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Déjà Vu: Peru’s Cocaine Resurgence

July 21, 2011

This is the final issue in a four part series on the narcotics trade that discusses the industry from a variety of different angles.

 Harvesting Coca in Peru

Colombia has long occupied our imagination as the Mecca of cocaine production. Mention Colombia and most people conjure up mental images of jungle dwelling rebels, massive shipments of cocaine smuggled cleverly over thousands of miles, and crop dusters spraying vast expanses of coca leaf fields from the sky. Despite the compelling nature of these images, there is some evidence that the War on Drugs has contributed to an overall decline in the area of Colombian land dedicated to coca production.

What the War on Drugs may have also brought about is an associated “balloon effect,” whereby severe coca eradication and counter-trafficking measures in one area lead to an increase in unwanted production and trafficking elsewhere: when a balloon is squeezed in one spot, it swells in another. Decades of “squeezing” in Colombia have inevitably brought about the associated swelling in its Andean neighbor, Peru.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) just released its annual World Drug Report in June 2011. Its findings confirm the existence of a phenomenon that has become increasingly apparent over the last two years, but is only beginning to receive attention among leaders in the Western Hemisphere. While the area of Colombia’s coca cultivation stood at 57,000-62,000 hectares in 2010, down from 160,100 hectares in 1999, Peru’s area of cultivation has come to match Colombia’s at 61,200 hectares, 1.5 times the 1999 measure of 38,700 hectares.

Each country’s relative share of total coca cultivation equals what one might expect, given the changes in the areas of cultivation. Between 2007 and 2009 alone, Colombia’s share of cultivation dropped from 49 percent to 43 percent, while Peru’s increased from 33 percent to 38 percent. Amid this shift, Bolivia’s share of cultivation remained fairly constant, increasing only from 18 to 19 percent.

Given variations in purity and methods of production, the UNODC states that it is more difficult to estimate to what extent increased coca cultivation in Peru corresponds to increased production of the actual cocaine drug. But antinarcotics specialists in Lima estimate that regardless of how much cocaine each country actually produces, Peru may have already surpassed Colombia in the illicit export of cocaine. Since interdiction efforts are significantly weaker in Peru than in Colombia, a much greater percentage of cocaine is seized as it tries to leave Colombia. In 2008, authorities seized an estimated 198 tons of cocaine leaving Colombia, compared to just 20 tons leaving Peru. As a result, Peruvian traffickers freely smuggled an estimated 282 tons of cocaine—about 50 tons more than Colombia’s estimated cocaine-shipment capacity.

As a whole, the Andean region’s coca cultivation and cocaine production has decreased over the last decade, but the steady shift in cultivation and production toward new territory creates fresh challenges for South American governments.

On the other hand, it is not entirely correct to state that this shift to Peru is “new” or “fresh.” In the early 1990s, before Colombia assumed its reign as the leading cultivator and producer of cocaine, Peru held that same position. The original shift to Colombia was the result of successful eradication efforts in Peru and Bolivia. This shift back to Peru indicates that coca cultivation and cocaine production have reverted back to their territorial origins in South America.

The Original Cocaine Source

Still, Peru should be wary. At the zenith of its production, the country was plagued by terrorist attacks from the infamous revolutionary guerrilla organization, Shining Path. While the Shining Path carried out attacks to gain traction and attention for its Maoist cause, the group also focused on protecting Peruvian coca farmers from the military and helped funnel coca to cocaine laboratories in Colombia. In return, Shining Path funded the majority of its operations by extorting individuals and small businesses in their territory.

In response to the growing narco-terror threat of the early 1990s, then-President Alberto Fujimori militarized the most prominent regions of coca production in Peru in an attempt to crush the Shining Path. For the most part, despite accusations of severe human rights abuses, his measures were effective at reducing the influence of these dangerous sub-state actors. Peru pushed coca cultivation, cocaine production, and associated guerrilla-terrorist movements into Colombia. Now, it appears that Colombia has managed to squeeze the problem back into Peru. Along with the steady increase in cultivation and production, attacks associated with the Shining Path have increased drastically over the past couple of years. This time around, the Shining Path may become even more involved with narco-trafficking than it was decades ago. Increasing evidence suggests that the Shining Path has quickly reestablished a financial relationship with Peru’s coca growers and is coordinating more and more with Colombian narco-terrorist groups. Peruvian President Alán García and other members of his cabinet have blamed the growing drug trade in their nation on the United States’ continued obsession with Colombia and are asking for increased U.S. aid.

Peru’s President-elect Ollanta Humala has already suggested addressing the problem by decriminalizing coca farming and low-level cocaine production and smuggling.  While such a measure would reduce the injustice imposed upon those who are only minimally responsible for the increase in production, it would likely do little to address the issue of widespread organized crime. What is clear, however, is that Andean and U.S. counter-narcotics strategies employed up until now have done almost nothing but divert the stream of cocaine trafficking back to its source, rather than allow it to dry up entirely.

Written by COHA Research Associate Elizabeth Rust

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