Back to Business as Usual as Peru Loses Progressive Drug Czar

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Despite promising signs that Peru’s new president was ready to take a fresh approach to drug policy, focused on attacking traffickers and not coca farmers, his unorthodox top drug official has resigned and been replaced with a more Washington-friendly choice.

Ricardo Soberon’s appointment as head of national anti-drug agency Devida was viewed by many as a sign that newly-appointed President Ollanta Humala planned to reform Peru’s anti-narcotics policy. Soberon’s proposed policies involved moving away from attacking coca growers.  Instead he was focusing on attacking the structures of drug trafficking organizations, including money laundering, and the import and supply chains of precursor chemicals used to manufacture cocaine and other drugs. One of his first acts, which drew international attention, was to announce a suspension of a US-funded coca eradication policy in order to evaluate it. As InSight Crime commented at the time, this seemed to indicate that Humala’s government was willing to take bold steps to change the course of its battle against the drug trade — one that has seemed in the last few years to be going rather badly.

This caused consternation in Washington. In the past, Soberon has spoken out against “the repressive crop-eradication policy dictated from the United States that to date is considered a failure,” and called for cooperation with the US to be redefined. However, within a week of its suspension, the program was reinstituted — reportedly under pressure from Oscar Valdes, a former military man who then held the position of interior minister, and is now prime minister. The issue of eradication seems to have been one of the major sticking points leading to Soberon’s departure. As the Associated Press reports, Soberon’s camp told press that eradication was the main matter on which the two men couldn’t come to an agreement. Valdes, meanwhile, told the press that Soberon’s departure was due to a rethink in drug strategy, which would end the divergence from agreements made with the US.

Coca eradication is a key part of the US and United Nations (UN) consensus on the war on drugs, and how it should be managed. Eradication has, however, proved highly controversial in many countries where it has been implemented, especially when carried out by force, and/or through aerial spraying of pesticides. Those who grow coca are generally poor farmers, whose ability to support themselves is seriously impacted by the destruction of their crops. Soberon, like many observers, argues that these farmers should not be treated as participants in the drug trade, to be targeted by government operations. Indeed, coca growers in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, who together produce practically the world’s entire supply, are thought to earn just over one percent of the profits from the global trade.


Aside from this moral argument, the evidence suggests that eradication is generally not an effective way to cut coca crops. One factor is that farmers often are able to make a larger and more reliable income from selling coca to drug producers than from growing other crops. As the graph (left) of data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows, increased eradication efforts did not appear to make an impact on the amount of land under coca cultivation in Peru in the decade 2000-2010. Even as eradication efforts doubled, so that some 10,000 hectares were destroyed in 2010, the amount of land under coca fields expanded by almost 50 percent. Peru is now thought to have overtaken neighboring Colombia to be the world’s biggest producer of cocaine. Even the UNODC admits that the effects of eradication will generally not be visible in the coca cultivation statistics, as the process is intended not so much to reduce the area under cultivation as to disrupt the supply chain and force the use of lower-yielding, less mature plants.

As well as being of questionable value, the decision to pursue forced eradication in Peru could be counterproductive in security terms. The US Drug Enforcement Administration has estimated that some 45 percent of Peru’s coca is grown in territory controlled by the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla group, who gain much of their revenue by taxing coca growers and, according to the government, selling the product on to drug traffickers. The government has signalled its determination to rid the country of the remaining fragments of the rebel group, and alienating coca growers by destroying their crops would likely increase support for the guerrillas, a big mistake in any counterinsurgency effort. Soberon had declared that the VRAE, an impoverished region home to the biggest faction of the rebel group and site of the majority of Peru’s coca crops, would be a top priority for the government, and that he planned to invest in promoting alternative crops there, to make it into an agricultural hub for the country.

Another complicating factor in Peru is the existence of vigorous unions and social movements supporting coca farmers. Many farmers grow the crop for traditional purposes, such as chewing the leaves, which are widely practised by indigenous groups, and want to continue doing so. Some want their position legalized, so that they would be registered and pay taxes to the government. This kind of policy, which has been put in place in neighboring Bolivia, could be a better way to control the coca supply and prevent it falling into the hands of traffickers. The “cocaleros,” as the small coca growers are known, also have political representation; some nine politicians backing their cause won seats in Congress in the 2006 elections.

These coca-growing groups, then, have the ability to cause trouble for Humala, whose presidency has already been rocked by serious clashes with groups campaigning against government development policies. The biggest outbreak of conflict with cocaleros since he took power was in Aguaytia, in the Ucayali region of central Peru. Farmers blocked the roads in a series of strikes lasting several days to demand an end to forced eradication programs in the region. Protester against eradication bore placards calling Humala a traitor, while Soberon met with their representatives and attempted to broker an agreement. Valdes, meanwhile, was blunt in his dismissal of the protesters, saying that the government would “not take a single step backwards in eradication,” and that all illegal coca would inevitably be eradicated. As it stands, eradication is continuing in the region.

Humala has indeed performed something of an about-turn in his support for cocaleros; he himself enjoyed their backing in his 2006 bid for the presidency. His change of heart on their demands is of a piece with his general retreat in his break from the progressive forces that helped him win power, and move to cosy up with the military. One of the factors in this move rightward has been attributed to Humala wishing to take a sterner line and crack down on the protests by social movements that have been in progress across the country.

Soberon’s departure was no great surprise to anyone. In September, it was reported that he had been warned to get in line with government policies, or get out. His position became increasingly tenuous after an early-December cabinet reshuffle, in which the prime minister resigned and many left-leaning elements of Humala’s government were replaced with more conservative voices. In an interview with Noticias Ser after his departure was announced, Soberon explained that he had offered his resignation as soon as the prime minister stepped down in December. He attacked the political motives he said lay behind the decision to let him go, declaring that “drug policy in Peru has been hijacked by a convergence of ignorance, lack of knowledge, and by political, economic and media interests.”

As well as the clear interest of Humala’s administration to go along with US drug policy, it may be that one of these interests is putting drug policy back into the hands of the military and police. Soberon’s replacement, Carmen Masias, is not only a supporter of coca eradication, but an expert on preventing drug use. Valdes has said that, with Soberon gone, drug policy will focus on prevention and rehabilitation of addicts. This is a clear step by the department towards softer social policy and away from the issues of supply and interdiction. According to UN estimates, only 0.5 percent of Peru’s adult population use cocaine each year, meaning that even if Devida under Masias somehow managed to cut drug use entirely within Peru, this would have a negligible impact on the country’s drug trade, as the vast majority of its cocaine output is exported.

The effect of this shift in Devida’s policy, according to Soberon, would be to leave drug interdiction, eradication, and control of inputs needed for in drug production, in the hands of the police and military rather than in the hands of Devida. This, of course, would fit with the agenda of the military men promoted by Humala’s cabinet change.

On Thursday, following the announcement of Soberon’s resignation, the interior minister announced plans to eradicate 14,000 hectares of coca this year, up from 10,200 last year. But as the evidence makes clear, even if it battles against the will of thousands of coca growers to meet this goal, Peru is unlikely to shake its unwanted new crown as the world’s biggest cocaine producer.

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