Security specialist Rubén Vargas called Peru’s biggest coca hub a “time bomb” while discussing the failings of the outgoing administration’s anti-drug policies and outlining the challenges ahead for the incoming government.
In an interview with Peruvian magazine Caretas, Vargas said he believes that the administration of current President Ollanta Humala “abandoned” the country’s main coca growing region — the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) — which he described as a “time bomb.”
But Vargas, who helped shape the drug interdiction policies of Peru’s President-elect, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, was not entirely critical of how Humala has combated drug trafficking.
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Today, the VRAEM’s military infrastructure is the best in the country, with 8,500 military troops and 1,500 police officers and $2.43 billion worth of investment, Vargas noted. He also recognized that the government has been successful in clearing the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla group out of the Upper Huallaga Valley, formerly one of Peru’s top coca-producing regions.
Yet according to Vargas, drug trafficking in the VRAEM has grown stronger. Authorities seize only 2 percent of all cocaine produced in the VRAEM, a region that accounts for over 70 percent of the 450 metric tons of cocaine exported by Peru per year, according to the specialist.
The Humala administration erroneously chose a military strategy to combat “terrorism” in the VRAEM, Vargas said.
The problems with the military strategy stem from the corruption and apathy of authorities, Vargas added, noting that traffickers have used army helicopters to fly cocaine to the coast.
Vargas explained that the hierarchical structure of the drug trafficking groups of the 1990s has been replaced by a fragmented system in which small organizations control different stages of the process and battle for control, causing violence levels to rise.
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The Humala administration’s drug policies have indeed produced mixed results since he took office in 2011. Coca eradication has been reaching record levels year upon year, and cultivation decreased 31 percent from 62,500 hectares in 2011 to 42,900 in 2014, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) figures.
During this time, the Upper Huallaga Valley has been quite the success story. While the government focused on eradication, coca crop substitution and development projects in the region, as Vargas explained, coca hectares fell from 12,421 in 2011 to a mere 1,555 in 2014.
The same cannot be said for the VRAEM region, which became the Shining Path’s main bastion after it was forced out of the Huallaga Valley in 2012. Drug policy in the VRAEM has been a dilemma for the Humala government, and it has changed course numerous times regarding eradication. Largely due to the Shining Path threat, authorities are unable to effectively eradicate coca fields, and crop substitution programs have proven difficult to implement.
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Efforts by Kuczynski’s administration to make a bigger dent in coca cultivation in the VRAEM will take time to show results. The president-elect looks set to carry on with Humala’s tough eradication measures, with aims to reduce coca cultivation to 25,000 hectares by 2021, as well as bolster crop substitution efforts and guarantee state presence in the VRAEM (pdf). But it’s not clear how he plans to achieve those goals without taking on the Shining Path first.