Peru has long vied with Colombia as the world's top producer of cocaine, but has only periodically produced high profile drug lords.
Gerson Gálvez Calle — alias "Caracol" or Snail — is one of these.
Caracol sprung to the nation's attention late last year after news emerged that he was heading Peru's largest and most violent drug ring, known as the Barrio King. It came just a year after he walked free from jail in highly controversial circumstances.
The steady stream of revelations about Caracol's sudden release, and the scale of his operations, have focused attention on the cocaine industry's deep penetration of the country's institutions, fuelling the sense that the country is slipping quietly but surely towards becoming a narco state.
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This idea is one of the few things that former drug czar Ricardo Soberon and prominent security analyst Jaime Antezana agree on.
Soberon, the former head of Peru's counternarcotics agency Devida, who favors decriminalization, says Peru is "almost there." Antezana, a law-and-order advocate who supports forced eradication of coca crops, agrees that the country "is close."
Antezana has taken particular aim at signs of narco influence in politics, causing a furor last year when he alleged that at least 10 of Peru's 130-member legislature were in hock to the drugs trade.
Numerous politicians, especially from the supporters of the jailed hard-right former president Alberto Fujimori, professed outrage. Some even threatened to sue him.
'Everyone here knows it, but no one wants to admit it.'
Fujimori's daughter, Keiko, is the presidential frontrunner, with a 20-point lead over her nearest rival as she campaigns on her father's controversial legacy. She avoids all talk of the drugs trade. Her press office told VICE she is not giving interviews at this time.
Meanwhile, Kenji Fujimori, Keiko's brother and also a Fujimorista congressman, was caught up in the 2013 discovery of 100kg of cocaine at a warehouse he co-owned in Peru's lawless port city Callao, which is also the country's largest. He blamed the shipping company that had rented the facility.
"Everyone here knows it but no one wants to admit it," says Antezana, about the growing role of cocaine cash in Peru's public institutions. "When I say everyone, I am talking about the establishment. The general population gets it. This is a country where thousands of people, maybe even two million people, live from the cocaine trade in some way."
According to the latest data from the United Nations, Peru is currently the world's second largest producer of cocaine.
In 2014, Peru had an estimated 42,900 hectares (106,008 acres) of coca, the key ingredient in cocaine. That same year Colombia took the top spot thanks to a dramatic 44 percent rise — attributed by some to unexpected repercussions of the country's peace process — to 69,000 hectares (170,502 acres). Bolivia, the only other nation that produces significant quantities of the illicit crop, had 20,400 hectares (50,409 acres).
While Colombia's coca harvest keeps the United States in cocaine, those of Peru and Bolivia fan out much more broadly across the globe. Their markets include Tokyo, London, and Brazil, the world's second largest market after the US, where cheap, partially-processed and highly addictive cocaine paste, known as bazuco or paco, is popular in the favelas.
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About half of Peru's coca is grown in the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers (VRAE by its Spanish acronym), a rugged, lawless area where the Amazon and eastern Andean foothills overlap, near the Bolivian border.
It is also still home to the last remnants of the Shining Path guerrillas, who triggered a civil war in the 1980s and 1990s that took nearly 70,000 lives. Now, the group has all but given up on Maoist revolution and instead charges protection to local drug traffickers, while launching ambushes on army foot patrols, and even shooting down the occasional military helicopter.
Much of the cocaine produced in the VRAE heads straight to neighboring Bolivia, via light aircraft or "backpackers" schlepping bricks of the drug over the densely-vegetated, precipitous frontier zone.
Other routes out of Peru include the country's 1,000-mile Amazon border with Brazil, through several Pacific ports, and from Lima's international airport, either hidden in freight or carried by drug mules, who are typically paid around $3,000 dollars to transport around two kilograms of the drug.
Antezana wants the government to better target the narcos' financial flows and the precursor chemicals used to make cocaine.
"The mules and backpackers are the main focus of anti-narcotics strategy. They are on the bottom rung of the ladder, the lumpen proletariat of the industry," he says. "Why haven't more big players been taken down in Peru, like in Colombia or Mexico?"
One of the biggest players of the past, who supplied Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, was Demetrio Chávez, alias "Vaticano." He was released earlier this month after 22 years in jail, and immediately began repeating allegations that that he paid $50,000 dollars a month to Vladimiro Montesinos, President Alberto Fujimori's disgraced security adviser.
Related: Sacred Cocaine: Inside the Peruvian Sect Accused of Growing Coca in the Amazon
The biggest player in Peru's cocaine trade right now is thought to be the 32-year-old Caracol, and he is believed to be even more ambitious.
The drug lord was released from jail on October 3, 2014, thanks to a reduction of his sentence that was made in the name of addressing overcrowding. He had served 12 years of a 15-year sentence for attempted murder, robbery, and drug trafficking.
There have been claims that the prison director personally drove him out of the Sarita Colonia jail in the port of Callao. But the most telling detail is probably that prosecutors had requested his continued detention on new drug trafficking allegations just hours before he was freed.
