The Peruvian government's campaign to eradicate coca crops in the Upper Huallaga River Valley hit a serious bump this week as coca grower leaders and other, supportive social movements in the city of Tocache first protested eradication, then clashed with police, then called a general strike that was still ongoing, according to the latest reports. The area is represented in the Peruvian congress by Nancy Obregon, one of the coca grower movement's most well-known national leaders.
[According to Obregon's office in Lima, she was on a five-day trip to Venezuela before returning to the country early this week and heading directly for Tocache and the nearby coca fields. Drug War Chronicle attempts to reach Obregon in Tocache have so far been unsuccessful. (Read our recent interview with Obregon and other movement leaders published in last week's Chronicle here.)]
Coca leaves drying in warehouse, Ayacucho province -- sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Protests against the US-backed eradication effort began late last week, as hundreds of protesting coca farmers blocked highways in the area to demand an end to the project, talks between the government and coca grower (or cocalero) unions, and meaningful alternative development proposals. On Sunday, the protests erupted in a violent confrontation between growers and police that, according to local radio stations, left at least 10 people injured, including local growers' spokesman Wilder Satalaya.
Monday, Satalaya told reporters on the scene growers would raise the protests to another level. "According to what I have seen on Channel 7, the government will continue with the eradication. The coca growers will also be radical. The political leaders don't know yet what we are capable of. We will take roads and highways, we will take offices. When we start burning cars, perhaps the government will finally begin listening to us," he stressed.
National coca grower leader Elsa Malpartida, who sits in the Andean Parliament, told reporters Monday that cocaleros were seeking a moratorium on eradication until growers and the government could reach an agreement. "We have proposed a temporary suspension of this eradication during this conflict and we are willing to seek a political solution on this matter," she said after meeting with Interior Minister Luis Alva Castro and representatives of the national anti-drug agency DEVIDA. "The debate is still ongoing, but I believe that there is good will on both sides for reaching a quick decision. We trust in that and we wait for an answer later tonight or tomorrow," Malpartida said.
Malpartida called for a program of nationwide registration of coca farmers, who would "like to have some form of legalization." Coca growers are not the enemy, she said. "The real enemies are the producers of chemical cocaine. We speak of a war against drugs. But in order to engage in a war, one has to visualize the enemy first. In this case they decided that the enemy is the coca grower. They have attacked him for 30 years and there have been no results. And the drug traffickers are very happy about that," she said.
But that same day, Peruvian President Alan Garcia fired back at protesting cocaleros, saying that violence and extremism would not be tolerated. "The government will be firm and proceed with its efforts in forcefully eradicating coca plants since coca farmers are not voluntarily eradicating their crops," Garcia said. "The law is what needs to prevail in this situation and the government will not take one step back. These are people who do not abide by rules and thereby put themselves under the suspicion of supplying the drug trade. They justify their actions in the name of poverty."
Even as Garcia threatened, however, other social movements and even the mayor of Tocache joined with cocaleros in what was supposed to be a 48-hour general strike, but which has now been extended. "We support our farming brothers and sisters. They have always protested by themselves, but now we pledge our support in their cause to have the federal government stop forceful coca plant eradication efforts," declared Tocache Mayor David Bazan.
According to Peruvian news media, the strike has been successful. Shops were shuttered in Tocache and transportation has ground to a halt in the city and surrounding areas. Police have repeatedly removed stones cocaleros placed on highways to block traffic, but the cocaleros keep returning with more. Some 150 additional police were being sent this week to Tocache from Ayacucho to try to restore order.
Although government ministers traveled to Tocache Tuesday in a bid to cool matters, it doesn't seemed to have worked. On Wednesday, local cocalero leaders Julio Santolaya and Maria Paredes told reporters no government officials had talked to them and they were set to increase road blocks until the government agrees to end eradication. The Tocache Defense Front, made up of the social movements who are striking in solidarity with the cocaleros, also confirmed that protests will continue and deepen.
The country's largest coca grower union, the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru (CONCPACCP) has also joined the fray. In a manifesto made available to Drug War Chronicle, the organization headed by Nelson Palomino defended growers' protests and warned of more to come if the Peruvian government does not alter its policies.
"We strongly condemn the acts of eradication in Tocache, just as we oppose the forced eradication of coca in general. We have had and will continue to have a dialogue with the government," said the CONPACCP manifesto. "Nobody can accuse us of not being eager to talk. But the government of the day instead mounts smokescreens and designs strategies to surprise us and stab us in the back. What does the government say to our proposals? Nothing. Why? Because the repressive structure is given from the United States and the government, to avoid losing its profitable games, must obey them," the group said.
"We seek to prevent new clashes like those that took place in years past because of peasant opposition to the forced eradication of coca fields," the CONCPACCP manifesto continued. "But there will be confrontations because the eradication continues and the growers aren't going to sit still for it because the peasants are going to defend their sole sustenance as agricultural producers."