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April 9, 2006 - The Observer (UK)

Coca Crisis Hangs Over Peru Elections

By Alfonso Daniels, in Llaruri

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Any unannounced 'gringo' visitor to this tiny village is a dead man. As endless coca fields spread into the forests of Peru's Apurimac jungle, mountains of coca leaves dry in the sun of Llaruri's dirt streets, at the heart of one of the world's largest cocaine-producing areas.

'Last time, I came here with a Canadian engineer and coca farmers thought we wanted to eradicate their crops, so they blocked the road, drove us away at gunpoint and threatened to shoot us,' said my driver as we approached the village. 'A local teacher saved us at the last minute by suggesting that they should check our identities first.'

For the United States, a key backer of Peru's anti-cocaine strategy, today's presidential elections pose an enormous challenge to its war against drugs. Nationalist front-runner and former military officer Ollanta Humala has promised a radical shift in anti-narcotics policy, echoing proposals from the recently elected Bolivian President, Evo Morales.

While Colombia remains the world's top cocaine producer, Peru - at number two - is rapidly gaining ground, driven by the area around the Apurimac river, where half of its cocaine is produced. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that cocaine production in Apurimac increased by 70 per cent to 53 tonnes in 2004, with up to 90 per cent of all coca production being used for cocaine. And it warns that output could be about to increase further.

'There will be no forced coca eradication. Instead we'll offer farmers viable alternatives, increase control over cocaine trafficking and industrialise coca production for the legal market,' Humala said. He claims that production of coca for medicinal and food purposes could be increased.

To Washington's alarm, a key aspect of his plans includes the legalisation of all coca production, a proposal winning him support among farmers. 'Coca is like having a piggy bank, there's nothing without it,' says Carlos Morales, 43, sitting alongside four other Llaruri coca growers huddled inside his wooden shack. 'We know that our production is used to make cocaine, but what are we supposed to do?'

'We'll kill anyone who comes here and tries to eradicate our crops. After all, coca helped us to defeat the Shining Path terror,' said another farmer, Raimundo Llaranga, 55, who lost a leg fighting the Maoist insurgents in the Eighties and early Nineties, a resistance financed by coca revenues.

Lacking electricity or reliable communications (the dirt track leading to Llaruri was built by farmers themselves without using machinery), farmers are left with little choice but to embrace coca, the only plant that can be harvested four times a year. The situation is made worse by the continuing low prices of other crops, such as coffee and cocoa, and the need for larger landholdings to grow them profitably.

'Defending alternative crops is a lost battle,' said Juan Luna, head of the US-financed Peruvian anti-drugs agency. 'But what's worse is that we're losing the whole war against cocaine. Corruption, for example, is so endemic that if the police or the military catch you carrying chemical substances to produce cocaine they'll just expect a bribe and will leave you alone.'

Only eight policemen are in charge of thwarting cocaine trafficking in Apurimac -- an area which has 100,000 inhabitants and is infested with Colombian and Italian drug cartels. The military concentrate only on fighting resurgent Shining Path guerrillas, afraid of any reaction from the heavily armed local population. Villages such as Llaruri have to grow coca to pay for schools and health clinics.

To make matters worse, cocaine is now being produced in the valley itself before finding its way to Peru's ports, from where it is shipped to the US and Europe.

Critics doubt that Humala's proposals will make any difference. 'Humala simply doesn't know what's going on,' said a senior Peruvian anti-narcotics officer, who insisted on anonymity.

'There's no legal market for coca to absorb all the production, and some of his proposals are inconsistent - why say this market exists and then insist that his government would not allow coca production to increase?'

Yet experts emphasise that the recent rise in Andean cocaine production shows that America's emphasis on targeting coca growers needs to change. The solution, they say, lies in focusing on other links of the drugs chain, such as money-laundering and corrupt officials. The recent plunge in coca prices in Peru following last month's capture of gangs exporting cocaine from the ports of Chiclayo and Trujillo demonstrates the viability of this proposal, they say.

But a senior anti-narcotics officer said that the 'missing link' of the drugs chain has been rebuilt and coca prices would soon rise again -- and Peru would resume the race to regain its status as the world's top coca producer, lost to Colombia a decade ago.

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