The government of newly elected Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced last week that it is suspending the US-backed coca eradication program in the Upper Huallaga Valley, the only ongoing eradication program in the country. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world's largest coca leaf producer, although Colombia maintains a slight lead in cocaine production.
Newly appointed head of the National Commission for the Development of Life Without Drugs Ricardo Soberon told reporters last Wednesday that the program was being suspended so the Humala government could "evaluate the policies." Soberon added that the Humala government is in the midst of renegotiating anti-drug agreements with the US and that past anti-drug policies have failed, leading to an increase in cultivation.
Soberon is a well-known advocate of progressive drug policies and talks about reduction rather than eradication, saying efforts should be aimed at coca plots in national parks, near maceration pits where cocaine is produced, and that are beyond an "acceptable" size. His appointment as Peru's drug czar sends a strong signal that Humala wants to do something different when it comes to coca policy.
According to the UNODC, Peruvian coca production increased 2% over last year. The Andean nation is cultivating 150,000 acres of coca this year. Coca consumption is legal in Peru. So is production, as long as coca farmers register with ENACO, the government coca monopoly, which stockpiles coca for traditional and medicinal uses. But tens of thousands of Peruvian coca farmers grow without registering, and much of their production is destined to be turned into cocaine to be sold to ravenous North American, European, and Brazilian consumers.
But on Friday, the Associated Press reported that US officials said they had received assurances from Peru that it would continue to cooperate in anti-drug efforts.
"We do not believe that the temporary suspension of eradication this week represents a permanent shift in the Peruvian government's counternarcotics policy," the State Department said. Peruvian government officials "at the highest levels" assured the US Embassy in Lima "of their intention to continue close collaboration in the fight against narcotics trafficking and criminality, and to work together to continue to reduce the cultivation of illegal coca in Peru," it said.
Still, with President Evo Morales in Bolivia and now with President Ollanta Humala in Peru, the US-imposed orthodoxy of coca eradication in place since the 1980s is increasingly being replaced by policies more in line with the interests of Lima and La Paz rather than Washington.