Rising violence and corruption as Peru confirmed world’s number one coca producer

30 November -1

The latest figures for Peruvian coca production, released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime on 24 September, confirm that Peru is the world’s largest producer of coca, having surpassed Colombia a couple of years ago. This presents serious risks for drug-related and political violence, and for the integrity of Peru's political and judicial systems.

The report updates production figures to the end of 2012. It suggests that, despite a slight (3.4 per cent) decline in coca acreages in 2012, Peru’s output has fallen considerably less fast than in neighbouring Colombia and Bolivia, the two other countries that produce coca, the raw material for cocaine. Colombian acreages fell by a dramatic 25 per cent between 2011 and 2012, while Bolivian acreages were down 7 per cent.

Peruvian coca acreages appear to have been in the ascendant since 2007, so the decline in 2012 bucks the trend, albeit slightly. By contrast, Colombian acreages have been falling for most of this time, while Bolivian acreages have been cut by as much as 18 per cent in the last two years. Though acreages do not necessarily reflect production levels accurately, they are illustrative of trends. Colombia employs aerial spraying of coca plantations, a practice that is outlawed in Peru and Bolivia.

Most producers in Bolivia and Peru, where cultivation of coca is a practice that goes back centuries, are small-scale peasant families, migrants from the harsh agricultural conditions that prevail in the Andean highlands. They have tended to resist attempts, backed by the US government, to eradicate coca cultivation. In Bolivia, they are a key factor of power behind the Morales administration, which came to power in 2005 on a wave of protest about – among other things – coca eradication strategies.

Although the figures for coca acreages serve only as a rough guide to what is actually produced, the data on cocaine production is much less accurate. However, the UNODC figures point to the fact that Peru has probably also overtaken Colombia as the world’s number one source of this sought-after drug. Pressure on production in Colombia has pushed cocaine producers southwards into Peru and Bolivia, where government controls are less effective.

The Humala administration, like its predecessors, has sought to portray itself as fully committed to the ‘war on drugs’ being waged by Washington. Yet whereas Bolivia has been repeatedly singled out as not ‘collaborating in the war on drugs’, Washington appears to cast a blind eye to the Peruvian statistics of recent years.

Although the Humala government started off advocating ‘new approaches’ to drug production, it swiftly changed its tune in the months immediately after taking office in 2011. Officials at the drug control office, Devida, were removed, and replaced by those who echoed the US approach.

The increase in cocaine production is, however, a major source of concern for a number of reasons, including:

  • The increase in drug-related violence. Peru is not yet as violent as Mexico or some countries in Central America, but the trend is upwards. Towns like Trujillo and Chimbote, through which cocaine is transhipped northwards, have become hotspots for urban violence.
  • The increased salience of drug money in politics. Naturally, drug traffickers seek to use their wealth to buy politicians. The finger has been repeatedly pointed at members of Congress who appear to be in the pay of ‘narco’ interests. Most recently, during the García government (2006-2011), presidential pardons appear to have been handed out to those serving sometimes lengthy prison sentences for involvement in drug trafficking. García is currently doing his utmost to frustrate the attempts of a congressional ‘mega-commission’ that is investigating these and other corruption charges.
  • Influence over the justice system, including the police. Drug interests are keen to sway judicial decisions and have influence in the police force. The justice system in Peru is notorious for corruption, and attempts to cleanse the judiciary have been repeatedly frustrated.
  • Impact on political violence. The ability of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) to hold out in the valleys of the Aprurímac, Ene and Mantaro (VRAEM) in the south of the country owes much to its ties to drug producers in the area. The VRAEM is the country’s largest area of coca and cocaine production, and Sendero funds itself by protecting drug interests.

Traditional methods of drug control do not appear to be working, but there is a lack of appetite in the Humala administration to think up new strategies for fear of annoying Washington. If lessons are to be learned from Bolivia (which Peruvian drug officials are reluctant to do), these would be that it is important to regulate coca production (rather than to try to obliterate it), thereby respecting the human and economic rights of coca farmers. These are not, in the majority of cases, drug producers, but have little option in the present circumstances than to sell their production to cocaine manufacturers. A wedge needs to be driven between coca producers and the drug-trafficking mafias. This is not easy to do, but current policies have not been a conspicuous success either.

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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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