Coca and cocaine production has returned to Peru with a vengeance, jeopardizing
years of efforts to get coca farmers to switch to legal — and profitable — export crops.
LIMA – Coca and cocaine production has returned to Peru with a vengeance,
jeopardizing years of efforts to get coca farmers to switch to legal — and
profitable — export crops.
Jaime Antezana, a local expert on drug trafficking and subversion, forecasts
an increase of about 4,000 hectares in 2010, and claims Peru is on the cusp of
eclipsing neighboring Colombia in total coca output.
“We are going to see the same rates of growth in the coming years, which will
make Peru the world’s leading coca producer, unless we start to rethink and apply a
different strategy,” he warned.
Peruvian production of coca, from which cocaine is extracted, reached its
high point in 1992 when 129,100 hectares of coca were planted, according to the
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Cultivation bottomed out in 1999
at 38,700 hectares, but has been edging up since then, slowly and steadily. By 2009,
says UNDOC, cultivation had risen to 59,900 hectares, with analysts saying the
upward trend continued in 2010.
Land used for coca crops isn’t the only concern. These days, fields are
vastly more productive and coca leaves contain higher quantities of the cocaine
alkaloid than in the past. One hectare of coca today can support up to 40,000
plants, while the same hectare would have had around 10,000 plants in the 1990s.
Studies are under way to determine productivity, with some estimates claiming 200
kilograms of coca leaves are needed to produce one kilogram of cocaine. The formula
a decade ago was 375 kilograms of coca for one kilogram of cocaine.
Bucking the national trend is San Martín, a department in Peru’s northern
jungle. San Martín had 23,000 hectares of coca crops in 1996, but the government
reported only 400 hectares in 2009 — thanks to a combination of eradication,
interdiction and development projects the government calls the San Martín model.
It’s also the primary target of drug trafficking mafias who want to ensure their
“Drug trafficking is a knot that needs to be untied using legal, political,
social and economic strategies that must be applied at the same time and
continuously. Eliminating coca has to be a long-term commitment,” said retired
National Police Gen. Juan Zarate, who coordinates coca-eradication brigades (known
by the Spanish acronym CORAH) in Peru’s Huallaga Valley.
CORAH, which uses manual eradication, works only in the Upper Huallaga
Valley, which had 17,497 hectares of coca under cultivation in 2009, according to
UNODC. The Peruvian government has opted not to eradicate coca in the other major
production area, the Apurímac-Ene River Valley — in the southern jungle — because of
difficult social and political conditions there. The valley had 17,486 hectares of
coca in 2009.
The Upper Huallaga Valley encompasses provinces in San Martín and the
neighboring departments of Huánuco and Ucayali. CORAH eradicated 12,000 hectares
last year, 20 percent above its goal, from the three departments, and destroyed more
than 200 rustic labs that processed coca into cocaine paste or refined cocaine. It
plans to eliminate 10,000 hectares this year, starting in San Martín.
This the fifth consecutive year that CORAH’s 600 eradicators, as well as
police and military backup, are in San Martín — and Zarate said it is unlikely to be
last, as the work becomes increasingly complicated.
CORAH has eradicated more than 2,000 hectares in San Martín this year, a
large percentage of those crops replanted since the end of the 2010 eradication
campaign in December. The program also has to deal with the “balloon effect,” with
coca farmers simply planting in nearby areas when their crops are eradicated.
The work is slow because of homemade booby traps placed in fields and snipers
who killed three CORAH workers and several police officers last year. A small band
of remnants of the Shining Path — Peru’s violent Maoist-inspired rebels who
terrorized the country in the 1980s and early 1990s — remain active in the zone.
They’ve made defense of coca their primary calling card and are active wherever
CORAH is eradicating.
As such, San Martín’s Tocache province, along with parts of Huánuco and
Ucayali, have been under a state of emergency since December 2005 because Shining
Shining Path remnants are also active in the Apurímac-Ene River Valley, where
they also have links to drug trafficking. That area has been under a state of
emergency since 2003. This faction is larger than the Huallaga group and has engaged
security forces much more often in recent years.
Defense Minister Jaime Thorne told reporters in late April that the Shining
Path rebels were “narcoterrorists fighting for money and the [drug] mafias, not for
ideology or doctrine.”
Complicating things further, said Zarate, “we are finding coca mixed in with
palm oil trees. These farmers are receiving technical assistance for alternative
crops, but they also like the easy cash from coca. There needs to be a change in
mentality, which is the hardest part of the job.”
San Martín’s Tocache province is now ground zero, which highlights the
struggle of moving forward with the San Martín model in the face of pressure from
drug mafias that want to obtain the raw material needed for cocaine.
Former coca growers in Tocache are on the forefront of Peru’s new image as a
world-class producer of cacao, from which chocolate is made, as well as coffee.
Cooperatives of former coca growers have won international awards, including the
best aromatic chocolate at France’s Salon du Chocolat, and international recognition
of organic coffee. San Martín is now Peru’s top cacao producer and is a major source
Elena Rios, secretary of the Tocache Agroindustrial Cooperative, said
switching from coca to cacao 10 years ago was the best decision she ever made.
“We no longer have to be afraid of losing our crops. We can now plan for the
future and the future of our children,” said Rios, a 53-year-old mother of six.
She added, however, that while many people in Tocache are planting
alternative crops, it’s still difficult to convince them to give up coca completely.
She said coca is still seen as the caja chica — literally a cash box — because it
can be harvested three or four times a year and provide a family with quick money at
the start of the school year or Christmas.
While Zarate said Tocache is the most difficult zone — with coca replanted
quickly, laboratories producing cocaine paste and new routes to get cocaine to the
coast for export — he’s confident the eradication-interdiction-development model is
“Drug trafficking has been here for decades, so we are not going to stop it
in a year or two,” he said. “This is a process that will take years. But we have the
I liked it, but it should be more simplified.