Peru Battles Cocaine Producers
LIMA -- After years of relative calm, surging cocaine production is rattling Peru, raising fears that the associated increase in violence and corruption could derail one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America.
The cultivation of coca and the capacity to make cocaine from it have been steadily rising in Peru. Next door in Colombia, still the world's largest cocaine producer, they have been trending lower thanks to Bogota's aggressive eradication and interdiction efforts. The result is that Peruvian cocaine exports have overtaken those from Colombia, making Peru the world's top source of cocaine.
A recent downing of a military helicopter by a group tied to drug runners has sharpened the debate over how to tackle Peru's rising cocaine output. That attack followed several others in remote coca-leaf growing areas that have left more than 50 military or police personnel dead this year.
The lure of quick profits is tempting officials in the capital. A former adviser to a member of Congress was nabbed with 140 kilograms of cocaine, adding to concerns the political influence of the traffickers is increasing.
Fears are growing Peru could be headed in the same direction as Mexico, where thousands have been killed as drug cartels seek to buy off or kill government and security officials while fighting for lucrative trafficking routes.
The concern is widespread. On Sunday, pollster Ipsos-Apoyo released results of a survey that showed 55% of Peruvians believe narcotics-traffickers and politicians are closely linked, with the traffickers financing politicians, who in turn return favors. The survey also found that 72% believe the police have been infiltrated by the traffickers, while 66% think the judicial system has also been compromised.
In the 1980s, Peru exported mainly coca leaf to Colombia, where it was processed and trafficked by Colombian cartels. Experts say they have been replaced by Mexican cartels shipping out fully processed cocaine from Peru, with some cash laundered locally through foreign-exchange companies, businesses and real-estate deals.
"Today we are processors of cocaine. Mexican officials tell me there are branches of the Mexican cartels in Peru," former President Alejandro Toledo said in a recent broadcast interview.
Peru has taken steps to cut down on cocaine production. It has banned in certain areas the use of kerosene, used in manufacturing cocaine from coca leaf.
President Alan García has pushed to crack down on money laundering, much of which is tied to drug trafficking. His administration has also promised increased spending for the military and police to undercut the drug trafficking before it becomes economically or socially destabilizing.
Peruvian antidrug agency Devida has in place a plan to carry out specific measures to fight drug use. But an official said central government funding promised for 2009 of some $50 million for the program hasn't been disbursed.
The amount is a pittance compared with the estimated $20 billion annually that Peruvian cocaine fetches abroad.
Peru's Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde said he will present to the United Nations this month a proposal to increase international aid for nations fighting against drug trafficking. "The most important thing is to give narcotics trafficking a priority in Peru's foreign affairs and to increase cooperation," he said.
Many observers are skeptical. "There's no political will," said Jaime Antezana, who has researched Peru's coca-leaf and cocaine production for 14 years. He said the government's paltry antidrug budget is concentrated in the coca-growing Apurimac-Ene River Valley, ignoring the fact that cocaine is being produced around the country. "Drug-trafficking is a nationwide problem," he said.
The recent attacks against Peru's security forces have even raised concerns about a resurgence of the Shining Path guerrilla group, which has mutated from a 1980s-Maoist insurgency bent on overthrowing the government to what analysts call armed protection for trafficking cartels.
"Peru must guard against a return to the days when terrorists and insurgents, like the Shining Path, profited from drugs and crime," said the U.N. agency's director, Antonio Maria Costa.
Complicating matters is that coca production is legal in Peru, where the coca leaf has been consumed for centuries. Experts note, however, that only a tenth of the coca leaf produced is used domestically, with the rest being transformed into cocaine. Possession of small amounts of cocaine, and other drugs for personal use, is legal in Peru.
By LESLIE JOSEPHS and ROBERT KOZAK