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Chronicle on the Scene Feature: In Peru, Coca Growers Struggle to Survive

On the eastern side of the Andes, where from their heights, the mountains drop down thousands of feet into the jungles (selva) of the Amazon basin, several hundred thousand Peruvian peasants are making a living -- but not much of one -- by growing coca. While the farmers and the coca leaf chewers they supply consider the plant sacred and an integral part of the culture of the Andes, it is also the stuff from which cocaine is made.

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith with VRAE leader Abdon Flores Huaman
This makes Peru's coca farmers, or cocaleros, targets of the US government, which seeks to eradicate as much of the coca crop as possible. It also makes them targets of the Peruvian government, which, when it comes to drug policy, has shown itself all too willing to follow the lead of the gringos. While both governments and a host of non-governmental organizations are also seeking to provide alternative development opportunities to the cocaleros, those programs have failed to work and are rife with corruption, say cocalero leaders.

"We cocaleros are people who live in extreme poverty and we have to grow the sacred leaf to survive," said Nelson Palomino, head of the country's largest coca grower union, the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys (CONCPACCP). "We are honest, hard-working Peruvians, and we are not guilty of anything for growing the coca plant to subsist," he told Drug War Chronicle during a meeting in Lima, chewing coca leaves as he spoke. "What are we to do? Alternative development has failed. The foreign money that is supposed to come to the valleys goes into the pockets of functionaries in Lima," Palomino complained. "We hope the world will understand that our intentions are good."

"The NGOs and the government are vampires," said Abdon Flores Huaman, secretary of the cocalero defense organization the Federation of Agriculture Producers of the Valleys of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers (VRAE), as he was interviewed in the CONCPACCP office in nearby Kimbiri on the banks of the rain-swollen Apurimac River. "They use our names to gain support for their so-called alternative development projects, but only 10% to 15% of those resources actually reach us," he claimed. "What we want is to get rid of these intermediaries that prey on us and get direct support for our local and regional authorities and directly to the campesinos, too. Our unions can play a role in this."

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drying coca leaves for market -- about $60US
A Drug War Chronicle visit to the coca fields of the VRAE this week seemed to back up Palomino's contention that cocaleros are not getting rich, but merely surviving by harvesting the leaf. There, 125 miles down a dirt road over the crest of the Andes from Ayacucho, the nearest large city linked to the national highway system, tiny peasant villages where residents live in what are essentially shanties without electricity or running water depend on the coca leaf for what little income they can generate.

"Where are our narco-palaces?" asked Huaman scornfully. "Do you see any narco-palaces here? We are lucky to make $2,000 a year with four coca crops. That is barely enough to feed and clothe our children."

"We barely survive," said cocalero Percy Ore, as he stood in a small field tending his coca plants in the municipality of Pichari on the east bank of the Apurimac in Cusco province. "Look at this land," he said, pointing to the rugged, hilly terrain where he and his family toiled. "What else can we grow here? Coffee doesn't do well here, and if we try to grow fruits like the aid workers tell us, we have no way to get them to market."

Indeed. Even to get from his village to the nearest town requires a trek of several miles down a dirt road that only the toughest of four-drive vehicles can navigate during the rainy season. But cocaleros like Ore don't have four-wheel drive vehicles; they are more likely to carry their coca leaves to the local market on burros or on their own shoulders. Numerous peasants could be seen walking down the road in Pichari carrying their bags of coca leaves to local markets.

In the VRAE alone, Huaman said, there are some 40,000 coca growers. While about 9,000 of them are registered with ENACO, the Peruvian government coca monopoly that handles all legal buying and selling, the remaining 30,000 are not. Cocalero leaders consistently insist their crops are not ending up as cocaine, but cocaleros acknowledge off the record that the leaves not bought by ENACO are destined for the black market.

The situation does not sit well with the cocaleros. "We want to be legal," said Pastor Romero Castillo, subsecretary of the VRAE federation. "We reject the narco-traffic."

For the leadership, what is crucial is to separate coca, "the sacred leaf," from cocaine, the drug that afflicts the gringos as well as some of their urban countrymen. "Coca is our culture; coca is Peru," Palomino said fiercely. "To talk about coca is to talk about health. The coca needs to go for medicine, food, and other uses. Why can't the rest of the world accept this? The coca plant contains many alkaloids. While some are bad, others are good, and we worry that your country does not know about the good side of coca. We need for the American press, the American Congress to know this information."

