With its new four-year anti-drug strategy, Peru is moving towards a less tolerant position on coca, ramping up eradication targets and adopting a hardline position similar to neighboring Colombia.

On Tuesday, Peru’s President Ollanta Humala approved the strategy that will guide the country’s narcotics policy until 2016. One key part of the plan is ambitious coca eradication targets; the country plans to destroy 14,000 hectares in 2012, increasing each year up to 30,000 in 2016. This would represent a large hike in eradication — over the last 15 years, coca eradication in the country has gone no higher than 15,000 hectares in any one year. Cumulatively, the new targets add up to 110,000 hectares to be destroyed, which the government says will cut the coca output 30 percent by 2016.

This tough stance on coca marks a turnaround from Humala’s remarks last year, when, on the campaign trail in coca-growing areas, he promised not carry out forced eradication. When he came to office in July he briefly appeared to be planning a progressive drug policy, appointing a reformist linked to coca-growers as his top drug official. But he soon replaced progressive Ricardo Soberon with the more conservative Carmen Masias.

Masias, who was responsible for designing the strategy, has spoken out in support of eradication, saying that it is a necessary component of drug policy, and that should not be “demonized.” Indeed, IDL-Reporteros has accused her of leading a drive against “cocaleros” (coca-growers), which aims to “jail as many cocalero leaders as possible and multiply the work of coca eradication as a central criterion of the anti-drug fight.”

The new emphasis on eradication comes alongside Peru’s failure to back Bolivia’s campaign for coca to be accepted by the international community. Bolivia decided to leave the United Nations 1961 Single Convention in June last year, and is now campaigning to return with a condition allowing it to opt out of the section criminalizing the coca leaf. Despite a long history of coca chewing, an ancient practice amongst indigenous Peruvians as well as Bolivians, Peru country has not come out in favor of its neighbor. Masias said in a press conference last week that the government was carrying out a “legal analysis” to determine its position on Bolivia’s request. She contradicted Morales’ claims about coca’s health benefits, saying that the leaf has alkaloids that negate any other nutrients it contains.

It is strange that Peru, as the only other country in the world where coca growing is legal, has not offered more support for Bolivia’s efforts. Masias herself has said that 2.5 million people in the country chew coca, and even declared that she had “enormous respect” for the tradition. In a recent interview she said that “people have every right to chew coca, it’s ancestral, but we do not promote coca chewing.”

Peru’s tolerance for coca crops goes back a long way. Together with Bolivia, it had a provision inserted into a 1988 UN drug convention saying that eradication and demand reduction strategies “should take due account of traditional licit use, where there is historic evidence of such use.” As a Wilson Center report noted, even the right-wing government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) refused to “follow the North American strategy for fighting the coca peasants,” on the grounds that this would push coca growers to side with rebels. More recently, then-President Alan Garcia said in 2006 that developing the legal market for coca was the best way to combat the drug trade. He suggested various uses for the controversial leaf, including a coca salad and a sore throat remedy, advising his fellow statesmen; “to those presidents of the world who have hoarseness, you can take a little moist coca leaf and see how it cleans the throat.”

Peru’s coca market is more tightly regulated than Bolivia’s. Coca growers cannot legally sell the product on the market themselves, but only to the National Coca Company (Enaco). However, the US estimates that 93 percent of coca grown in the country goes to make cocaine. This is due in part to failures of the state-run body. Masias has complained that Enaco cannot offer competitive prices for coca compared those offered by drug traffickers. She stated this month that Enaco is meant to buy 9,000 tons of coca leaf a year, but only buys 2,400. This would still be a very small proportion of the country’s production, however, which the UN estimated to stand at 129,500 tons of sun-dried leaf in 2010. She has dismissed as “unrealistic” the idea of industrializing coca production for legitimate uses, noting that soft drink manufacturing, one of the main legal uses of the leaf, would use only up to 0.01 percent of the country’s total production.

Coca-growing unions remain a powerful force in Peru. These groups sometimes carry out strikes and protests against forced eradication. Humala faced his first such strike in September, when some 500 cocaleros blocked the highway to a provincial capital in the department of Ucayali. Cocalero leaders have even been elected to positions of power, such as Nancy Obregon, who served in the Congress 2006-2011, and Elsa Malpartida, who is a representative to the Andean Parliament.

One explanation for Peru’s hardline positions can be found in the comments of ousted drug chief Ricardo Soberon. Following his departure in January, he made pointed comments to the media about how drug policy in Peru had been “hijacked” by groups working in the interest of external actors, preventing the country having an independent, sovereign and rational drug policy. IDL-Reporteros notes that Masias worked for more than 20 years for USAID-backed anti-drug body Cedro, which promotes coca eradication. The site asks what would happen if “a nominee for US drug czar had worked for many years as a lobbyist paid by the Peruvian government to defend its points of view and its interests in the fight against drugs.”

Image, above shows Ollanta Humala campaigning last year in Tingo Maria, in a major coca-growing region.

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