Between the Best Coffee and Drugs in the World: Peru’s Tambopata Valley

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Ojo-Público visited San Pedro de Putina Punco, a district located in Sandia province in Peru’s southern Puno jungle. Illegal coca crops, maceration ponds, clandestine airstrips and armed individuals are some of the symptoms of the presence of drug traffickers in this remote area. Peru’s anti-drug agency, DEVIDA, has deployed another strategy to deal with illicit activities: producing the best coffee in the world.

On the morning of April 26, 2012, Peru National Police Major Jorge Chiclla Medina received a warning call on his cell phone from Zacarías Machaca, then-president of the small farmers patrol of San Pedro de Putina Punco district in Puno’s Tambopata Valley, one of Peru’s most important coca-growing areas. A group of people, according to the villager’s complaint, were setting up a clandestine airstrip where drugs were to be sent to Bolivia. A week before, the police and the municipal authorities had intervened in the same place and identified the aircraft’s take-off point.

Almost three hours after Machaca’s warning call, the police arrived at that remote point in the Puna jungle and intercepted a small plane that had been modified to transport drugs, arresting four alleged collaborators. A few hours later, the authorities captured Uribe Paredes Mamani in a nearby town. During his interrogation, Paredes admitted that he aided the escape of the pilot, a Bolivian by the name of Jesús Suárez López with a history of drug trafficking and an alleged member of an international drug trafficking network. Until then, the operation seemed successful given the five detainees and the seized aircraft, but the story behind the operation was much more complex.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with the permission of Ojo Público. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

A month after the police raid, then-provincial prosecutor Juliaca Huber Obregón Sosa revealed that the same policemen who arrested the drug traffickers had hidden the 200 kilograms of coca base that were to be picked up by the plane. In response to the serious accusation from the Attorney General’s Office, Major Chiclla denounced the prosecutor for defamation and favoring the detainees by not carrying out the necessary due diligence. Finally, in October 2015, Chiclla, three more policemen, the pilot, the alleged financial middleman Roger Apaza Gemio and five other collaborators were accused of drug trafficking and money laundering.

Five years later, Ojo-Público visited San Pedro de Putina Punco, a district spanning 5,000 kilometers with 14,000 inhabitants that is seeking to be recognized as an independent province. This part of the Puna jungle is considered to be an area dominated by drug trafficking. The police have consistently recorded the presence of armed individuals, pockets of drug maceration and clandestine airstrips due to the area’s proximity to the borders of Brazil and Bolivia.

In this jungle, 42-year-old coffee farmer Raúl Mamani makes his way accompanied by Farruko and Bella, two animals called uchuñaris who live with him. With the help of these small mammals with elongated noses, also known as coatis, Mamani is a key player in one of Peru’s main strategies to stop drug trafficking in San Pedro de Putina Punco: producing the best coffee in the world. This year, Mamani won the international award for “Best Quality Coffee” during the Global Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle, Washington. Last year he took second place at the National Quality Coffee Competition in Peru. He has been named national champion twice.

“I do not want coca, I live for coffee because it allows me to know the world,” Mamani said, picking up coffee beans with Bella climbing on his shoulder. “With coca I would not have known Lima.”

The Puno region’s 4,500 hectares dedicated to coca cultivation are behind only Cusco and Ayacucho, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The crops are distributed between the areas of San Gabán and the Inambari and Tambopata valleys. Raúl Mamani lives in this last sector, where more than nine percent of Peru’s coca is produced. The sector has 3,811 hectares dedicated to coca cultivation, the highest value registered by the UNODC in these basins.

(Raúl Mamani. Credit: Ojo-Público)

From his farm, named after his daughter Monica, Mamani says he harvests 60 quintals (one quintal is equivalent to 46 kilograms) in his four hectares of coffee crops. In Lima’s coffee shops, the price of the coffee can reach $1,000 per quintal. One of his sons, 19-year-old Líder Mamani, wants to surpass his father’s footsteps and become a coffee entrepreneur. For this reason he travels almost 10 hours every week, from San Pedro de Putina Punco to Juliaca, to study accounting, international business and marketing at Alas Peruanas University.

“Planting coffee is more profitable and safer. You are not afraid of anything,” Mamani says with his son Líder, surrounded by different coffee trees like Caturra, Bourbon and Geisha. “With other crops you are chased by police, you abandon your family and your children.”

