At first glance, estimates of Peru's coca cultivation and eradication figures simply don't add up, which has led to claims of statistical manipulation. InSight Crime takes a closer look at the numbers to determine what's behind the discrepancies in the data.
As a drug trafficking expert recently noted, in certain areas of Peru the amount of coca destroyed by the Interior Ministry's eradication program vastly exceeds the estimated number of hectares of coca actually under cultivation. These figures are published yearly by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and are the main source of data for the Peruvian government.
Jaime Antezana, a specialist in drug trafficking in Peru, recently told Diario UNO that this showed that the UNODC and the Peruvian government are publishing false coca crop figures.
In the Ucayali region, for example, Antezana stated that the UNODC -- which use satellite imagery to identify coca crops -- recorded 332 hectares under cultivation in December 2014, but in 2015, 4,766 hectares were apparently eradicated. Antezana argued that based on those numbers, the amount of coca grown would have increased by 1,330 percent from 2014 to 2015, an irrationally large surge that proved statistics were being "adulterated, inflated."
Table originally produced by Jaime Antezana, c/o diario UNO
InSight Crime could not verify these statistics for each region listed in the table above, but we did independently examine Peru's eradication figures in Aguaytía, the main zone the UNODC analyzed in Ucayali (pdf). (See graph below)
The data shows that in 2015, eradication amounted to an area almost 1,900 percent greater than the final tally of coca cultivation for that same year, while in 2014 that figure was almost 4,200 percent greater. The cut-off date for the UNODC's cultivation estimates and Peru's official eradication data is December 31.
In further support of his argument, Antezana cited the apparent discrepancy between the government's coca eradication figures for this year and the much lower eradication "goals" stated by Peru's anti-drug agency, DEVIDA. On September 22, the Interior Ministry stated that it had eradicated over 20,000 hectares of coca so far this year. However, only days later, DEVIDA President Carmen Masías announced that the country was on its way to eradicating its target of 16,000 hectares in 2016.
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The apparent inconsistencies in these statistics draw attention to problems with Peru's official coca data. There are various possible explanations for these discrepancies.
The main issue when it comes to comparing coca production and eradication may be the re-cultivation of destroyed coca fields. Indeed, DEVIDA President Masías recently admitted that the re-cultivation rate in some areas had reached 92 percent over the past two years.
According to the UNODC's methodology (pdf), coca that is re-planted after the satellite data is collected is not included in the final cultivation estimate for a given year.
This is problematic given the rapid response of coca farmers to eradication efforts. Journalist and IDL-Reporteros Director Gustavo Gorriti described this process as a vicious circle: when authorities detect coca cultivations, they uproot the crops and register the operation. However, the farmers then proceed to re-plant the bush immediately, adding extra crops to compensate for lost time. Just six months later, the eradication units are once more deployed to the previously eradicated area, and the operation is added to eradication totals for the same year, he told InSight Crime.
The head of Peru's eradication body CORAH, retired Gen. Juan Zárate, illustrated this problem with the case of Aguaytía. Zárate explained to InSight Crime that his institution was eradicating a few thousands of hectares of coca annually in this area until 2013, when they did not return to the region. (See graph above) The following year, they went back and discovered over 14,000 hectares.
"They had resown all of it," Zárate said.
But farmers' efforts to re-plant crops still do not fully explain how CORAH might have eradicated nearly 20 times more coca than the area under cultivation for that same year. A likely explanation is that the UNODC's coca cultivation estimates are in fact off the mark, as various analysts consulted by InSight Crime have asserted.
Zárate told InSight Crime that there are certain key limitations with the UNODC's statistics. One is that the organization's satellites do not pick up on crops younger than nine months. And coca that is disguised among legal crops as well as coca planted in new areas are sometimes not taken into account, Zárate explained. Furthermore, the UNODC's numbers are published almost a year after the satellite data is gathered, meaning that they do not show any additional growth over the time lapse.
The retired general said that this meant that when the eradication teams arrived in a coca-growing area, they often found that the territory under cultivation was far greater than estimates showed.
Coletta Youngers, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), pointed out another problem: the UNODC branch in Peru lacks sufficient "on-the-ground data" when producing cultivation estimates, especially when compared to other Andean nations. The UNODC's Peru office did not respond to InSight Crime's requests for comment.
It's not just the cultivation figures that have raised doubts. Ricardo Soberón, the former head of DEVIDA and current Director of Peru's Center for Investigation on Drugs and Human Rights, also called into question the veracity of eradication numbers, telling InSight Crime that there are "serious doubts" regarding the government data.
The journalist Gustavo Gorriti agreed that the government's figures should be taken with some degree of skepticism. "You have to factor in the institutional, political and diplomatic interests of the bodies that provide the [coca] statistics," he wrote in an email to InSight Crime.
Taken together, the rapid re-planting of eradicated coca and uncertainty surrounding the cultivation and eradication figures call into serious question the viability of Peru's much-touted eradication efforts on a national level. Until 2011, the strategy was seemingly making little to no dent in coca production. And while the amount of hectares eradicated in Peru has risen every year since 2011, since 2013 the reduction in coca crops has become increasingly weaker. (See graph below)
Indeed, although last year saw a record amount of crops uprooted, it also saw the smallest decrease in coca cultivations since 2013. As has been recognized throughout the Andean region, forced suppression of coca crops is only a short-term solution if it is not accompanied by development programs that offer farmers an alternative means to make a living.
DEVIDA President Masías -- known as a coca hardliner who first took the helm of the institution with a pro-eradication stance -- appeared to have this in mind when setting this year's eradication goal to less than half that of 2015. According to Masías, eradication on last year's scale would be "almost useless" without supplementary programs, as eradicated coca crops would simply be re-planted. She stated that eradication will now be accompanied by development initiatives.
Peru, however, has had problems in the past with implementing coca substitution programs. If the authorities don't find more effective ways to help coca farmers transition to alternative crops, they could see the downward trend in national cultivation figures reverse itself in the near future.