Coca eradicators in Peru

Coca cultivation continues to fall in Peru in response to unprecedented eradication efforts, but this progress is undermined by the government's failure to take control of the country's main coca hub, as well as soaring production in neighboring Colombia.

A new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report (pdf) estimates that coca cultivation in Peru dropped 6.1 percent from 42,900 hectares (ha) in 2014 to 40,300 ha in 2015, the lowest amount in at least 15 years. The figures continue a downward trend that began in 2011, when cultivation reached 62,500 ha.

The areas with the largest coca cultivations in 2015 were the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) with 18,333 ha and the La Convención and Lares provinces in Cuzco department with 10,454 ha. Together, they accounted for 71.4 percent of the country's total coca production. No forced eradication was carried out in these areas, according to the UNODC.

Coca cultivation shrunk the most in the departments of Pasco and Loreto, where the number of crops fell by 53.4 and 45.2 percent, respectively.

The Amazonas department saw the biggest growth in coca with a 21.8 percent rise in 2015. There was also a significant increase in production in the country's designated Natural Protected Areas.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Coca

Peru's National Statistics and Information Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadistica e Informatica - INEI) estimates that only 9,000 metric tons of coca are grown for traditional use, while the rest -- 90.7 percent -- is associated with drug trafficking, according to the UNODC. The price of coca leaf linked to drug trafficking decreased 9.3 percent last year.

Regarding interdiction efforts, the Peruvian government uprooted a record 35,868 ha of coca in 2015. Between 2011 and 2015, the government's eradication program eliminated over 115,500 ha of the leaf.

The Ministry of Agriculture is carrying out a crop substitution program in the VRAEM, where aerial and land interdiction is also taking place. By the end of 2015, the initiative had replaced a total of 2,224 ha of coca with legal crops, according to the UNODC.

The Convención and Lares region is not subject to forced eradication because it is considered an area of traditional coca consumption. Nevertheless, the amount of coca leaf being produced there exceeds the estimated demand by over 6,000 metric tons. The UNODC said it does not know where the excess coca ends up.

Authorities seized 8.4 metric tons of cocaine in 2015, a 54.8 percent drop from the previous year.

Peru Coca Cultivation by Region 2012-2015 (ha)

16-07-14UNODCPeruCoca2015

Source: UNODC

InSight Crime Analysis

The UNODC links much of Peru's five-year coca reduction to the government's stepped-up eradication efforts and its multifaceted anti-drug strategy. President Ollanta Humala's achievements in reducing coca have indeed been impressive, and promises of alternative development finally appear to be taking shape.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of What Works

But despite Peru's apparent success in reducing illicit drug production, key issues persist.

The government is still unable to make a significant dent in coca growing in the VRAEM region, where 45.5 percent of the country's coca crops were located in 2015, UNODC data shows. Both eradication and voluntary crop substitution have been problematic in the VRAEM due to the security threat posed by the Shining Path guerrilla group, which charges a protection tax on drug trafficking in the area. This dense jungle region is the group's last remaining stronghold.

The drug trade is in fact growing stronger in the VRAEM, according to specialists, as the government focuses more on militarizing the area and less on counternarcotics or development efforts.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Drug Policy

Furthermore, the UNODC says that as control of the initial stages of the cocaine trade has shifted from drug cartels to local gangs over the past few decades, related violence and murders have increased.

Peru's gains are also being offset by booming production in neighboring Colombia, which reclaimed its title as the world's top coca cultivator last year. Colombia's rising production levels are believed to be due, in part, to rising coca leaf prices and shifts in the country's organized crime dynamics. The nation's largest insurgent group -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) -- appears to be encouraging coca farmers to grow more of the crop in the run-up to an impending peace agreement with the government. 

In contrast, it is possible that falling coca prices in Peru are acting as a deterrent for local farmers. And unlike the FARC's control of coca-growing areas across Colombia, the weakened Shining Path group is not likely to have much influence over cultivations anywhere beyond the VRAEM.

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