Amid mutual recriminations, and an ongoing Interpol search that has spanned both Brazil and Ecuador, Peru's director of prisons Julio Magán has blamed prosecutors and police for allegedly failing to notify his agency of the new criminal case against Caracol.
Even while behind bars, Caracol is suspected of heading the Barrio King, but it is only since he was freed that Peruvians are learning just how important he allegedly is.
Recordings by Constellation, a Peruvian counter-narcotics police surveillance program funded by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, appear to confirm that Caracol's organization has been using military choppers to ferry cocaine from the VRAE to Callao.
"Bring it in a helicopter...to the garrison here in Lima, and with an official, state car, Ok?" one of Caracol's alleged henchmen says in an audio leaked to the media just before Christmas. "From the garrison they will leave the merchandise at the door of your house."
Neither the National Police of Peru nor the anti-narcotics agency Devida responded to VICE News' requests for a comment on the audio.
Watch VICE News documentary: Peru's War on Drugs
Caracol is also reportedly behind a wave of violence in Callao, including over 140 murders during 2015. The bloodletting prompted the government to declare an ongoing state of emergency in the port in early December.
This includes a temporary suspension of some constitutional rights that allows cops to search homes without a warrant. During the first two days, 2,000 heavily-armed police flooded the streets of Callao and detained 240 alleged gang members.
Caracol is further suspected of orchestrating last April's attack on Geraldo Oropeza, known as "Tony Montana," his main rival for control of the cocaine routes in Callao's docks.
Assailants attacked Oropeza's gleaming new white Porsche SUV with machine guns and grenades in downtown Lima as he returned from a business trip to the Mexican resort city of Cancun.
Oropeza survived but his empire — and his political connections — quickly unraveled under the unwanted public scrutiny prompted by the attempted hit. He went into hiding and was eventually arrested at an Ecuadorian beach resort in September.
Related: Ecuador Just Captured a Peruvian Drug Trafficker Known as 'Tony Montana'
Oropeza is now in jail awaiting trial on drug-trafficking charges. It has subsequently emerged that several members of Oropeza's family were activists in the APRA party of Alan García, who was president from 2006 to 2011 and who is also running in this year's election.
A cleaning company owned by the 30-something alleged drug lord also had contracts worth 149 million Sols (roughly $43 million dollars) to service the national prosecutors' offices. The contracts were mostly awarded during the García government.
In another leaked recording, purportedly taken from a mobile phone call he made from jail, Oropeza is allegedly heard saying that "uncle Alan" would come to his rescue.
García, whose campaign has also been dogged by a scandal surrounding the sale by his aides of presidential pardons to convicted drug-traffickers, denies any relationship with Oropeza.
"It's a smokescreen," he tweeted. "Congress has already certified that I don't have illicit enrichment...I am no one's uncle."
According to Soberón, the former drug czar who was squeezed out of his job in 2011 for opposing forced coca eradication, the relationship between García's second story and the drugs trade add up to "an exploding bomb of coincidences."
Soberon estimates Peru may have around 15 drug kingpins at the level of Oropeza or Caracol — each one controlling a particular exit point for Peruvian cocaine bringing in tens of millions of dollars.
That is a far cry from the likes of Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and other billionaire players in Mexico and Colombia, where vertically integrated large-scale operations can control most of the cocaine supply chain, from production to retail.
"The Peruvian model works for the Mexicans because they can deal directly with someone at the level of Caracol," says Soberon. "And he takes care of everything below him, including buying coca straight from the growers."
Peru has also so far avoided the levels of bloodshed that have rocked Colombia and Mexico, with Peruvian traffickers apparently relying more heavily on bribes than bullets. But that may be changing with the advent of a ruthless new generation of drug traffickers, led by Caracol, whose reported ambitions include founding the country's first real "cartel".
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Soberon is doubtful that any of the presidential frontrunners — especially those with past government experience — have the will to tackle the problem.
As well as Garcia and Keiko Fujimori — who served as her father's first lady towards the end of his 1990-2000 presidency — former president Alejandro Toledo and Toledo's one time prime minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski are also in the running.
"Don't be so shameless," Soberon lectures the candidates. "Don't talk about how you are going to tackle the drugs trade when you didn't do anything when you were in power previously."
'None of the politicians want to touch it, even the ones who aren't involved in the cocaine trade.'
Security expert Antezana predicts a "dark period" is coming for Peru.
Beyond the presidential race, he warns that at least half of Peru's 26 regions have narco-candidates running for either local government or the national congress, and a good proportion of the rest wouldn't turn down a bit of extra cash for their campaigns if it were offered.
"None of the politicians want to touch it [the problem of corruption], even the ones who aren't involved in the cocaine trade," Antezana says. "They know that the bags of money, even if it is just crumbs, could be coming to them as campaign finance."
Follow Simeon Tegel on Twitter: @SimeonTegel