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).

El Chapo’s Recapture: A Fictionalized Reality Show

By Núria Vilanova*

Chapo Kate Penn Film

Photo Credit: Abd allah Foteih, Fanpage.- & Sachyn Mital – (modified) / Flickr & Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

A recent interview granted by Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo and his subsequent re-arrest validate yet again the observation of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that no matter how hard fiction strives to emulate reality, reality always surpasses it.  Narco-lives and deeds have attracted myriad fiction writers, filmmakers, and musicians giving way to a successful narco-literature and narco-cinema that has fascinated the general public, journalists, and scholars alike.  A recent example is the popular Netflix series Narcos, based on one of the most notorious drug traffickers, Pablo Escobar.  Well known also are the corridos in Northern Mexico that sing the adventures and prowess of powerful drug lords (often in exchange for large payments).  The narco-corridos are today the epical portrayal of criminal lords whose lives straddle glory and vileness.

In the interstices between reality and fiction rest the publicity-mongering and recapture this month of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the subject of an intense six-month manhunt following his escape last July from a high-security prison.  No film would have been sufficiently credible and convincing had it attempted to stage El Chapo’s flight, but the reality is that the most prominent narco-lord since Escobar was able to vanish through a highly sophisticated tunnel whose construction required great engineering expertise.  The final seconds of his stay in his cell before entering his path to freedom were recorded by a security camera.  Megalomania – his eagerness to have his life and deeds taken to the big screen – apparently led to his undoing.  He reached out through intermediaries to soap-opera and film actress Kate del Castillo, whose role as narcotress in the popular show La reina del sur apparently captivated his heart, to set up a meeting with Hollywood star Sean Penn to present his version of his reality to the world.  Playing the role of an adventurous and intrepid journalist, Penn produced a 10,000-word report-interview for Rolling Stone magazine.  Thus, the three main characters of this story – El Chapo, Kate del Castillo, and Sean Penn – traveled from reality to fiction and back in a fictional-yet-real encounter.  The three characters straddled between two dangerous dimensions in complicity – reality and fiction – unaware that their secret meeting would somehow provide the clue that enabled Mexican security to shut El Chapo down again.

The reality-fiction play brings a much higher toll than just El Chapo’s return to prison.  Dozens of the corrido singers who extol the narcos’ lifestyle have been kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mexico since the late 1990s.  Mexico is also at the international forefront on the number of journalists assassinated since 2006, when former President Calderón launched a bloody (and failed) war on drugs.  While the Mexican actress has not made any substantial comments on her apparent role in El Chapo’s return to prison, Penn has blustered his innocence as a courageous journalist-star whose mission was to make his countrymen reflect and make a self-critique of the bloodthirsty, futile war on drugs.  We, the audience, would probably wish this reality show would have brought about a less trivial outcome, but the last episode is not yet written.

January 25, 2016

* Núria Vilanova is Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of World Languages and Cultures.

Mexico’s Situation after Peña Nieto’s First Year at the Helm

By Manuel Suárez-Mier

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

After Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, the situation and prospects for his country are mixed. On the positive side, his structural reforms encompassing labor, education, taxation, finance, telecommunications, anti-monopoly and energy – the crown jewel – are unexpected and sweeping successes. Three previous administrations had failed to get such reforms through Congress in the preceding 18 years. The reforms, the success of which will depend on the implementing legislation, have attracted worldwide attention, generating a “Mexican moment,” and increasing substantially the flows of foreign direct investment.

On the dark side, however, Peña Nieto’s performance has been less than stellar regarding the pacification of the country from the violent onslaught over the last decade at the hands of bands of narcotraffickers. He changed the emphasis of the war on drugs from the stubborn fixation that it had in the Calderón administration (2006-2012), and he altered the terms of cooperation with the United States on this issue.  But he has been unable to stem the violence, which in some cases has worsened.  In the southwestern state of Michoacán, a new actor has emerged besides the narco and government forces: self-appointed groups of armed citizens that are battling the criminals while denouncing the government’s ineffectiveness.  Simply declaring victory in the war on drugs and moving on to other issues has not stemmed the violence.  Many observers believe that Peña Nieto’s security team is not up to par and that tolerating, and more recently collaborating, with the paramilitary groups is not the solution to the problem – and indeed will only worsen it down the road.  Also the terms of cooperation with the United States on the war on drug trafficking organizations are not clear yet.

