combatted as we are doing it now," he said, vigorously denying the AP report.
Mercado, the prosecutor, said Delgado was passing confidential information to drug traffickers that let them know when the clandestine airstrips they use to drop off cash and pick up drugs would be free of all military presence — or repaired from dynamite blasts used to discourage landings.
She said the bribes received by Delgado were transferred by local traffickers into the bank account of his wife, which the prosecutor said she understood amounted to about $100,000 though she had not yet seen the registers.
Police say an average of four or five flights a day haul more than 300 kilos each of semi-refined cocaine from the VRAEM. The narco pilot with whom the AP spoke said no plane arrives with less than a half million dollars to pay for the cocaine and bribes.
Delgado had been stationed in the valley since 2007, Mercado said. He faces 35 years in prison if convicted of drug trafficking-related conspiracy. Authorities have 15 days to formally charge him.
The case against him was launched in Lima and backed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which underwrites an eavesdropping operation at the headquarters of the Dirandro counter-narcotics police.
Intercepted phone conversations between Delgado and drug traffickers were pivotal to building the case against him, Mercado said. In one, Delgado tells a traffickers he needs to quickly make a deposit so that "my boss, the major" removes soldiers from near a clandestine air strip, according to court papers seen by the AP.
"Look, you deposit everything and my boss will immediately remove the patrol," Delgado is quoted as saying.
The military has been battling the drug-trafficking remnant of the Shining Path rebel movement in the VRAEM, which has about 60 fighters, but police say it is just one of about 15 cocaine-trafficking syndicates there. Delgado was assigned to a counterterrorism battalion at one of more than 30 bases in the valley.
Prior to AP's report last week, prosecutors and police said not a single military officer was under investigation nationwide for drug trafficking. Afterward, Defense Minister Jakke Valakivi announced that his ministry and the military command would open a joint investigation.
Valakivi also called the AP report "tendentious" and drug czar Alberto Otarola said in an interview with the La Republic newspaper that it "irresponsibly offended the image of Peru."
Peru surpassed Colombia in 2012 as the world's No. 1 cocaine-producing nation.