What coca growers need is true alternative development, an agricultural policy that addresses their needs, and an increase in legal markets for their product, say the cocaleros. Some Peruvian entrepreneurs are working hard to do just that.

"Although there is abuse, the coca leaf is natural," said Manuel Seminario Bisso, the entrepreneur behind Mana Integral, a Lima-based company producing coca products as well as products based on other native Peruvian plants, including maca, tarwi, kiwicha, quinua [Editor's Note: "quinoa" on US store shelves], and kaniwa. "We want to revalorize the coca leaf, and we are investigating various products. Already, we make products like coca flour, tea, and other coca products for food. We use it in tamales, we have lemonade with coca [Editor's Note: Very tasty and refreshing]; it is one of the best foods we could use."

"There have been 45 years of aggression against the coca plant since the UN Single Convention in 1961," said Seminario. "We have seen the results of this stupid, stupid policy of eradication. We don't need eradication; we need to develop alternative uses, alternative markets. Holding up a display pack of coca flour energy packets ("Energize Yourself! Eat Coca! [coca flour] Without caffeine or taurine: Pure Coca…our sacred plant) that wouldn't look out of place at the check-out counter of your local convenience store, Seminario argued that if the market for coca as a food item could expand, there would be no need to eradicate crops. "It's very simple to solve this problem," he said. "If everyone in Peru ate 12 grams of this leaf every day, we would use up the entire crop. We like to say 'a coca leaf eaten is one coca leaf less for the drug trade.'"

But Seminario bemoaned a variety of problems facing an expanded coca food industry. "It is difficult to sell coca products and there is a lot of prejudice against them because they demonize it. They say that coca is a drug, and it's my job to convince people that it has benefits. We must revalorize the plant."

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statues of coca leaves, Municipal Park, Pichari
Coca product producers also face higher prices from ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly through which all legal coca must be bought and sold. "ENACO has raised prices dramatically for no good reason. It is a bid to end production increases. ENACO sets the prices, and that's the problem with having a monopoly like that. We need a free market. The government talks about the free market and globalization, but they want to control the market," Seminario complained.

And it isn't just the Peruvian government that is the problem, according to Seminario. "The United States government needs to quit bothering us. We want to sell these products, and it is allowed in Peru," he said. "We don't need to sell it to the rest of the world. It is not the coca that kills or produces corruption, so please just leave us alone and respect our nutritional sovereignty. The US needs to stop defaming our product and trying to undermine us."

[Editor's Note: This first article based on the Drug War Chronicle's visit to the Andean coca heartland provides only a first glimpse of a number of complex issues related to coca, cocaine, and the drug trade. Look for more in-depth articles on the politics of the cocalero movement in Peru, as well as reporting from Bolivia in coming weeks.]

Latin America: Mexico Moves to Decriminalize Drug Possession -- So It Can Concentrate on Drug Traffickers

Legislators from Mexican President Felipe's Calderon's National Action Party (PAN -- Partido de Accion Nacional) have introduced a bill in the Mexican Senate that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs for "addicts." An even stronger drug reform bill that included higher personal drug possession limits and would have applied to all drug consumers passed both the Mexican Senate and Congress, only to be vetoed by then President Vicente Fox after strong objections from Washington.

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DEA Spanish-language poster targeting Mexican trafficking organization
Under this year's version of the bill, which was introduced in the Senate Wednesday, people caught for the first time with less than two grams of marijuana and similarly small single-dose amounts of other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, would not be prosecuted. But persons caught more than once in possession of illegal drugs would be prosecuted unless they qualified as "addicts" by proving they were in drug treatment or under medical care. The bill retains a provision that would protect indigenous people engaging in religious drug use from prosecution.

But the proposed legislation may not mark a liberalization of Mexico's drug policy, but may instead broaden Mexico's ability to arrest and prosecute drug offenders by allowing state police and judicial systems to take action against drug offenders under them. Under current law, that ability is reserved to the federal government. The bill would allow authorities to concentrate on drug traffickers by freeing up resources to go after dealers, and it increases prison sentences for drug trafficking offenses.

"This isn't legalization," said PAN Sen. Alejandro Gonzalez, who heads the Senate's justice commission. "We're going to go much harder against drug dealers," he told a Mexico City press conference Monday.

