Peru’s “New” Drug Strategy: Déjà Vu?

By Paul Gootenberg*

Eradicacion de la coca

“Peru’s national drug control agency just released a four-year counter-drug strategy in April that warns of the urgency to reverse the ongoing surge in cocaine production.” / Editora Perú / Creative Commons

Peru, with a capacity to produce about 350-450 tons of cocaine a year, has been approaching Colombia as the world’s top exporter since around 2011, but its new drug strategy is not likely to reverse that trend.  Most Peruvian coca now comes from the Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro (VRAEM), and most cocaine flows towards Brazil not the United States.  Peru’s national drug control agency, DEVIDA (National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs), just released a four-year counter-drug strategy in April that warns – again – of the urgency to reverse the ongoing surge in cocaine production but offers few compelling or new ideas on what to do.  The report notes the “high risk for Peru that our country will repeat the cases of Colombia and Mexico” in violence, corruption, and other costs of a massive illicit narcotics trade.  The strategy has some serious flaws, however.

  • Although the report touts itself as a “Plan Integral,” military spending and eradication far outstrip “alternative development.” Coca “supply control” is the core of the program, though development efforts (mainly with cacao) are offered. Peru’s plan is mechanically sequenced – Pacification, Eradication, Services, and Development – and its rigid militaristic strategy draws criticism.  The latter seems basically directly against VRAEM peasants.  In 2014, a similar plan was announced to eradicate “50 percent” of the VRAEM coca in just one year, but nothing occurred because of the risky security environment.
  • The sources of some key data are unclear. The report cites UN information but apparently without taking into account the substantial flow of cocaleros and cocaine traffickers deeper into Amazonia, near the Brazilian and Colombian borders.  It generally treats the VRAEM, Peru’s main producing area, as an isolated containable “world apart” – poised for national “recuperation.”  Security threats in the area, including guerrillas, actually made holding off eradication since 2014 a wise move – it would have pushed cocaleros into the arms of guerrillas – but the new report fails to consider any blowback from its plan.
  • It glosses over the shortcomings of Peru’s security services to carry out what remains a heavily security-based strategy. It makes the startling admission that only 1.5-2.0 percent of VRAEM cocaine and 3-8 percent of cocaine nationally is seized – one of the lowest interdiction rates in the world.  (Colombia’s improved intelligence enables it to grab about half of cocaine in-country, and even weak Bolivia does better policing illicit cocaine.)  The ease of smuggling in Peru is directly related to the open corruptibility of Peru’s police, military, and politicians.  But except for money laundering, DEVIDA’s report barely addresses the corruption problem.
  • Peru, unlike Colombia and Bolivia, has never questioned the UN/U.S. international drug regime, nor does this report. But Peru should expect little overseas eradication aid in the Trump era, raising big doubts about the sustainability of a long-term program.

As Colombians learned after decades of drug war against coca growers, including Plan Colombia, forced eradication is one of the most inefficient and futile ways to combat drugs. Studies by Colombian economist Daniel Mejía show that the marginal cost of eliminating a kilo of cocaine from markets by aerial spraying is a whopping $247,000 – far more than a kilo’s price on the street.  Eradication also provokes violent conflict and propels growers to new areas, and Peru has many tropical basins ripe for raising coca.  Effective intelligence to hit labs and intermediary layers of cocaine trades pays bigger dividends.  So does enlisting cocalero unions on the side of the state – to self-police as in Bolivia (now with the region’s least illicit cocaine) and Colombia (where the 2017 peace accord now recognizes cocalero rights).  Peru marginalizes cocaleros, precluding the sort of socio-political strategy needed for success.  All in all, DEVIDA’s strategy makes it interesting to see whose plan will produce the best results by 2021 – Peru’s, Colombia’s, or Bolivia’s?

June 13, 2017

* Paul Gootenberg is Chair of the Department of History at Stony Brook University and author of Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Is Obama Declaring “Mission Accomplished” on Drugs?

By Kevin Gatter

Photo Credit: Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo Credit: Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The Obama Administration is claiming major progress in the war on drugs, but the evidence is subject to challenge – and the good news surely hasn’t reached Latin America yet.  On July 9, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released an annual report that asserted a significant decline in the U.S. cocaine market, with sizable decreases in both the number of deaths caused by cocaine overdose and the rate of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace.  It also suggests that potential pure cocaine production capacity in the Andes has fallen by approximately 41 percent since 2001, including 10 percent last year alone.  The report credits this decrease to numerous factors, including U.S.-Colombia partnership, “strengthened democratic institutions,” an increased commitment to counternarcotics cooperation and citizen security in Peru, alternative development, enhanced law enforcement efforts, and focused and persistent education about drug abuse.

