Peru, Closing in as World’s Top Coca Producer, Faces Tough Choices
By Dialogo August 12, 2011
LIMA – Peru’s government stands at a crossroads in its fight against drug trafficking, hopeful that a maturing alternative development program and new mechanisms for financial oversight will stop a decade-long increase in drug production.
“We have reached a turning point,” said Romulo Pizarro, who stepped down earlier this month after five years as head of the anti-drug program, DEVIDA. “We have to continue with successful policies and strengthen key components we know hurt drug traffickers.”
Officials in the new government of President Ollanta Humala, who took office July 28, are aware that the stakes are high. “We are involved in a battle that has to be successful. We cannot be defeated,” cabinet chief Salomon Lerner told reporters.
Peru is a few steps behind Colombia as the world’s top coca grower. Colombia had 62,000 hectares of coca fields under cultivation, while Peru registered 61,200 hectares, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) annual narcotics report. Statistics from Bolivia, the No. 3 coca-producing country, were unavailable this year, but it has consistently ranked third in the UNODC annual index with about 30,000 hectares of coca crops. T
he report found that coca crops in Peru increased by 2.2 percent over the previous year, but Pizarro said the increase was the smallest recorded in recent years and showed that Peru is moving in the right direction. The previous year’s increase, by comparison, was 6.8 percent. Peru reached its zenith as a coca producer in 1992, when it had 129,100 hectares of coca under cultivation. The lowest point came in 1999, with only 38,700 hectares planted with coca.
“We have significantly slowed the trend and I believe we will begin to see a steady decrease in the coming years,” Pizarro said. “The indicators are promising.”
Pizarro’s replacement at DEVIDA is Ricardo Soberón, who has more than 20 years of experience working on issues related to coca and cocaine production. Soberón, named to his new post Aug. 5, is a member of the Drugs and Democracy program of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute.
The main reason for Pizarro’s optimism is a 25 percent decline in coca crops in the Upper Huallaga, historically Peru’s main area for coca grown for drug trafficking. And that decline is attributed to a multi-pronged approach known locally as the San Martin model after the department with the same name.
That program has included forced eradication, alternative crops and infrastructure projects supported by the UN, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors. Eradication brigades there eliminated 12,033 hectares of coca in 2010, an all-time record, and 5,662 hectares were destroyed through the first week in August. Unlike Colombia, Peru uses only manual eradication to eliminate coca crops.
Jaime Antezana, who has monitored coca and cocaine production in Peru for nearly 20 years, said national policy cannot be based on success in only one area while coca crops are increasing elsewhere. “No one doubts the success in San Martin, but the reality is that coca is increasing in other traditional areas and spreading to new zones,” he said. “There are now more coca-growing areas than there were five years ago.”
The principal coca-growing area today is the Apurimac-Even River Valley (VRAE), in the south-central jungle, where UNODC recorded 19,723 hectares of coca, a 12.8 percent increase from the previous year.
Another major hot spot for authorities is along Peru’s northern border with Colombia, where coca crops nearly doubled, to 3,169 hectares, in 2010. The remoteness of that zone, accessible only by plane or boat, makes control and eradication costly. Brazilian, Colombian and Peruvian police forces undertook a joint operation on the triple border in July, eliminating several large cocaine-producing labs and eradicating coca fields. It was the first such joint operation in more than a decade.
Manuel Estela, an economics professor and one of the authors of a recent book on coca and cocaine in Peru, said the Humala government needs to maintain the policies that have contributed to success in the Upper Huallaga Valley while stopping the flow of chemical inputs used to turn coca leaves into cocaine and exercising greater financial control.
“Tax and banking secrecy are two mechanisms used by drug traffickers to guarantee impunity. We need better controls to stop the money moved by the drug trade,” he said.
The administration of former President Alan García formed a high-level commission to craft actions aimed at controlling asset laundering and financing of terrorism. The goal is to make it easier for anti-narcotics agents to request that banking and tax secrecy be lifted when suspicious transactions are detected.
Peru has had little success in controlling chemical inputs, despite a series of laws passed throughout the last decade. Colombia confiscates more than 10,000 metric tons of chemical inputs annually, while Peru’s best year so far was in 2007, when authorities seized 863 metric tons, according to a comparative study prepared by Antezana.
Peruvian authorities seized 203 tons of chemical inputs in the first half of 2011, police said. Seven primary chemical inputs are needed to produce cocaine, although Estela noted that “the control of chemical inputs is absolutely insignificant.”
Humala referred to these issues in his July 28 inaugural address, promising to consolidate the alternative development model while focusing on the weak flanks. “We will be inflexible in controlling chemical inputs and combating drug gangs,” he said. “We will reduce the area of illegal coca crops.”
He also ended any speculation that Peru would decriminalize illicit drugs — an issue raised during the presidential campaign by one of his opponents. “We respect the debate that has been opened in recent year both inside and outside the country, but we are not going to legalize any drugs,” he said.
What the new president would like to do, observers say, is sit down with leaders throughout the hemisphere to discuss new initiatives to move the anti-drug effort forward. Humala talked drugs with other presidents, including at a White House meeting with President Barack Obama during a pre-inauguration swing through the region.