The Coca Question in Peru

Coletta A. Youngers | Update 113. 31 January 2006

The overwhelming victory of coca grower leader Evo Morales in Bolivia's recent presidential elections provides a potent reminder of long-standing frustration with U.S.-backed coca eradication policies implemented across the Andes that have provoked violence and social conflict, but have failed to provide coca farmers with viable economic alternatives, thereby assuring that coca cultivation continues unabated.

Coca production in Peru follows regional patterns. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca leaf prices have increased steadily since 1996, reaching $2.8/kilogram in 2004. Coca production continued to decline until 1999, but has grown steadily thereafter (see table below). In 2004, Peru produced 50,300 hectares of cocaine, and eradicated 10,257 hectares, a 10 percent decline in eradication from the previous year.

Years Cultivation (ha) Eradication (ha)
1983 45,000 700
1984 60,000 3,100
1985 70,000 4,800
1986 107,500 2,600
1987 110,146 400
1988 111,875 5,100
1989 123,007 1,300
1990 121,300 -
1991 120,800 -
1992 129,100 -
1993 108,800 -
1994 108,600 -
1995 115,300 -
1996 94,400 1,300
1997 68,800 3,500
1998 51,000 7,800
1999 38,700 14,700
2000 43,400 6,200
2001 46,200 6,400
2002 46,700 7,200
2003 44,200 11,312
2004 50,300 10,257

Table - Peru, coca cultivation and reported eradication (hectares, 1983-2004)
Source: CORAH

Of most significance, however, is the trend of increasing cocaine production. Anti-drug raids are now leading to the confiscation of more refined cocaine than cocaine paste, and in 2004 a record 15 tons of cocaine was seized in Peru. (This does not include cocaine captured in other countries that was traced back to Peru.) As the cocaine business in Peru surges, local analysts worry about the potential infiltration of drug trafficking interests in business and political sectors, which could lead to the "Colombianization" of Peru. See graph below showing recent increase in potential cocain production.

Yet U.S. drug policy in Peru remains disproportionately focused on coca - rather than cocaine - production. After President Alejandro Toledo took office, U.S. officials began insisting on "zero coca" within five years. This was more than was ever asked of the authoritarian Fujimori regime and failed to take into account the difficult democratic transition underway. The result was a cyclical pattern of protests and violence that continues today.

Washington has also adopted a "narco-terrorist discourse" that further distances the government from coca growers and threatens to repeat the errors made in Peru's past. Painting agricultural producers as "narco-farmers," or criminals, rather than valid interlocutors has undermined negotiations with the Toledo administration and guarantees continued conflict. Attacks by the Shining Path do appear to be on the rise in coca growing regions, particularly the Upper Huallaga Valley. Yet in the late 1980s, it was precisely when the Peruvian government stopped eradicating coca and focused on agricultural development that the insurgents lost significant ground in the region. Most ironically, it was Vladimiro Montestinos - the U.S. government's principle ally in fighting the so-called drug war and the insurgents during the 1990s - that appears to have opened the door to Mexican and other cartels.

In response to the increased reports of Shining Path attacks, in December 2005 the Toledo government announced the "Upper Huallaga Plan" to increase security - largely by declaring a state of emergency - and the state's presence through development initiatives. Not surprisingly, the plan was met with skepticism by coca farmers who for the most part have failed to see past promises lead to any significant improvements in their living standards.
Some local authorities have sought a very different approach. In June 2005, the regional president, Carlos Cuardesma, in Cusco signed legislation essentially legalizing coca production in three of the department's valleys by declaring the leaf a "cultural patrimony." In July, the regional president in Huanuco followed suit. In September, Peru's constitutional tribunal ruled on the matter, unanimously deciding that the regional governments did not have the authority to take such action. However, it also called on President Toledo to re-evaluate the policy because of its lack of success to date. In particular, the tribunal members questioned the focus on coca eradication as opposed to interdiction efforts and the lack of an adequate agricultural policy, which pushes poor farmers into coca production.

The only candidate in the upcoming presidential elections to wade into the coca controversy with signs of an alternative approach is Ollanta Humala, who has strong backing in rural sectors. Apart from some inflammatory remarks, Humala's own position on the coca issue remains to be defined; however two of Peru's most prominent coca grower leaders, Elsa Malpartida and Nancy Obregon, are on his congressional slate and will likely pull the majority of Peru's approximately 50,000 coca farmers into his camp. Both have a collegial relationship with Morales in Bolivia and are proposing a similar approach based on the idea of "coca, yes; cocaine, no." Specifically, they propose decriminalizing coca cultivation, industrialization of coca products, and significant investment in alternative development to reduce illegal cultivation.

There are many reasons to be concerned with Humala's surge in the polls; however, a new approach to the coca question in Peru is long overdue. Close attention should be paid to developments in neighboring Bolivia, which may pave the way for a more humane and ultimately more effective illicit drug control policy.

Coletta A. Youngers is an independent consultant and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

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