The U.S. government says that Peru has, for the first time in nearly two decades, taken Colombia’s place as the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

Assistant Intelligence Chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Rodney Benson, revealed that Peru’s cocaine industry, which was the world’s largest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is again the leading producer of pure cocaine. Testifying before a Senate committee in early October (see pdf version here), Benson discussed how Colombia anti-narcotics progress and the fluid nature of the drug trade has affected Peru.

In 2010, Peru had an estimated 53,000 hectares of coca under cultivation, compared to 100,000 hectares in Colombia. However, higher-yielding mature coca fields enabled Peru to potentially produce 325 metric tons of pure cocaine, compared to only 270 metric tons in Colombia. This represents a 44% increase from 2009 and the highest production levels since 1995.

The reasons for this shift are multiple. For many years, Colombia led its Andean neighbors in both tons of pure cocaine produced as well as hectares dedicated to coca cultivation. Although the effectiveness of eradication policies in regards to reducing quantities of coca cultivated is debatable, aerial crop spraying and manual eradication efforts have forced Colombian coca growers to replace productive, mature crops with new coca plants that typically yield less cocaine per leaf.

This partially explains why Peru, despite consistently lower levels of cultivation (as measured in hectares), is now producing more pure cocaine than Colombia. At the same time, five years of U.S. funds poured into Colombian law enforcement has caused drug trafficking operations to balloon into other countries in the region, including Peru. Its less aggressive anti-narcotics operations, and weaker security forces, provide a more hospitable environment for traffickers.

The southward shift of cocaine production from Colombia to Peru coincided with burgeoning demand in European and other markets. Europe’s cocaine market is estimated to be worth approximately $33 billion dollars annually and rivals the North American market in size, according to the latest UN World Drug Report (pdf here). Markets in Asia and Australia, while smaller, still generate significant revenues for traffickers because cocaine prices are significantly higher in these areas.

Peruvian cocaine is trafficked via Pacific maritime and overland routes, passing through Bolivia before reaching Brazil or Argentina, where a growing drug processing industry turns raw coca paste from Peru into cocaine powder, before it is shipped to European markets. Not all of Peru’s cocaine, however, is destined to leave the markets. The UN estimates that South America’s 7.5 million users account for about 19 percent of global cocaine consumption. Cocaine consumption is now more prevalent in Argentina than in the U.S., and drug use in Chile rivals that of Argentina.

A number of factors complicate efforts in to fight cocaine production in Peru. The DEA witness testified that approximately 45 percent of Peru’s total coca cultivation takes place in areas controlled by the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso). Rebels from Shining Path provide protection for coca farmers during cultivation, using violence and intimidation to deter government-sponsored eradication efforts. As international drug trafficking organizations expanded their presence in Peru, according to testimony before the Senate committee, they have colluded with Shining Path to move cocaine from cultivation centers to key transshipment points along the country’s coastline and near the land border with Bolivia.

Furthermore, Peru’s relatively weak law enforcement bodies are ill-equipped to handle the threat of well-armed and organized transnational drug trafficking groups working in alliance with Peru’s homegrown insurgency. Peru’s unfortunate history of drug-related corruption in the security forces is reinforced by more recent scandals, like when 18 members of Peru’s special anti-narcotics police force were caught transporting cocaine between stash houses. While current President Humala is implementing reforms to purge corrupt and inefficient officers from the force, nearly half of Peruvians surveyed in 2010 said they distrusted the country’s police.

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