Peru: the Coca Erradication program and ongoing civil-military and security issues
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - August 24, 2011
Some days ago, Peru made headlines when the newly elected government with former military officer Ollanta Humala as president ordered the suspension of a coca eradication program. In a surprise move, the government suspended the CORAH project (Proyecto Especial de Control y Reduccion de Cultivos Ilegales de Coca en el Alto Huallaga ). At the time Prime minister Salomon Lerner Ghitis and minister of interior Oscar Valdes stated that the measure was temporary, while the U.S. expressed concern about this new development:
U.S. Ambassador Rose M. Likins told reporters as she left the National Assembly building in Lima that she was awaiting an explanation of the government's reasons for the suspension of the manual eradication program, which began in January in the Upper Huallaga Valley region. The U.S. has spent $10 million on the effort this year.
Then, on August 21, President Humala declared that the eradication program will continue after all.
It is important to mention that the suspension of the coca eradication program was the one located in the Huallaga valley. Coca eradication operations in the VRAE (Apurimac Ene River Valley) are minimal as there is not enough security due to criminal groups operating in that area. The VRAE valley is where the last remnants of the Peruvian narco-terrorist group, Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), are located.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime annual report issued in June, Peru ranks a close second to Colombia among the world's leading coca and cocaine producers. [Peru’s] Huallaga Valley is not the country's chief coca growing region. That distinction belongs to the area known as VRAE […] an area so lawless that the eradication programs are thought to be impractical from a security standpoint.
This statement is sort of paradoxical, since as Colombia is the world’s foremost coca producer, then it should also be the major cocaine producer. One explanation to this reality is that Colombian authorities seize 40% of cocaine production compared to Peru’s only 10%. Then again, considering that it is impossible to know exactly how much cocaine is produced in either country by the plethora of illegal cocaine labs that exist, there is always the chance that these estimates could be grossly wrong.
Peruvian government officials went on to explain that Lima was not permanently suspending the eradication program, but rather wanted to take some kind “time off” to analyze the success of the operations so far and then start anew. Several government supporters went on the Peruvian media to explain their reasons for supporting the temporary suspension. As previously mentioned, President Humala has gone on record to say that the eradication programs will continue. The Peruvian Premier Salomon Lerner explained that the pause was meant “para asignar los instrumentos necesarios para el exito de las intervenciones,” (to assign the necessary instruments for the success of the operations)
In spite of what could have been the fate of the program, which is a major priority for Washington, the real story here is understanding the relations between President Humala and his military, which will shape future military and police operations regarding coca eradication and other anti-drug trafficking operations. There has already been some drama regarding the president’s relationship with his military. Humala has named General Benigno Cabrera as the head of the Region Militar del Centro (Center military region), which has caused some controversy as Cabrera was Humala’s boss when the now president was a captain in the Peruvian army in 1992 when they both were stationed in a counterinsurgency base.
Furthermore, President Humala has clashed with the current military leadership in the VRAE, when he stated that he is willing to give more funds and other resources to the security operations there, but he wants to see more results. He also seems to want a radical change in operations in that violent area. For his part, the Peruvian drugs czar, Ricardo Soberon, ambitiously declared to the media that he aimed to be rid of drug trafficking in the VRAE valley in five years.
Politics and coca eradication initiatives aside, clashes continue between Peru’s security forces and narco-groups, including Shining Path, in Peru’s Amazon and highlands. Some days ago, members of Peru’s anti-drugs police unit were attacked by criminals in the Andean region of Huanuco. The police unit did not have enough weapons and ammo and the criminals managed to steal half a ton of cocaine that the police were transporting. Unfortunately, it is not just the police that lacks equipment to carry out their duties. An august 14 article in Peru.com reported that soldiers in the VRAE were eating food rations that had already expired, due to a fraudulent deal between the military and the company that manufactured them. In addition, a Shining Path member was arrested in Bolivia this past July, which shows new attempts by the narco-terrorist group to strengthen its numbers.