It is too soon, of course, to declare victory on the reform front since the way these changes are implemented will determine their success or failure. We have had “Mexican moments” in the past, especially after NAFTA was approved in 1994, just to see them wiped out by government mismanagement and crises. But it is also too early to declare the final failure of the campaign to pacify the country since there have been some bright spots – notably in Ciudad Juárez. Coordination among security agencies has improved and the gendarmerie, a special rural federal police force that would replace the army in restoring the peace where violence rages, is being trained and will begin operations with 5,000 men in July.  But the appearance of paramilitary “self-defense” groups and the apparent alliance that they are forging with the federal government are deeply troubling considering what we have seen in other latitudes – especially Colombia – when such groups thrived. These contradictory trends explain why many people are enthusiastic about Mexico’s economic future while Peña Nieto’s approval ratings remain soft after a year of slow growth, tax increases, and unabated violence.

*  Manuel Suárez-Mier is Economist-in-Residence and Director of the Center for North American Studies in American University’s School of International Service.

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.

Top Five Events of 2012

A poll of contributors to AULABLOG identified the following five events (listed below in no particular order) as the most important in Latin America in 2012.  We welcome you to post your own list using the Leave a Comment link below.

By: Matt Westgate "Mettamatt" | Flickr | Creative Commons

By: Matt Westgate “Mettamatt” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s third major cancer surgery signaled that change – probably profound – will come to Venezuela much faster than his presidential campaign let on.  We expect growing tensions among his aides, none of whom has his charisma or base, as they jockey in a succession scenario.  We’ll be watching whether the PSUV can become an institutionalized mechanism for channeling Chavismo’s support into a governing project in the post-Chavez era.

The election and inauguration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signals a natural swing back to PRI leadership after 12 years of PAN governments.  Differences over the approach to counternarcotics might flare up in an overall smooth relationship with the United States, but the new president’s biggest challenge is going to be overcoming the persistent economic backwardness that has kept Mexico from achieving the economic growth of others since the turn of the century.

The ouster of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo last June – as well as the United States and Latin America’s ambivalent reaction to it – was a dramatic illustration that democracy in the region rests on a tenuous foundation of sometimes contradictory constitutions and weak institutions.  The continuing struggle of Honduran President Pepe Lobo, three-plus years after the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya, shows that failure to bring those whose power grabs violate laws and the spirit of law to account sows the seeds of long-term instability and even greater threats to democracy.

The Colombian peace talks, the first serious attempt in 10 years at resolving the decades-old conflict, could lead to a watershed in that country’s development.  President Juan Manuel Santos has shown strong leadership, despite incessant carping from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and has smartly acknowledged that success in the talks is far from certain.  If the talks are successful, 2013 could be a defining moment for a country already experiencing strong economic growth and an important degree of social progress.

Washington continued to sit on the sidelines on most regional issues.  President Obama got a spanking at the Summit of Americas from even perennially friendly governments for Washington’s approach to counternarcotics (overly militarized) and Cuba (stuck in the Cold War).  He was silent on Latin America during the campaign, and his rhetoric of “partnership” and “neighborhood” remained unfulfilled.  Although the President won kudos for implementing elements of the Dream Act by Presidential Directive, the Administration boasted of deporting more than 400,000 illegal immigrants in 2012, the most of any year in the nation’s history.  The region is likely to remain eager for U.S. leadership on issues of mutual interest in 2013, but most countries’ blossoming dealings with Europe, Asia and even Africa suggest they’re not going to sit around waiting for the U.S. to take up the challenge.