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How Peru Is Kicking Its Coke Habit

In this Sept. 29, 2013 photo, soldiers stand in the rain during a flag-raising ceremony backdropped by a sculpture depicting coca leaves in Pichari, Peru. Coca is the lifebood of the economy of Pichari – a mostly rural municipality of 40,000 people. There is a constant military show of force in the region with a vibrant trade in the leaf that is the basis of cocaine, and where Peru’s government is trying to expand its presence and combat an illegal drug trade.

CREDIT: AP/Rodrigo Abd.

Peru’s Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valley region lit up on December 17. Thirty police and navy officers were deployed by helicopter in the coca-saturated region known as the VRAEM, and by the end of two days they had destroyed 20 clandestine airstrips used to transport cocaine to Brazil and Bolivia.

The show of force comes as Peru begins to amplify efforts to rid itself of the dubious title of world’s top cocaine producer. It’s not the first time the South American nation has held the crown.

Peru was the world’s largest cocaine producer in the 1980s. Starting in 1989, the United States spent $2.2 billion on its five-year “Andean Strategy” to eradicate drugs in the region, according to the New Yorker. Cocaine production shifted away from Peru and into Colombia. In 2000, the United States began its Plan Colombia, conducting aerial fumigation of coca crops and supporting intensifying military operations against FARC guerrillas.

However, by around 2010, Peru was once again the world’s peak producer.

Now, with support from the U.S., Peru is again ramping up its cocaine eradication efforts. The nation is planning to send police into the VRAEM to eradicate crops by hand, according to a recent report in GlobalPost. Peru is also building a new airbase in the VRAEM and is expected to begin aerial interdictions of planes suspected of drug trafficking.

The moves are likely to cause conflict, and it’s unclear whether they will cause anything much else.

“If the government finally decides to implement eradication in the Valley of Apurimac-Ene, it will be really a challenging issue to tackle,” head of the Center for the Investigation of Drugs and Human Rights in Lima Ricardo Soberon told Generation Progress. “I think that the conflict will increase between producers, peasants, armed forces, Shining Path, you name it.”

There are early signs pointing in that direction. According to a report in Peruvian newspaper La Republica, remnants of the Shining Path, the brutal Maoist guerrilla group that ravaged the country in the 1980s and 1990s, have begun to organize coca growers to confront Peruvian drug police.

The United States provided about $100 million to Peru’s eradication efforts in 2013. A U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) shows Peru’s increased counternarcotics budget, police system reforms, and modest reductions in coca production.

Soberon argues that there’s nothing to celebrate. “Eradication, as a matter of policy, has been a failure,” Soberon said. “The crops always are replaced.”

The movement of production in response to eradication efforts has been called the “balloon effect,” after the way air in a balloon moves when it is squeezed in someone’s hand. A recent article in the New Yorker reported that a plantation half the size of Long Island could meet the entire world’s demand for cocaine.

“For 30 years, the U.S. has chased this plantation around the Western Hemisphere,” reporter Mattathias Schwartz wrote.

Half a percent of Americans used cocaine in 2011, about 1.5 million people, down from 1 percent in 2006.

Despite the decline, the cocaine trade remains violent, as criminal groups fight to control the industry from coca plantations in the Andes to Central American and Amazonian trafficking routes to the point of sale on the streets of the United States, Brazil, and other consuming countries. The people most likely to be killed or imprisoned in the process are those working the “entry level” jobs in the drug trade, overwhelmingly young people with little licit economic opportunity.

“According to the number of people who have been in prison at Peruvian jails in the last year, we understand that more and more they are young people without jobs, usually with elementary education at school, and with no simple opportunity of doing something else,” Soberon said.

Since 2007, fights between Mexican drug cartels and with police have claimed 80,000 lives. In Honduras, another major drug corridor, over 1,000 young people were killed in 2013 alone.

Groups like the Drug Policy Alliance argue that drug prohibition—such as the U.S. “War on Drugs” and Peru’s cocaine eradication efforts—creates criminal underworlds that fuel such violence. But all over the Americas, alternative approaches are sprouting.

In late 2013, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize the entire chain of marijuana production and consumption. Uruguayans will soon be able to legally buy marijuana at pharmacies, get it through growers’ clubs, or grow up to six plants themselves.

The law was pitched as a way to stymie what, at least in tranquil Uruguay, amounts to a crime wave.

“For Uruguay, they’re experiencing a dramatic increase in homicides and all violent crimes across the board,” author of the Pan-American Post Geoff Ramsey said. “So the idea is regulating the black market for marijuana will take a big bite out of the pocketbooks of the criminal networks that are behind many of those crimes.”

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has condemned Uruguay’s drug reform. The INCB is the UN body that implements international drug treaties, created in 1961 by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,

This treaty was originally written in 1961, and our social views on just about everything have evolved dramatically since 1961,” Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies Sanho Tree said.

The INCB’s denunciations may be falling on deaf ears in the Americas.

Bolivia, another major coca producer, is pursuing what Tree calls “voluntary eradication,” and allowing farmers to grow 1,600 square meters of coca. The governments of Guatemala and Colombia have called for a reevaluation of international drug policies, according to Ramsey. Last year, Human Rights Watch announced its support for decriminalizing drug use and possession, and their U.S. deputy director wrote in an essay that criminalization is “inherently inconsistent with human rights.”

The U.S. remains an enforcer and funder of drug orthodoxy abroad, but attitudes toward domestic drug use are in revolution.

Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana, and President Barack Obama recently made news by declaring that the plant is no more dangerous than alcohol. A recent poll found a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and a 2013 poll found that 65 percent of Millennials favor legalization, more than any other generation.

A change in U.S. policy could have consequences that reverberate across the Americas.

The War on Drugs is “an issue that unites us as a hemisphere,” Ramsey said. “I think oftentimes we overlook the fact that we are a main contributor to the drug problem in the Americas. The market is largely fueled by drug users in the United States, but the countries that are most affected by the violence of the drug war are the ones where drugs are produced and trafficked. Because of U.S. demand for illegal drugs, these countries are paying a high price in blood.”

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