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.

U.S. Marijuana Vote Unlikely to Impact Mexico in Short Term

The following is excerpted from an article by InSight Crime* analyst Elyssa Pachico

Photo by: Editor B | Flickr | Creative Commons

Approval last week in Colorado and Washington state of measures allowing the recreational use of marijuana has fueled debate on whether legalization will reduce drug traffickers’ profits and the violence surrounding the illicit narcotics trade.  In both states, ballots passed with comfortable margins of 53 percent (Colorado) and 55 percent (Washington).  The measures legalize personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allow the drug to be legally sold (and taxed) in licensed stores.  A similar initiative failed to pass in Oregon, gaining less than 45 percent of the vote.

A recent study by a Mexican think tank, the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), and Alejandro Hope (an InSight Crime contributor) found that passage of the initiatives in all three states would reduce the revenue of Mexican drug trafficking organizations by as much as 30 percent.  Hope has pointed out on Animal Político, a popular Mexican news site, that the impact will depend on the U.S. federal government’s response.  Attorney General Eric Holder strongly opposed such measures in 2010 when California residents voted on Proposition 19, but he did not issue strong statements this year.  The government’s response to last week’s votes has been muted; according to Reuters, the US Justice Department reacted to the measures by stating that its drug enforcement policy had not changed.

Mexico, a major supplier of marijuana, is unlikely to feel the impact of these measures for a while.  Parts of the Colorado measure will come into effect after 30 days, but the Washington measure will not take effect for a year.  But, over the long term, the votes indicate shifting attitudes towards marijuana prohibition in the United States – on the heels of similar shifts in Latin American countries eager to find alternatives to the current war on drugs.  The presidents of Guatemala, Mexico, and Colombia have emphasized the need for discussions, and Uruguay and Chile have considered their own marijuana legalization bills.  InSight Crime cautions, however, that the drug organizations have proved to be very adaptable in finding new sources of revenue – including methamphetamines, migrant smuggling, and even illegal mining.

Insight Crime is affiliated with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, which produces AULABLOG.   Click here for the full text and additional links. 

Honduras Adopting Failed Counternarcotics Model?

The rapid escalation of operations by U.S. and Honduran military and counterdrug teams against suspected drug-traffickers transiting Honduras suggests that Washington has persuaded Tegucigalpa to follow Mexico’s footsteps with a predominantly military strategy against the cartels.  The New York Times has published reports on the deployment of binational teams – patterned after U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – in remote areas of Honduras to disrupt clandestine aircraft dropping off Colombian cocaine for shipment by river to the north coast and then northward to the United States.  The aircraft, weapons, advisors, trainers, and intelligence used by the “Tactical Response Teams” are all provided by Washington.  U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske said the Honduran units are “eager and capable partners in this joint effort.”

The units claim to have intercepted tons of cocaine, but the operations have also stirred up controversy.  In one operation near the northeastern town of Ahuas in May, a response team killed four citizens, including two pregnant women.  Although the circumstances of the victims’ presence in the area are not entirely clear, the mayor has protested the U.S.-inspired tactics, and local indigenous groups issued a statement that “declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory.”  One June 23, a DEA agent shot and killed a man during a raid in northern Honduras when the suspect reportedly pulled a gun on him.

This military-intensive strategy has yielded some 60,000 dead in Mexico – with negligible impact on cartel operations – and in Honduras, where institutions are much weaker, the violence probably will be proportionally even higher.  The U.S. Ambassador’s confidence in Honduran units notwithstanding, the military’s human rights record – never stellar – has steadily worsened since the coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.  Vetting units and keeping them clean when institutions are so weak and vulnerable to corruption and protecting operatives’ identities in Honduras’s “small-town” society all argue for an approach different from that which has failed in Mexico.