Peru’s New Anti-Drug Czar in Delicate Dance With U.S.

By Dialogo
October 20, 2011


Peru’s government has scored some early victories in its bid to overhaul anti-drugs policy in the world’s top coca grower while keeping the United States as a key partner, the country’s new drug czar said.

Ricardo Soberón, a lawyer who previously worked for a legislator with close links to coca growers, was seen as a risky choice to lead anti-drug efforts in a country that may surpass Colombia as the world’s top cocaine producer.

Peru gets about half its anti-drugs money from the United States and Soberón is in a delicate dance with U.S. envoys as he tries to change existing drug policies without alienating them.

Shortly after President Ollanta Humala took office in August, Peru surprised Washington by suspending all coca eradication for a week to evaluate anti-drug programs that are still being reworked.

That made for a rocky start in relations, but eradication has resumed and Soberón said he has had some success winning over U.S. officials to accommodate Humala’s emphasis on alternative development for farmers who now cultivate coca.

He wants programs giving land titles and market access to poor farmers to help bring them into the formal economy.

Controlling Chemicals, Tackling the VRAE

Soberón insists Humala’s commitment to fighting drugs is already showing results. Peru seized 955 kilos of cocaine last week and blocked some $25 million worth of the drug from entering Europe.

The government has also closed 18 unlicensed gas stations in the world’s most densely planted coca region, the Apurimac and Ene River Valley, or VRAE.

It says the raids show its determination to control the chemicals used to refine cocaine — mainly kerosene and gasoline — instead of just pulling up coca farms. Former President Alan García was criticized for not doing more to target chemicals.

The new tactic will also benefit from a $20 million investment in long-delayed software to monitor chemicals at 220 points countrywide, Soberón said.

One issue still unresolved with the United States is how to tackle the VRAE, where remnants of the Shining Path rebel group that wreaked havoc in the 1990s still pose a threat and have killed 50 soldiers in the last two years.

Soberón said the United States would rather focus on safer coca growing areas outside the VRAE, whereas Humala, a former military officer, regards the valley as a top priority.

“We’d like to see some percentage of this money go to the VRAE, with the best security possible so that every U.S. dollar in the budget is well spent, with visible results,” he said.



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