Editorial: Cocaine and Corruption

Update 135. August / September 2009

Squeeze the balloon here and the air pops up elsewhere. This is the age old problem facing drug eradication efforts in the Andes: suppress the production of coca and cocaine in one country (Colombia) and it simply moves to another location (Peru and Bolivia). According to a recent study, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Peru may have already taken over from Colombia as the world's number one exporter of cocaine.

Whether or not this is true, evidence from the 2009 annual report of the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) certainly suggests that the production of coca and cocaine in Peru is on the rise. The report shows that the production of dry coca leaf more than doubled in the first eight years of the present decade, while cocaine production rose even faster.

Peru provides fertile terrain for the cocaine trade. Firstly, the main areas of production are situated in remote valleys on the eastern side of the Andes, where access to the rest of the country is difficult. In this, Peru contrasts with its neighbour Bolivia, where the main growing fields of the Chapare are close to the country's principle highway linking Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Secondly, in areas such as the Alto Huallaga and the Ene-Apurimac valleys, state institutions and the rule of law are conspicuous by their absence. Thirdly, cocaine is now being shipped out directly to Mexico (without going through Colombia) from ports on Peru's northern coast. And fourthly, coca production is protected to a degree by the presence in key production areas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which continues successfully to resist the government's attempts to dislodge it. Anxious to maintain good relations with Washington, the Peruvian authorities have long tried to eradicate coca.

However, the results have proven disappointing. Even though the authorities have tried to stop the inflow of precursor chemicals (those required to manufacture cocaine) it seems that Peru is becoming a major producer of cocaine and not just coca or cocaine base (PBC). Also, it seems that the powerful Mexican mafias are migrating south to ensure secure sources of supply.

As production of cocaine increases, so too does the amount of money available in the local economy. Producers of coca leaves receive much more cash than other farmers, but this income is a drop in the ocean compared to the profits made by those trading in pure cocaine. As is well known, the money generated from cocaine trafficking is hugely corrosive in terms of corruption not least in a country like Peru where the probity of public institutions has always been relative at best. For obvious reasons, it is hard to know how many public officials and politicians are effectively in the pocket of the drug traders. But a recent opinion poll by Ipsos Apoyo shows that 55% of the people interviewed consider that drug traffickers and politicians are closely linked, with the traffickers routinely seeking to bribe politicians.

As much as 72% of those interviewed thought the police had been infiltrated by traffickers, while 66% believed that the judicial system is also corrupted by drug money. Even allowing for the fact that such views may be somewhat exaggerated, it is logical to assume that those at the head of drug cartels use the money at their disposal to buy influence so as to protect their business interests. This is the lesson from Mexico, where drug barons in recent years have shown themselves able to buy their way to the very top of that country's political system and its security apparatus. This has obvious dangers in a country like Peru where democratic institutions are notoriously weak and where public officials have a long tradition of putting their own interests before those of the people they are supposed to serve. The dangers to democracy are all too self-evident.

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    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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