Humala Shakes Up Peru’s Drug Policy

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Peru’s move to suspend coca eradication efforts may last no longer than a week, but it is the first real indication that President Ollanta Humala is more than willing to make bold changes to the country’s drug policy.

As quickly as Peru’s new government said it was suspending the U.S.-funded coca eradication program, the country’s interior minister clarified that this would only be a temporary pause. The country isn’t even halfway to meeting its reported year-end goal of eliminating 10,000 hectares of coca, so the decision to re-evaluate the program’s shortcomings may be sound judgement from the Humala administration.

Coca eradication is widely understood as an ineffective means to control world cocaine supply. The case of Peru does little to contradict the argument: despite ongoing efforts, the amount of land under coca cultivation has grown steadily since 2007, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In the Alto Huallaga Valley, which has Peru’s second-highest concentration of coca crops, forced eradication is deeply unpopular and each year results in violent clashes with the police. Meanwhile, a voluntary eradication program, created jointly with the coca growers, or “cocaleros,” in 2003, has seen some success, with tens of thousands of these farmers now growing legal crops, according to the U.S. State Department. But this has done little to slow the overall trend of increasing production, which, if it continues, could grab Peru the top spot as the world’s number one coca grower.

The decision to rethink the eradication campaign in the Alto Huallaga may have been spurred by the recent appointment of drug policy analyst and lawyer Ricardo Soberon as head of Peru’s anti-narcotics advisory body, known as DEVIDA. Soberon has made no secret of his progressive views on coca politics, and has talked about promoting a “reduction” rather than eradication policy, targeting coca plots grown in national parks, near maceration pits (used during the production of cocaine) or those which exceed an “acceptable” size. While there have already been some attempts to smear Soberon’s name (most notably, an article in Peru’s largest newspaper, El Comercio, which argues, unconvincingly, that he is “linked” to figures who are “linked” to drug trafficking), the suspension of eradication efforts indicates that Soberon is already making his voice heard within the Humala government.

If Soberon’s appointment raised eyebrows, so did the removal of the commander of Peru’s anti-narcotics police, Carlos Moran, who had served in the agency for nearly his entire career. His replacement, Francisco Pasco, chief of police in one of Peru’s busiest port cities, is older but considered far less experienced. Moran handled some of Peru’s most important investigations against top-level drug traffickers, including the proceedings against airline kingpin Fernando Zevallos. Moran had only served as head of the anti-drugs police since January, and his removal from the post in favor of Pasco makes little sense — unless it is understood, similiarly to Soberon’s appointment, as indication that Humala is already willing to make some controversial decisions in appointing the new overseers of Peru’s “drug war.”

That approach seems to involve appointing perceived outsiders to important government posts connected to crime and drug policy. Along with Soberon and Pasco, surprise appointments have included the new minister of the interior, retired military general Oscar Valdez — a little known figure in Peruvian political circles who is among the two ex-military men appointed to Humala’s cabinet. Humala also decided to phase out experienced officials in the security forces, like Moran, in favor of new appointees who, according to El Comercio, do not command strong political loyalties to the exiting minister of the interior, police chief Miguel Hildalgo. The re-shuffling has included other surprising decisions, like the re-appointment of one police official removed from office in 2009, for praising police action against a criminal band that didn’t exist.

With these appointments, Humala has shown he is ready to make politically bold decisions that surprise some Peruvian observors. With the decision to temporarily phase out coca eradication, he has proved willing to take action that surprises the international community. The shake ups in police high command, as well as the decision to bring in a progressive voice like Ricardo Soberon, are indication enough that Humala is taking a more critical position towards Peru’s drug policy. But at just a few weeks into his time in office, however, there is still plenty of time to backtrack.

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