Since taking office in December, President Calderon has declared war on Mexico's violent drug trafficking organizations with a vengeance. He has sent thousands of troops into hotbeds of drug trafficking, such as the state of Michoacan, as well as major cities plagued by prohibition-related violence and corruption, such as Tijuana and Acapulco.

Last year's version of the bill set higher personal use quantities, causing it to ultimately be vetoed, said Gonzalez. "An error was made, unfortunately, in the lower house, adding the (exemption for) consumers. That really betrayed the spirit of the reforms, by increasing (personal use) quantities, and that's why we're paying attention to the criticisms and making changes," he noted.

Is "the spirit of the reforms" then to facilitate Mexico's drug war rather than end it?

Phil is Back in Ayacucho -- Report and Pictures Coming Tomorrow AM...

Phil called me this afternoon from a small town called San Francisco, off in the wilds of the Peruvian state Ayacucho -- the heart of coca country. He promised a bunch of pictures, including some of coca fields, when he got back tonight to the city of Ayacucho itself -- all three Internet cafes in San Francisco were offline, so he couldn't send them or post to the blog from there. Among other things, Phil told me that the roads are really bad there, and together with it being a real mountain region he can see why it is difficult to transport most crops out of there to larger markets. Phil was expecting to get back to Ayacucho around 7:00pm, but debris left by a landslide had to be cleared off of the road, and they were delayed for three hours. The hotel doesn't have Internet or even phone lines in the rooms to try a dial-up, and he was left with a little over an hour with which to post some Chronicle articles for me to proof, and with much of the Chronicle writing job in front of him. So no blogging from Phil tonight, unfortunately. But check back tomorrow morning, when Phil will recount the tale of his trip over the top of the Andes and down into the edge of the Amazonian jungle to visit with coca growers...
Location: 
Ayacucho, AY
Peru

Mexico Proposes Decriminalization…Again

Filipe Calderon is so totally not getting a Christmas card from the White House this year. From ABC News:
Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government wants to decriminalize first-time possession of small amounts of drugs in a move likely to draw criticism from U.S. anti-narcotics officials.

Under the proposed legislation, users found for the first time with 2 grams (0.07 ounces) or less of marijuana and small amounts of other drugs ranging from cocaine to methamphetamine would not be prosecuted.
A similar proposal last spring from Mexico's then-President Vicente Fox dropped jaws at the U.S. State Department, culminating in frantic diplomacy and a last minute veto. Since the bill had emerged from Fox's office, his subsequent veto under U.S. pressure was a pathetic reversal. If Vicente Fox got a new iPod out of the deal, I guess Felipe Calderon wants one too.

The fun part here is that Calderon has recently enjoyed gushing praise from the drug war peanut gallery for his unwavering campaign against the cartels. So I won't be the first to pass a napkin when the smug Robert J. Caldwell at Human Events spits coffee on his monitor. Or Karen Tandy, for that matter.

What do you say when the man who's been quenching your insatiable appetite for massive drug war demolition says he wants to pardon the cannon fodder? Some might sympathize with Calderon's explanation that he aims to conserve resources for the bigger battles, but an underlying principle behind the American drug war holds that people who use drugs are unforgivable bastards. No, this won't play well in Washington.

If the bill becomes law, will frustrated U.S. officials commence lobbying Mexico to divert resources from their cartel wars back towards the fruitless endeavor of busting drug users for dime bags? That would be quite revealing.

Location: 
United States

First Pictures from Coca Land

Mana coca foods (and other foods) store owner of Mana, with coca energy powder changing of the guard, Municipal Palace, Plaza de Armas, Lima cocalero leader Nelson Palomino, with coca leaves Drug War Chronicle editor Phil Smith with Nelson Palomino National Cathedral, Plaza de Armas Phil Smith with Peruvian academic and coca expert Baldomero Caceres upscale Lima suburb Miraflores pedestrian shopping street Jiron de la Union, Lima Municipal Palace National Cathedral
Location: 
Lima
Peru

Off to Ayacucho and the Valleys of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers

