LIMA, Peru — For years, Peru had a simple policy to fight cocaine: destroy the coca plants that were the key ingredient in the drug.
It did not go so well.
As the government burned coca harvests, it offered no support for impoverished farmers to grow alternative cash crops such as coffee or cacao. Predictably perhaps, many kept planting coca, simply moving their plots further from the reaches of law enforcement to more remote corners of the eastern Andes.
That has nearly propelled Peru to the top of the cocaine-production ladder. According to U.N. figures, Colombia had 62,000 hectares of coca crops in 2010 while Peru had 61,200. Crucially, the Colombian figure represents a 34% decrease since 2005 while the Peruvian figure is up 41% over the same period. Colombia’s cocaine production was estimated last year at 350 metric tons and although no such calculation exists for Peru, experts believe it is not far behind.
Now, Peru's new government under President Ollanta Humala, who took office in July, is changing its strategy.
Related: Peru suspends coca eradication
“We need to move from eradication to reduction,” said Ricardo Soberón, Peru’s new anti-drug tsar. He is drawing up a broader, more sophisticated strategy that accepts that simply wiping out coca by force will not succeed. It also acknowledges that some coca cultivation in Peru remains legal; an estimated 8,000 hectares is dedicated to meeting the demand for coca tea and traditional consumption, in which Andeans chew coca leaf for a mild high.
The new policy will include some enforced eradication but will also target drug kingpins by cracking down on the cartels’ money laundering and the chemicals used to make cocaine. At the same time, the government will offer a helping hand to the poorer cocaleros, or coca farmers, the traffickers rely on by promoting sustainable development in coca-rich areas.
Similar tactics have been tried previously, with relative success, in the northern region of San Martin, according to analyst Jaime Antezana. International aid agencies provided sustainable development support, complementing the government’s eradication efforts. Coca cultivation fell from 18,000 hectares in 1995 to 1,700 hectares last year.
Most independent experts agree these measures were long overdue at a national level in Peru. And they blame the previous administration of President Alan García for neglecting the problem. “A policy that has not existed has not failed,” said Professor Jaime Garcia, an economist specializing in the drugs trade, summing up the sporadic counter-narcotics efforts of Humala’s predecessor.
Mr García, meanwhile, has blamed Washington for Peru’s surging coca harvest because he said the U.S. dedicated most of its Latin American counter-narcotics resources to Colombia.
Yet Soberon’s new approach has been even more controversial. For much of his seven weeks in office, he has endured daily calls for his sacking and accusations that he worked as an adviser to coca growers’ organizations.
In his first days in office, Soberon briefly suspended the coca-eradication program in one coca hotspot to “reevaluate” the program. Meanwhile, the release of an email from Soberon to cocaleros saying he could not hold off eradication efforts indefinitely only strengthened the storm. The two moves triggered a wave of criticism, principally from rightwing politicians and media, and led to a diplomatic standoff with Washington, which helps fund the eradication program.
The U.S. ambassador to Peru, Rose Likins, then hosted a lightning visit to inaugurate the new combined police-military command center in another of Peru’s main coca-growing regions, the Valley of the Ene and Apurimac Rivers, to see the results of a $1.8 million U.S. donation. Peru’s defense and interior ministers were invited but not Soberón, who officially leads Peru’s anti-narcotics strategy.
The U.S. embassy did not respond to requests for comment. Soberón appeared unruffled by the row. “I don’t have a problem if there was no room on the helicopter,” he told GlobalPost. Of the calls for his resignation, he said: “It is the first time in Peru that someone has described another way of doing things.”
Soberon will seek U.S. support for additional equipment to pursue the cartels, including helicopters, drug scanners and communications technology. Many police units on the coca frontline lack basic equipment, including even mobile phones and internet connections.
He also hopes to offer more basic services to the cocaleros, who, like many of Peru’s Andean and Amazonian communities, have historically been abandoned by decision-makers in Lima, often receiving little or no healthcare, education or other government services that are routine in urban areas.
That government neglect has embittered Serafín Andrés Luján, head of Peru’s largest cocalero organization, who remains skeptical of Soberon’s promises. “We don’t need anyone to tell us to change crops,” he said. “What we need are opportunities.” The reinstatement of the eradication program, just days after its suspension made headlines around the world, has particularly angered Luján and his organization’s members.
Most of them grow less than an acre of coca, often the only cash crop they can market, given the lack of paved roads in their isolated communities.