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Coca production makes a comeback in Peru

Coca cultivation is surging once again in Peru's remote tropical valleys, making the country a contender to surpass Colombia as the world’s largest exporter of cocaine.
Image: Peruvian anti-narcotics police
Peruvian anti-narcotics police secure a coca field in the Alto Huallaga Valley in central Peru.Moises Saman for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Coca cultivation is surging once again in this country’s remote tropical valleys, part of a major repositioning of the Andean drug trade that is making Peru a contender to surpass Colombia as the world’s largest exporter of cocaine.

Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking rings are expanding their reach in Peru, where two factions of Shining Path guerrillas are already competing for control of the cocaine trade.

The traffickers — fortified by the resilient demand for cocaine in the United States, Brazil and parts of Europe — are stymieing efforts to combat the drug’s resurgence here and raising the specter of greater violence in a nation still haunted by years of war.

“The struggle against coca can resemble detaining the wind,” said Gen. Juan Zárate, who leads the country’s coca eradication campaigns.

The increase in Peru offers a window into one of the most vexing aspects of the American-financed war against drugs in Latin America, which began in earnest four decades ago. When antinarcotics forces succeed in one place — as they recently have in Colombia, which has received more than $5 billion in American aid this decade — cultivation shifts to other corners of the Andes.

'Entrepreneurial skills'
This happened in the 1990s, when coca cultivation shifted to Colombia after successful eradication projects in Peru and Bolivia. More recently, coca growers moved to dozens of new areas within Colombia after aerial spraying in other areas. Scholars of the Andean drug war call this the balloon effect, bringing to mind a balloon that swells in one spot when another is squeezed.

“Washington’s policy of supply-oriented intervention inevitably improves the efficiencies and entrepreneurial skills of traffickers,” said Paul Gootenberg, who wrote the book “Andean Cocaine.”

The balloon effect — and its consequences — is coming full circle in the jungle valleys of central Peru, the cocaine industry’s storied cradle.

In late April, a faction of the Shining Path, the rebel group held responsible for tens of thousands of deaths from 1980 to 2000 during its war against the government, killed two eradicators and one police officer here in central Peru.

This is the same region that experienced the first cocaine boom in the 19th century, after German chemists developed the formula for making cocaine from the coca leaf, feeding a legal trade in the United States and Europe. Sigmund Freud was among its early users.

By the 1970s, with cocaine illegal here and Peru’s government outlawing much of the new coca cultivation in the country, Colombian drug lords put in motion another boom, exporting Peruvian coca leaf to cocaine laboratories across the border. Columns of the Shining Path later worked to protect farmers growing coca in the region, consolidating Peru as the world’s top coca grower.

In the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori militarized the region to crush the Shining Path, lowering cultivation levels. Now many farmers are planting coca once again. “Coca lets us feed our children,” said Jacinta Rojas, 45, a grower near Tingo María, explaining that coca can be harvested up to five times a year, compared with one or two harvests for crops like cacao.

Free-spending farmers
The resurgence of Peru’s cocaine trade is on display in Tingo María, a bustling town that suffered when coca growing plunged during the 1990s. Now legions of motorcycle taxis swarm the streets and small hotels and restaurants cater to free-spending farmers.

Nightclubs feature Peruvian bands belting out cumbia, the folk music transplanted from Colombia, with lyrics that celebrate and lament the travails of cocaleros, or coca growers.

“Cocalero, your pots are empty; cocalero, your wife is crying,” goes a passage by a local cumbia band. “But keep planting more coca, so that money will sprout.”

The increased cultivation in central Peru contrasts with the situation in Colombia, where cultivation fell 18 percent in 2008, according to the United Nations. In Peru, cultivation climbed 4.5 percent that year, capping a decade in which areas under cultivation had increased 45 percent since 1998. Cultivation is also rising in Bolivia, though that country remains third in overall production.

Pointing to Peru’s anemic interdiction efforts, antinarcotics specialists in Lima, the capital, contend that Peru may have already surpassed Colombia in cocaine exports. An analysis of cocaine interception in Colombia and Peru by Jaime Antezana, a security analyst at Catholic University in Peru, found that in Colombia, which still cultivates more coca and produces more cocaine than Peru, the authorities seized about 198 tons of the drug in 2008, compared with just 20 tons in Peru. That left traffickers in Peru free to export 282 tons of cocaine, about 50 tons more than Colombia’s estimated cocaine-export capacity, he said.

“If current cultivation trends continue, we could also surpass Colombia as the world’s largest producer of coca leaf by 2011 or 2012, putting us back in the same place we were in the 1980s,” Mr. Antezana said.

President Obama’s top drug policy adviser, R. Gil Kerlikowske, announced a drug plan in May emphasizing prevention and treatment in the United States. But the administration has left financing for eradication projects in the Andes largely unchanged, despite debate over whether such efforts can sharply restrict the supply of cocaine or significantly increase the price in the United States in the long run.

'Global phenomenon'
American antinarcotics aid for Peru stands at $71.7 million this year, slightly higher than last year’s $70.7 million. American antinarcotics officials operate from a newly expanded Peruvian police base here in Tingo María, overseeing Peruvian teams that fan out to nearby valleys to cut down coca bushes by hand.

“We view drug trafficking in Peru as part of a regional and global phenomenon,” said Abelardo A. Arias, director of the narcotics affairs section at the United States Embassy in Lima. “In response to law enforcement pressure in one area, drug cultivators and traffickers switch operations to new territories.”

Peru uses some American aid to buy helmets and vests to protect against land mines planted by the Shining Path faction here, which is competing with a separate guerrilla faction over some coca-growing areas, according to Peruvian military officials. Other American aid goes to American contractors like DynCorp, which maintains the helicopters operating from Tingo María.

From one helicopter, Gen. Horacio Huivin, director of Peru’s antidrug police, gazed at coca fields, minutes from Tingo María. “We have fallen into a vicious cycle,” he said, “because we are eradicating in the same places where we were eradicating last year or in previous years.”

Andrea Zárate contributed reporting from Lima, Peru.

This story, "Coca Production Makes a Comeback in Peru," originally appeared in The New York Times.