Authorities have arrested two prominent drug traffickers in Peru’s largest coca-producing region, but their capture is unlikely to help remedy the country’s shortcomings in combating coca cultivation and processing.
In early May, police forces arrested Víctor Rivera Muñoz, alias "Jarachupa,” at a checkpoint near the south-central city of Ayacucho, El Comercio reported. Rivera Muñoz is accused of heading a major drug trafficking operation in the coca rich Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley, known as the VRAEM. His trafficking networks also extended into nearby Bolivia and Colombia, and even as far as Mexico.
Authorities say an associate of Rivera Muñoz's laundered the group’s proceeds by buying and selling cars in the capital Lima. The trafficking network had a reported net worth of some $3 million, according to El Comercio.
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Rivera Muñoz is just the latest high-level drug trafficker to be taken down in Peru's VRAEM.
In early April, authorities arrested suspected drug boss Gregorio Murillo Delgadillo at his home there. Investigators say that Murillo Delgadillo wielded control over a drug corridor that connected the cities of Junín, Huancavelica and Ayacucho, according to El Comercio. Working with Peru’s Shining Path rebels, the drug baron housed groups of some 18 cocaine “backpackers,” who each moved up to 15 kilograms of the drug at a time.
At the end of 2018, Defense Minister José Huerta Torres said the government planned to pacify the VRAEM by 2021. More recently, nearly $500,000 in funds was transferred to Peru’s National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo y Vida Sin Drogas – DEVIDA) to finance anti-drug operations in the area.
Coca cultivation in Peru’s VRAEM has been rising in recent years. In 2017, the 21,646 hectares of coca in the river valley accounted for nearly half of the nation's total crop, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
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Peru’s VRAEM river valley has for years been among the country's most important coca growing regions. And while two of its most sought after traffickers have been taken out of play, conditions on the ground suggest that coca cultivation will continue apace.
Economic opportunities in the VRAEM are scarce. For many farming families, coca cultivation is the only way to earn a sustainable living. Even with traffickers like Rivera Muñoz and Murillo Delgadillo arrested, the drug trade here is extremely resilient. Powerful organized crime structures like the Shining Path guerrillas are still active and feared by locals.
What’s more, government efforts to steer small farmers away from coca and toward crops like cacao and coffee are imperiled by the continuing market for coca.
Earlier this month, an organization of some 3,000 cacao and coffee farmers in the VRAEM banded together to defend the organic certification of their operations, El Comercio reported. The organization’s leader said that an uptick in coca cultivation in the area is putting that certification, which allows such farmers to get better selling prices, in danger. The indiscriminate use of glyphosate, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides in nearby coca-growing operations threatens to contaminate their organically certified land.
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"If the government does not support us, we estimate that by 2021 many of the families producing coffee and cacao will no longer have anything to export and, unfortunately, they will have to dedicate themselves to the coca leaf," said Luis Santivañez Sánchez, who represents a local cooperative of cacao and coffee farmers.
To make matters worse, a drop in coffee prices worldwide has forced small farmers who have opted to grow alternative crops to return to the higher and steadier profits earned from coca. Some 1,500 kilograms of harvested coffee can earn small farmers about $2,000 annually. The same amount of cacao earns them about $2,700 per year. On the other hand farmers growing coca take in about $18,000 a year, according to estimates from Geni Fundes from a local association of cacao and coffee growers.
Problems with alternatives to coca crops are not exclusive to Peru. In neighboring Colombia, for example, thousands of small farmers participating in a crop substitution program born out of the historic peace agreement between the government of former president Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in late 2016 have been left in limbo as the government focuses its efforts on hard-line anti-drug strategies.
Earlier this year, the Peruvian government announced plans to invest in more than 1,000 projects in the VRAEM that focus on education, transportation and agriculture. However, it was later discovered that 63 percent of those investment projects lacked any government funding, according to El Economista.
With continued under-investment, a lack of government support and an emphasis on arrests, officials are failing to address the everyday realities that continue pushing farmers in the VRAEM towards coca.