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The Drug War Chronicle Andean Coca Tour 2007 is about to get underway

Submitted by Phillip Smith on
Friday night, I will be bedding down in Peru, after a day-long flight from Sioux Falls to Denver to Houston to Lima. That will be the first of 21 nights in Peru and Bolivia as the Drug War Chronicle explores the coca industry and its unsavory relative, the cocaine industry, in the Andes. While the process of making connections is ongoing and always a little shaky in developing countries, things are falling into place. While I will spend most of that first weekend resting and getting oriented, it looks like I'll have lunch Monday with Peruvian psychologist and coca expert Baldomero Caceres and Anthony Henman. Henman is a legendary name when it comes to coca. The British anthropologist (since gone native) is the man who, under a pseudonym, wrote "Mama Coca" back in the 1970s. That was the first serious ethnographic study of coca's history and use in the Andes for lay readers in English. I look forward to seeing what Henman has to say about the current state of affairs. Later that day, I will go to the upscale suburb of Miraflores for dinner with Ricardo Soberon, a leading Peruvian drugs and security expert. He was an advisor to coca grower leader turned congresswoman Nancy Obregon, but has since departed over unspecified political differences. I'll be sure to query him (and Nancy) about the nature of those differences. Speaking of Nancy, she is currently back home in northern Peru, so I won't be able to talk to her during that first week. But she will be back in Lima at the end of the month, and I will do an interview with her then. (I have to be out of Bolivia by February 28 because their visa requirements kick in on March 1.) I think I will fly from Lima to Ayacucho next Wednesday. That ancient city high in the Andes is the historic heartland of Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist guerrillas who led an uprising in the 1980s where tens of thousands were killed. The Senderistas are still around, though much weakened, and they try to gain the support of coca growers by killing policemen and anti-government drug workers. But Ayacucho is also the home of national coca growers' union leader Nelson Palomino, whom I will interview. Palomino and his crew have also promised to show me the coca fields and let me talk to farmers, so that should be enlightening. After that, I'll take a couple of days for the mandatory tourist visit to Machu Picchu outside Cusco, then I'll bus it from Cusco across the altiplano to Bolivia. At least that's the plan right now; there are reports of severe flooding right where I'll be crossing the border. I'm still trying to set things up with the American embassy in Lima and with the big Peruvian drug bureaucracies, ENACO (the coca monopoly) and DEVIDA (the drug enforcement bureaucracy). I've been talking with the US press officer in Lima about getting a meeting, but because I don't represent established media, I can't get official press status with the embassy, which means the press officer won't officially deal with me, but may manage to hook me up with some of the drug people in the embassy. Similar plans are in the works for Bolivia. Stay tuned.

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