The Peruvian government has announced plans to attempt major coca eradication in the VRAEM region for the first time this year, a necessary step but one that could lead to violent confrontation.
Peru's anti-drug body Devida announced a target of 16,000 hectares of coca crops to be destroyed in the remote Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM), one of the country's coca growing heartlands and the last stronghold of the Shining Path rebel insurgency, reported the Andina news agency. The estimated area of coca cultivation in the VRAEM currently stands at 20,500 hectares, reported RPP Noticias.
Last year, efforts were focused in the Upper Huallaga Valley in the center of the country and in the jungle regions of Pachitea and Pucallpa.
Devida president Carmen Masias said the killings of Shining Path leaders Martin Quispe Palomino, alias "Gabriel," and Alejandro Borda Casafranca, alias "Comrade Alipio," would make the VRAEM eradication plan much easier to carry out.
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This is a highly ambitious plan for Peru's government, setting an eradication target in the VRAEM almost as high as the countrywide target originally set for 2013. It also represents more than half of the 30,000 hectare record target Peru has set itself for 2014. However, such a move is absolutely necessary if Peru is to effectively reverse a trend which has seen the country become the world's primary cocaine producer.
The VRAEM has long been Peru's largest coca growing region, thought to produce more than 50 percent of all the coca used to make cocaine -- as opposed to that cultivated for legal use. It is also a major jumping off point for drug shipments leaving the country. Since last year's successful eradication in the Upper Huallaga Valley -- boosted by the fall of Shining Path leader Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, alias "Comrade Artemio," -- the VRAEM is now the last coca growing region with a significant guerrilla presence. If the government succeeds in destroying three quarters of the crops there as planned, Peru's drug trafficking industry could be in serious trouble.
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Devida is hoping the fall of "Gabriel" and "Comrade Alipio" will give them a proper chance of entering the VRAEM to build significantly on last year's record eradication results, however seeking a replay of the Upper Huallaga Valley scenario may be overly optimistic. For one thing, as Masias told RPP Noticias, each hectare of coca crops in the VRAEM contains 120,000 coca plants, compared to 40,000 in the Upper Huallaga Valley. Moreover while the fall of the two VRAEM leaders was a significant blow to the Shining Path there, new leaders quickly stepped into their place and the guerrillas are still strong enough to mount a violent resistance. What's more, as has been seen in the likes of Colombia, any significant success eradicating drug crops in the VRAEM will likely be met by a shift of production to other areas.