Other experts say the picture may not be as rosy.  The UNODC has yet to find what it considers accurate data on coca cultivation since 2011 and, importantly, asserts that declines in past years were offset by an increase in efficiency in the manufacturing chain from coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride.  Additionally, the UNODC estimates that while the estimated total area of coca cultivation in 2011 was only three-quarters of the level in 1990, the quantity of cocaine manufactured in 2011 was at least as high as in 1990.  In any event, it is important to recognize that even if the U.S. is consuming less cocaine, demand for other drugs remains high.  Some analysts speculate that the U.S. market is moving away from Andean cocaine and toward marijuana and methamphetamines from Mexico.  Furthermore, some experts say that growing cocaine demand in Europe and elsewhere is driving prices up and reducing U.S. consumption.

ONDCP’s report has a self-congratulatory tone that – combined with Obama’s clear de-emphasis of counternarcotics at his Central American Summit in San José in May – suggests eagerness to declare victory in a 40-year war against a scourge that continues to have dire implications for every country touched by the drug trade, especially those in Central America and Mexico.  The data are extremely difficult to corroborate.  Cultivation estimates, based on satellite studies of a sampling of possible growing areas, have been notoriously suspect, and the UNODC’s concerns about ignorance of leaf-to-cocaine yield are valid.  Many of the flow estimates are based on interdictions, but U.S. agencies have openly acknowledged that interdiction operations have been significantly reduced for budgetary reasons.  A drug flow that Washington doesn’t detect is not a drug flow that has disappeared.  Moreover, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is based on self-reporting in interviews and omits significant populations, including the homeless and incarcerated. Policy makers around the hemisphere surely hope that ONDCP’s triumphalism is warranted, but the key indicators of success will be a decline in drug-related violence, a weakening of transnational criminal groups, an end to the southbound flow of arms from the United States, the flourishing of alternative economic options for coca farmers, and reversal a pervasive popular suspicion that governments and security agencies have been corrupted by the billions of drug dollars flowing through the region.

Brazil’s Counternarcotics Policy Challenges

By Tom Long

Minister Alexandre Padilha meeting to discuss policies against crack | Photo by: Ministério da Saúde | Flickr | Creative Commons

Long a significant market for cocaine – the second or third largest in the world according to estimates – Brazil is suffering a major increase in crack cocaine use.  Visible in the centers of major cities, drug abuse has become a more serious national concern as Brazil prepares to mount the world stage as host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics.  Brazil was slow to recognize the problem as it grew to epidemic levels, surpassing the United States as the largest consumer of crack cocaine, according to a recent report from the Federal University of São Paulo.  While national and local authorities have emphasized their recent approach to drugs as focused on public health – in contrast with the U.S.-led, supply-oriented policies – Brazil also has increased control and interdiction efforts.  According to the UN, cocaine seizures by Brazilian security tripled between 2004 and 2010.

The effort to control the flow of cocaine into and through Brazil will test both the country’s diplomacy and state capacity.  Its long, undefended and sparsely populated borders touch every major narcotics-producing and ­transiting country in South America, and cooperation in addressing the problem varies widely for political reasons and disparities in capabilities.  For example, the government of President Evo Morales in Bolivia has declined Brazilian requests for crossborder eradication, InSight Crime reported.  Other countries’ counternarcotics focus is almost completely internal, such as in Colombia and Peru.  As a result, Brazil is increasing action on its own.  President Dilma Rousseff supports plans to spend some $400 million on an expanded fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to provide surveillance of its borders.  Military patrols have increased, albeit in necessarily limited areas.

Experts have long warned that the “balloon effect” of counter-narcotics policies – when successful drug operations push the trade into less-defended countries and regions – was going to worsen the flow and use of narcotics in Brazil, and Brazil has long sought ways, within its resources, to collaborate.  When U.S.-Bolivia cooperation deteriorated in 2009-2010, for example, Brasilia tried to fill some of the void.  Brazilian diplomats have usually tried to lead quietly, build consensus, and avoid obvious pressure on neighbors.  However, as concerns grow, domestic politics could push Brazilian leaders to be more assertive, with the potential benefits and risks that would entail.  The challenge will be for them to find ways to collaborate on a common drug strategy with often skeptical neighbors while making gains to reduce internal demand.  Four decades of U.S. experience provide a cautionary tale.

FARC Activity

A French journalist has become the latest victim of Colombia’s internal conflict.  The French Foreign Ministry announced that journalist Romeo Langlois was kidnapped by leftist rebels last Saturday following an armed raid on Colombian troops who were attempting to dismantle cocaine laboratories.  Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón told reporters that Langlois had been wounded in the arm during the attack, which left a police officer and three soldiers dead.  Langlois had been traveling with the army to film a documentary about illegal mining and Colombia’s notorious drug trade.  This attack indicates that the FARC, though severely weakened after decades of armed conflict, are still very much a powerful force to be reckoned with.  Analysts suspect that this latest action, coming after a declaration to end kidnappings in February, is a message to President Juan Manuel Santos, who has refused to negotiate with guerrilla leaders.