When President Bush traveled to Peru late last month, his message to recently elected Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo was simple and direct. Bush called on Toledo and his government to join the US in "a war without ambiguities against terrorism and drug trafficking." But Peru, faced with a resurgence of the Shining Path guerrillas, whose growth into a mighty killing machine was fueled by previous coca eradication efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s, sees ambiguities aplenty, and it has signaled that it is unwilling to try to totally wipe-out illicit crops for fear of further strengthening the Maoist insurgency.
Even as he shared a Lima stage with President Bush on March 23, Toledo adroitly side-stepped a question about his government's commitment to coca, and increasingly, opium poppy eradication. "We have a long path ahead of us, and we must walk it together," he replied, adding that both countries shared responsibility for the problem.
While Toledo danced around the issue last month, his interior minister was more forthcoming in a recent interview with the Miami Herald. It isn't going to happen, he said. "Saying we would eradicate all crops would be as difficult as the United States saying it would eradicate drug consumption in four years," said Fernando Rospigliosi.
The US was having none of that. "The US has advocated a 'zero illegal drug' policy for decades worldwide," retorted US Ambassador to Peru Benjamin Ziff. "Given that Peru has eliminated 70% of its coca cultivation over the past seven years, the goal of a complete elimination of illegal coca in Peru by the end President Toledo's term in office is ambitious but achievable," he told the Herald.
But the ambassador's rose-tinted lenses will not help him decipher, let alone alter, Peruvian reality. While the US government claims that coca production has declined from a mid-1990s high of around 370,000 acres to only 84,000 acres today, both the United Nations and Peruvian officials beg to differ. According to UN figures, 114,000 are planted with coca, primarily in the Apurimac and Upper Huallaga valleys, while the Peruvian government conceded that coca could be growing on 173,000 acres -- more than twice the US estimate.
The new coca and opium boom is being driven by two factors, neither of which will be resolved by increased eradication efforts. The first factor is economic. While the US and Peru attempted to implement alternative development programs, their crops of choice -- coffee and cocoa -- are now worth so little on global markets that farmers have turned once again to their most reliable cash crop, coca.
"They talk about alternative development. What's that?" scoffed peasant farmer Teodor Corichchua Vitallilos. "What benefit has that brought us? None!" he told the Herald.
"When coffee and cocoa pay more than coca, we'll forget about coca," added Adrian Along Vindizus, the mayor of the town of Marintari in the Apurimac Valley.
Thus, the results of the $140 million US Agency for International Development program in the last four years.
The second factor driving the new coca and poppy boom is the balloon effect from US drug policy in Colombia. Just as in the mid-1990s, when pressure on Peruvian producers led to a rapid expansion of coca planting in Colombia and subsequent lower prices in Peru, now increased pressure on Colombian producers has led to a migration of coca planting back to Peru, along with opium crops, which were rarely seen in Peru in the past.
The coca-go-round continues.