Oh, my situation is fluid. I was supposed to travel to Ayacucho today to visit cocalero leader Nelson Palomino and check out what is going on in the coca fields of the Valles de los rios Apurimac y Ene (VRAE), one of the most conflictive coca zones in the country. But last night, I got word that Palomino and his crew had come to Lima for meetings. I managed to hook up with them this morning, as well as visiting Mana Integral, a small company devoted to the nutrional uses of coca. It makes coca wheat, coca yoghurt, coca energy packets (they would look great at your local convenience store). And now, although Palomino is headed up to San Martin in the northeast for more meetings, one of his men is going to accompany me on an overnight bus ride, getting into Ayacucho at dawn, then another ride of four or five hours into the heart of the VRAE. It´ll be up and over the Andes and down into the selva at the edge of the Amazon basin. Should be very, very interesting in the VRAE. It takes so long to get there that we will stay there tomorrow night and return to Ayacucho Thursday afternoon. This has some implications for near-term blogging and for getting the Chronicle out in a timely manner this week. I don´t think I´m going to find high speed internet access in the VRAE, so you may not hear from me for a day or two. I also had very interesting and disturbing conversations with coca experts Baldomero Caceres and Ricardo Soberon yesterday. Look for some of that in one of the articles I do for the Chronicle this week. This working from the road in the Third World is really kind of a hassle. I have to rely on internet cafes, and often the people working them don´t have a clue about why my connection won´t work. Then, if I have to use their machines, I have problems with the strange keyboards. But I do my best.
Location: 
Lima
Peru

With Baldomero Caceres in Miraflores

I´ve spent the last few hours with Baldomeo Caceres, the Peruvian psychologist and coca expert, walking around central Lima and talking about the politics of coca. Now, we´ve traveled to Baldo´s house in the upscale Lima suburb of Miraflores, where we´re going to have a nice Peruvian lunch, then I´ll pull out my laptop and do a formal interview with him. One of the points that Baldo hammered away on while we walked and talked was his frustration with the slow pace of efforts to get coca removed from the list of banned plants in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics. Evo Morales is supposedly ready to formally request coca´s removal from the list, but according to Baldo, he isn´t getting support from some of the quarters he should be in the world of the non-governmental organizations. We´ll see what Baldo is willing to say about that on the record. He was also pessimistic about the prospects for change at the UN General Assembly special session on drugs in Vienna next year. Again, we´ll see what he says about that on the record. I have just been called to lunch, so I will keep this short. After this, I go to interview Peruvian defense and drug policy analyst Ricardo Soberon, formerly an advisor to Congresswoman Nancy Obregon. I will have photos soon. I had to buy a cable for the camera so I can transfer the photos. I´ll try to post some this evening.
Location: 
Lima
Peru

In Lima, the Cocaine is Cheap, High Quality, and Easily Available

Well, that didn't take long. I arrived in Lima late last night and didn't clear customs and make my way to my very cheap ($10) hotel in the center of the city a few blocks off the Plaza de Armas, the main square at the heart of the city. But I went to the Plaza today, where I met some Canadians and Russians. As we sat drinking Inka -Cola, we were soon engaged in conversation by one of the numerout touts trying to make a living off the tourists. The young man wanted to sell bronzed llamas and stuff like that, but the Russians had more decadent pleasures in mind, and the young man disappeared and returned in a matter of minutes. An under the table transaction occurred, and our group adjourned to the Russian´s hotel, where they proceeded to put their contribution to the Peruvian economy right up their noses. They paid $40 for what was supposed to be a gram, but looked like maybe twice that. I ran into the tout again a few minutes ago. He wanted to know if I wanted some. When I said no, he dropped the price to $20. How low would he have gone? I don´t know because I wasn't haggling. From what I can tell, though, it was so pure that if I had snorted any it would have probably blown out my sinuses. A couple of points here: I don't really recommend buying cocaine off strangers in the main plaza of a strange city. There are plenty of stories here about people like that turning out to be cops. (Ah, the old reverse sting. It's particularly profitable for Third World cops working on gringo tourists. How much would you pay to make that sort of trouble go away?) In this case, however, my concerns were lessened somewhat because it wasn't the tout but the Russians who mentioned the stuff. In those stings, it´s usually the other way around. The second point has to do with coca. All the coca growers say they are only growing for the traditional markets, but that's clearly not the case. I don't think it serves their leaders well to pretend otherwise. I guess I'll see what they have to say about it when I talk to some of them next week.
Location: 
Lima
Peru

Rice: Karzai's opium fight insufficient

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
UPI
URL: 
http://www.upi.com/InternationalIntelligence/view.php?StoryID=20070209-064953-8951r

Drug-fuelled violence takes toll on Mexico

Location: 
Mexico
Publication/Source: 
Toronto Star (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.thestar.com/News/article/179501

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