Peru's resurgent coca farmers (cocaleros), who mobilized last week in an effort to block further eradication of their cash crops and to protest corruption in alternative development programs, are now under attack from the Peruvian government. On February 21, police in the city of Ayacucho arrested cocalero leader Nelson Palomino for "apology for terrorism," amid leaked reports that he was a "radical leftist" and was linked to the drug traffic. But Palomino's real crime appears to be that he is a leader of a combative and growing movement to end the Peruvian government's cooperation with a US-imposed anti-drug strategy that hurts Peruvian farmers while having no apparent impact on the global cocaine traffic. Palomino was chosen to lead the Peruvian Confederation of Coca Growers (CONCPACCP), representing some 40,000 coca growing families, at its founding meeting in late January.
Palomino was invited to attend the "Out from the Shadows" conference in Mérida, Mexico, earlier this month, but changed plans at the last minute as the conflict in Peru escalated. At least one Peruvian cocalero leader who did attend the conference, Nancy Obregon, subsecretary general of CONCPACC, is now in hiding, according to DRCNet's Peruvian sources.
Palomino's arrest came at the end of a week of protests, highway blockades, and mass mobilizations in the Apurimac and Upper Huallaga river valleys, the home to much of Peru's traditional coca cultivation. Protests began February 18 in the town of Aguaytia and have only spread in the days since police seized Palomino. Earlier this week, more than 2,000 cocaleros marched in Tingo Maria to demand Palomino's release and hundreds more were reported marching to Ayacucho, and cocaleros from the Apurimac and Upper Huallaga are now on an indefinite strike until authorities release their leader.
Marisela Guillén Casani, subsecretary of the Agricultural Producers Federation of the Apurimac and Ene River Valleys (FEPAVRAE) told La Republica (Lima) on Monday that there would be neither an end to the strike nor negotiations with the government of President Alejandro Toledo until Palomino is freed. "What is happening is that all the coca unions have risen, there is an agreement among the 14 unions that they will join the strike already underway in Padre Abad, Aguaytia and Tingo Maria," she said. "Today (Sunday), we began a march toward Huamanga [where Palomino is being held] to demand the freedom of our national leader. We have the support of potato growers and the Front in Defense of Apurimac and Huamanga," Guillen added. The arrest of Palomino is only strengthing unity among the cocaleros, she said.
Also arrested in the past week were professor Fernando Fuenzalida, a sociologist and anthropologist at the University of San Marcos in Lima, and cocalero leader Iburcio Morales. Fuenzalida was imprisoned after police found 70 ecstasy tablets and a quantity of marijuana in his 24-year-old daughter's room. Jorge Massa, who is representing Fuenzalida, told La Republica that although his client was being charged with drug trafficking, "there is not one bit of evidence" linking him to the drug trade.
The growing conflict over coca comes as Peruvian coca production continues to increase after bottoming out in the mid-1990s during the repressive regime of deposed ex-President Alberto Fujimori and his right-hand man, Vladimiro Montesinos. Under Fujimori, working hand in hand with the US, Peruvian coca production declined from 285,000 acres in 1995 to 84,000 acres in 2001, but increased to 90,000 last year. According to Peruvian economist and "cocologist" Hugo Cabieses, the return of coca is attributable to rising market prices and the failure of alternative development projects.
Cabieses told DRCNet the arrest of Palomino was unwarranted. "For the government to have arrested Palomino is a great injustice and act of stupidity," said Cabieses. "He's been locked up since Saturday and we are in the midst of a campaign to achieve his freedom. This act by the government will only increase his stature as leader of the cocaleros. All of the principal coca unions are now on strike and the situation is very difficult," he told DRCNet.
In an open letter to President Toledo released earlier this week, Cabieses denounced the trio of arrests. "These three unjust detentions are the consequence of an absurd drug policy that criminalizes the margins of the [drug trafficking] chain while leaving free the true criminals -- those who wear suits and ties, the mafiosos, those who dirty the uniforms of the police and the armed forces," wrote the former advisor to the government's anti-drug agency, DEVIDES.
"The government must not make the grave error of criminalizing the cocaleros and their leaders, as [current DEVIDES head] Nils Ericsson has done with his declarations," wrote Cabieses. In the days prior to Palomino's arrest, Ericsson, along with other government officials, accused Palomino of being linked to the drug traffic and to terrorism. "Nelson Palomino is a radical leader," continued Cabieses, "and in my opinion is mistaken is some of his plans and proposals, but I am certain that he is not a drug trafficker and neither does he have anything to do with them. Even less is he a terrorist, but quite the opposite. He was a fighter against the Shining Path in the Apurimac-Ene region. I know all the other coca leaders of the CONCCPAP, including Iburcio Morales, and they are leaders who represent their bases and have nothing to do with the drug trade or terrorism."
The problem, wrote Cabieses, is not farmers growing coca crops, but the Peruvian government accepting, under pressure from the US, a "zero coca" option in Peru. None of the previous agreements between cocaleros and the government have been fulfilled, he noted, "thanks to pressure from the US Embassy and the US Agency for International Development, which have dedicated themselves to inventing phantom menaces in the valleys and pressuring the Peruvian government in a thousand ways to adopt a "zero coca" strategy."
The Peruvian government's anti-cocalero propaganda and its actions against cocalero leaders "don't aid the dialogue but support confrontation, which is what the country, the cocalero leaders, and the population in the coca-growing valleys least desire," warned Cabieses. But for the time being, at least, the Peruvian government is headed down the path of confrontation. And the cocaleros will follow that path if necessary. "We will defend the product that permits us to feed our children," cocalero leader Guillen told La Republica.
The Peruvian government must move to address the concerns of the cocaleros, warned Cabieses. "Social movements ignored by governments are like volcanos," he wrote. "They explode by themselves."
Visit http://www.cocachasqui.org for further information on coca in Peru.