Minors are forced to work in the cultivation, production, transportation and sale of cocaine.
LIMA, Peru – A troubling and dangerous trend is spreading in the coca-growing regions of Peru.
Every day, more and more children and adolescents are being exploited by narco-traffickers to cultivate, produce and transport their product.
A significant percentage of children living in the country’s coca-rich basins are working not only in the harvesting of coca leaves, but also in the processing, refining, transportation and sale of cocaine, according to the International Studies Institute (IDEI) of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
“There’s a chain of participation for children that goes according to their age, with the youngest being involved in the harvesting and the pisado (foot-crunching) of coca leaves,” said Carlos Morán Soto, a former anti-drug chief with the Peruvian police and current Chief of Territorial Police Division of the Callao.
Of the 81,312 children living in coca-growing regions nationwide, 73,180 are involved in the harvesting, manufacturing or transporting of cocaine, according to a 2006 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Children are paid the equivalent of US$11 daily to help harvest coca leaves, and older teenagers make about US$30 for transporting a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine paste to clandestine laboratories where it’s turned into the final product, Morán added.
Morán said neither the planting nor the harvesting of the coca leaves requires many hands, while the pisado of the coca involves placing the leaves under the sun and later “crunching” them by stomping on them several times, creating the paste that will serve as the narcotic’s foundation.
“Adolescents between 15 and 16 years old are the ones who stomp on the leaves in the maceration wells. Those who are 17 or 18 are the ones who transport the cocaine,” Morán said, adding the teenaged traffickers often pose as hikers. Teenagers convicted of smuggling narcotics are often sent to correctional facilities for minors.
The transportation of the narcotic starts in the coca regions and flows toward the cities in the center of the country, such as Huancavelica, Junín, Apurímac, and Ayacucho, according to Peruvian anti-drug police.
“‘Backpackers’ need to walk two to three days to reach their destination,” Morán said.
A report from the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics, produced with the help of the World Bank and the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), says the country’s poorest cities – Huancavelica (poverty rate of 88.7%), Ayacucho (78.4%), and Apurímac (74.8%) – have deep roots in cocaine production.
Sandra Namihas, coordinator of the International Studies Institute (IDEI) of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said involving minors and teenagers in narco-trafficking is dangerous.
“The children who participate in the coca leaf harvest use sharp cutting tools, such as machetes, shovels, hooks, and rakes to till the soil or to make ditches”, she said. “[This] frequently results in injuries and major accidents.”
Namihas said narco-traffickers often use the children of adults who work for the drug dealers, as it’s common for children to have farming experience since they often work with their parents in the fields.
“What is most troublesome is that all of this is happening without [the parents’] taking into account that they’re involving [their own children] in the illegal activity of drug trafficking,” she said, adding it’s also common for children to offer their services to local narco-traffickers so they can earn money for their families.
Children of narco-traffickers and members of the terrorist group Shining Path have also become involved in the drug trade, said Jaime Antezana, a counter-narcotics analyst.
“These organizations dedicated to drug trafficking are family clans,” he said. “The adults induce the younger ones to continue with the criminal activities, establishing this type of work as the only way of making a living.”
In 2010, about 61,200 hectares (151,228 acres) were cultivated with coca in Peru’s 13 regions, producing a total of 129,500 metric tons of coca leaves, according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Of the cultivated land, no more than 3,000 metric tons are needed per trimester to supply the legal uses of the coca leaves, such as the chacchado, as well as pharmaceutical and industrial needs, according to the National Coca Company (Enaco).
“This means that more than 120,000 metric tons goes directly toward illegal uses,” said Namihas, who participated in the research for the book, Children and Adolescents in the Coca Areas of the VRAE and the High Huallaga, published by the IDEI.
The government, however, is urging farmers to grow alternative crops, such as coffee, cacao and heart of palm, which can lead to economic and social stability, instead of illegal coca.
And farmers are listening.
In the past few years, about 80,000 hectares (198,000 acres) where illegal coca was planted are now being used to grow vegetables and coffee, according to the National Commission for the Development and Life without Drugs (DEVIDA).