Peruvian Coca Growers' "March of Protest and Sacrifice" Reaches Lima as Government Seeks to Elevate Alternative Leadership 4/30/04

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A little more than a week after the beginning of a strike called by a leading Peruvian coca-growers' organization, the National Association of Peruvian Coca Producers (CONPACCP), the vanguard of thousands of coca-growing peasants, or cocaleros, has reached the capital, Lima, after embarking on a "march of protest and sacrifice" from their homes in the Peruvian highlands. Hundreds of cocaleros from the central highlands, a CONPACCP stronghold, were camped in the Chosica stadium on the city's outskirts Thursday night, with thousands more expected to reach the city this weekend.

According to the newspaper Correo-Regional, more than 5,000 cocaleros departed from the valley of the Upper Huallaga on April 22. Another 4,000 coca-growing peasants from the Huanuco region are marching to meet them in Lima, the newspaper reported Thursday. Reports from other locations are sketchy.

Among the first to arrive was CONPACCP feminine affairs secretary Diodora Espinoza, who told the Lima newspaper El Comercio that many were following behind her. "Only some of us came by bus because most don't have the money to pay the fare," she said. "There are other groups arriving today and tomorrow and probably Monday we will leave for the Congress."

The protestors, headed by CONPACCP leaders Nancy Obregon and Elsa Malpartida, seek government redress of a number of demands, foremost among them freedom for Nelson Palomino, the CONPACCP leader imprisoned for more than a year in Ayacucho. But the cocaleros also want the government to recognize coca as a traditional crop in Peru and to drastically revamp the "alternative development" programs operated by foreign NGOs under the wings of the Peruvian antidrug agency DEVIDA. In fact, the cocaleros want the NGOs to leave, calling them corrupt, and they want an end to forced eradication of their crops.

Although CONPACCP made its position clear to the government weeks ago (, the government of President Alejandro Toledo has failed to respond. Instead, particularly through Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi, it has attempted to portray the cocaleros as alternately dupes or villains, revolutionists or drug traffickers. As road and bridge blockades, local strikes, and other unrest broke out last week at the start of the cocalero strike, Rospigliosi attacked CONPACCP and Malpartida in particular.

Particularly disturbed by a purported Malpartida comment about "shooting politicians who deceive the country," the interior minister, in remarks to the newspaper La Republica on April 21, first painted CONPACCP as linked to the Shining Path, then threatened Malpartida. "She is increasingly resorting to violence," he said. "They are threatening people and blocking highways. This situation will not be permitted to continue indefinitely. If Malpartida doesn't want to follow the path of Nelson Palomino [jailed on charges of inciting to riot and apology for terrorism], she needs to recover her senses and talk to the government."

"I hoped it wouldn't come to this," said Peruvian coca expert Hugo Cabieses, who is advising CONPACCP. "The potential for trouble is great. But this has come about because the government has been deaf and blind to the demands of the cocaleros," he told DRCNet.

But now, after weeks of waiting for the government to listen to them, the cocaleros refuse to talk to Rospigliosi, saying they will deal only with the Congress. And if the government will not talk to the cocaleros of CONPACCP, it is happy to talk about them. Nils Ericsson, the director of DEVIDA, was quick to tell El Comercio Thursday that the cocaleros' demands were "impossible" and would only aid the drug trade. Some dark party must be pulling the strings because all of the coca-growers' demands "are in favor of more and more coca," said Ericsson. "It is impossible to accede to the suspension of all means of eradication of crops and to accept the deactiviation of DEVIDA, which are part of the conditions demanded by the cocaleros to raise their show of force," he said.

Not all Peruvian coca growers' organizations have joined the strike, and some are maneuvering to replace either CONPACCP or its current leadership as the preeminent voice of the cocaleros. Cocaleros from the Rio Apurimac-Ene Valley, La Convencion, and the Monzon Valley have, according to local press reports, criticized CONPACCP leaders Malpartida and Obregon for having "personal" or "political" ambitions, although they offered no specifics. In a move that has already raised tensions among cocaleros, the dissident coca leaders met Wednesday with Interior Minister Rospigliosi in a meeting the ministry described as taking place in an "atmosphere of great cordiality."

According to the ministry, Marisela Guillen of the Producers' Federation of the Rio Apurimac-Ene Valleys (FEPA-VRAE) and Iburcio Morales, leader of cocaleros in the Monzon Valley, "who have not joined the strike convoked by some sectors of the cocalero movement," said that cocaleros were being taken advantage of by Malpartida, Obregon, and the other leaders of the CONPACCP. The CONPACCP leadership was not representative, they said, and they would not recognize any agreement signed between Malpartida and Obregon and the central government.

Guillen and Morales earned quick rewards for their nicely-timed sit-down with Rospigliosi and his director of national defense in the ministry, Ruben Vargas. The government will recognize Guillen and Morales as the leaders of a new cocalero grouping created to compete with CONPACCP, the National Junta of Peruvian Agricultural Producers, said Vargas. Rospigliosi also promised regular visits to their coca fields, promised to help them gain financial aid, and promised a "permanent and direct dialogue" with their federation.

The cocaleros of CONPACCP, for their part, will gather by the thousands at Congress Monday and promise a week of protests and demonstrations in an effort to gain support for their demands. Meanwhile, the government works in Machiavellian fashion to weaken and divide the movement. The politics of coca in Peru is about to get even more interesting.

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Issue #335, 4/30/04 Announcing: "The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War" -- New Compendium by Sheriff Masters Features David Borden and Numerous Other Thinkers on Drug Policy | Peruvian Coca Growers' "March of Protest and Sacrifice" Reaches Lima as Government Seeks to Elevate Alternative Leadership | Like a Phoenix from the Ashes: Vancouver's "Pot Block" Rebounds from Weekend Arson Fire | There You Go Again, Joe: CASA Report Uses Suspect Science to Hype Teen Marijuana Menace | NORML 2004: Stroup to Retire, Lobbying the Hill, Initiative Excitement, Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Drug Czar, Media Campaign Well-Positioned to Influence November Elections | Newsbrief: FBI Was Looking for Dope, Not Terrorists, 9/11 Commission Says | Atlantic City Announces Needle Exchange Plans | Newsbrief: European Union Blocks Cannabis Exhibition | Newsbrief: New Web Site Compiles Judicial Opposition to Drug War | Newsbrief: Canadian Couple Appalled at Being Treated Like, Well, New Yorkers | Newsbrief: Albuquerque Cops Block 4-20 Event by Closing Park | Newsbrief: Colorado Drug Task Force Sued Over Methamphetamine "Decontamination" Public Stripping | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar

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