Despite these risks, competing with the business of coca cultivation is still difficult, says Gimmy Larico, manager of the Rural Coffee Cooperative Center of the Sandia Valleys. Founded in 1970, this institution is responsible for exporting the products of more than 4,000 farmers, including Raúl Mamani and his son Líder, who are associated with the eight cooperatives in the region. Profitability is the main obstacle. While a person can receive 40 Peruvian soles (around $12) for a day’s work in a coffee plantation, for the same day’s work cultivating coca, the payment exceeds 100 Peruvian soles (around $30).

The Puno jungle also has one of the highest prices for coca in the country. One arroba (11.5 kilograms) of coca goes for 400 Peruvian soles (around $123), while in other regions it does not exceed 120 Peruvian soles (around $37), according to DEVIDA.

“We are a border zone, drug producer, illegal mining, trafficking of chemical supplies and contraband,” said DEVIDA head Ana María Vanini. “For example, kerosene has not been produced in Peru for four years now, however, we find establishments that sell it in Puno. That supplies comes from contraband.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coca

In addition to DEVIDA’s police work are the crop substitution programs. Through nine projects and an investment of more than 32 million Peruvian soles (around $9 million), more than 4,000 families receive technical support to grow cocoa and coffee in the Puna jungle. Jorge Turpo Morales, head of the special coffee project for the district municipality of San Pedro de Putina Punco, explained that this is the third time that they have been working with DEVIDA since 2012.

Led by Turpo, the initiative aims to work with 1,200 families in three years, with an approximate budget of 4.5 million Peruvian soles (around $1 million). Wilson Sucaticona, who has been implementing coffee crops for 30 years, is among the beneficiaries. Sucaticona won the gold medal at the 3rd International Roasted Coffee Competition in Paris, France.

“I always tell young people that coffee can be produced, we are achieving it,” Sucaticona told us from his farm, dreaming of the Tambopata valley being turned into a tourist route.

However, illegal coca cultivation is not the only concern for coffee producers in the Puna jungle. Turpo said that since 2013, yellow rust has punished the valley. As a result, just 10 percent of the amount of coffee harvested during the best years is produced in Tambopata and Inambari. San Pedro de Putina Punco Mayor Yony Yujra Cañazaca recognizes that many families, as a result of the plague, now dedicate themselves to mining.

“The youth have migrated to the city looking for other opportunities,” Yujra said.

The work of the anti-drug police also reveals the high percentage of people involved in drug trafficking in Puno. At the beginning of 2017, the police intercepted four individuals from the south-central city of Ayacucho traveling in two vans along the route connecting Juliaca with Arequipa. Yuri León, Ramón León, Glider Herreras and Tania Ruiz were transporting 17 kilograms of coca base hidden in the vehicle’s bumper.

A few weeks later, authorities arrested Liliana Galindo, who carried five 6-kilogram packages of cocaine on a bus. Ojo-Público verified that drug traffickers offer people who agree to carry 20 kilograms of drugs from the VRAEM region to the border with Puno up to $10,000. These figures could explain why last year 27 percent of the inmates at Puno’s four prisons were prosecuted or sentenced for drug trafficking, according to information from the National Penitentiary Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario – INPE).

“We continue to work with alternative development strategies to discourage illicit activities,” DEVIDA Director Vanini said. “There are people who are joining, but development cannot be done by a single institution, we need allies.”

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profiles

One of the most representative examples of DEVIDA’s work in the valley are the crops of Melquiades, a shy farmer who prefers not to give his surname. At 30 years old, he decided to grow coffee on a piece of land in San Juan del Oro. But that wasn’t always the case. At the age of 18, he worked at the Peñón de Oro mining cooperative in Yanahuaya, like many of Sandia province’s inhabitants.

“The mine is dangerous. The work is hard and you are exposed to accidents and diseases. It is not a safe life,” Melquiades said.

Along with his coffee crops, Melquiades still maintains a sector dedicated to coca cultivation, which he barters with to obtain supplies.

The municipal authorities, DEVIDA and the anti-drug police are working to complete their transition to alternative crops, as well as that of the Puno jungle’s hundreds of inhabitants.

The 30-year-old farmer is aware that several young people in the area prefer to work in dangerous or illicit activities because they like “fast money” instead of investing in coffee crops, which can take up to two years to produce any return. But he hasn’t lost hope.

“Do you expect your children to continue working with coffee?” we asked.

“Yes, so that later on they can be something in life.”

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with the permission of Ojo Público. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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