Cocaine Trade Shifts from Colombia to Peru

By Dialogo
July 10, 2012

The shape-shifting cocaine trade has survived a decade-long crackdown in Colombia to reemerge in Peru, which is expected to take over as top producer in an industry worth some $100 billion worldwide.

“In fact, everything that has been reduced in Colombia has ended up in Peru and Bolivia,” Colombian analyst Daniel Mejia, who leads the Center on Security and Drugs at the Universidad de los Andes, told AFP.

“The (coca processing) labs have moved to Ecuador and Venezuela, and the trafficking to Central America and Mexico,” he said.

The area of land on which coca leaves are grown has remained fairly stable in recent years, with experts putting it at around 1,500 square kilometers (579 square miles) across the Andes.

In 2010, Colombia and Peru were nearly tied in area of coca cultivation (62,000 hectares in Colombia compared to 61,200 in Peru) and processed cocaine output (350 tons a year in Colombia versus 320 in Peru). But many experts expect Peru to emerge on top in both categories in 2012.

The 2012 UN report on drugs released June 26 did not have the latest data to confirm Peru’s dubious distinction but highlighted Colombia’s “very significant reduction in cocaine processing” since 2006, when yearly output was 660 tons.

Cocaine production and retailing have changed dramatically since the early 1990s, when infamous Colombian cartels dominated the American drug trade, with a lock on everything from coca planting to retail sales on US streets.

The Colombian cartels started out just trafficking cocaine, mainly from Peru but also Bolivia. Their trade exploded, however, with the imposition of a no-fly zone in neighboring Peru by then-president Alberto Fujimori.

Peruvian armed forces shot down suspected drug planes up until 2001, when they accidentally downed a small plane carrying US missionaries.

The violence unleashed by drug traffickers in Colombia meanwhile came to be seen as a threat to national security, as thousands of Colombians were killed in turf battles and the country developed a reputation for kidnappings.

“Where Colombia is different from other coca leaf producers is that in this country, there had been an armed conflict since the middle of the 1960s,” Mejia said, referring to the decades-long war with leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s longest-fighting rebel group. “When the FARC rebels and (rightwing) paramilitaries established links with cocaine traffickers, they were trained military organizations,” he said.

In 2000, Colombia’s then-president Andres Pastrana signed the Plan Colombia with the United States, under which Bogota would eventually receive $8 billion in aid as well as training and materiel for fighting cartels and insurgents. Plan Colombia also included no-fly zones, which pushed Colombian cocaine exporters to find other paths out of the country — over land, via rivers and even by sea with semi-submersible submarines.

The decade-long crackdown has left Colombian cartels in increasing disarray, and fumigation — which is only used against coca crops in Colombia – has reduced crop yields and productivity.

But the regional cocaine trade is still alive and well. “It is a mistake to think anyone is going to get rid of the problem,” said Aldo Lale Demoz, the Colombia envoy for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “We are trying to rein it in and make sure it is hard to get and expensive, and that it does not get to people under 18,” he said.

In Peru, meanwhile, coca growing has become increasingly profitable in areas such as the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE), where efforts at crop substitution have largely failed. “Sometimes people come in (with economic incentives) and farmers want to leave their coca crops, so they plant cacao or coffee. But then there is no follow-up and farmers end up going back to coca,” said Perez Malqui, of the farmers union in Pichari, in southern Peru. “They give farmers hope with a lot of promises but then they disappear, and the farmers have products for which there are no markets,” he said.

While coca leaves are chewed for medicinal reasons in the Andes, there is no denying where most of Peru’s coca is heading. “You cannot block out the sun with one finger,” Edwin Huaman, mayor of San Francisco, near Pichari, told AFP. “There is drug trafficking here. … The traffickers are targeting people who are vulnerable and do not have government support.”