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Peru's New President Ends US Efforts to Eradicate Cocaine

The new president of Peru, the world's second-largest cocaine producing nation, suspends US efforts to destroy coca plants, taking American diplomats by surprise.

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Peruvian coca farmers protest against eradication in 2009. Photo via

By Will Godfrey

08/19/11

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Some intense diplomatic pressure is no doubt being applied after Peru's new center-left government suspended its US-funded coca eradication program without warning. President Ollanta Humala—a converted nationalist, who campaigned on a social justice and wealth redistribution platform in the recent election—promised to continue eradication in his inaugural address just three weeks ago, but has changed his mind, for now. His Prime Minister, Salomon Lerner, suggested that the government's new coca strategy would instead stress alternative development, as well as "social inclusion and fighting poverty." Peru is the world's second-largest cocaine producer after Colombia—and increasing coca cultivation covered an estimated 61,200 hectares in 2010, according to the UN's latest report. The plant is used traditionally in the South American nation: Leaves are chewed, and used to make tea and treat altitude sickness—as well as to pep up traditional religious ceremonies. But the bulk of the crop still enters the international market. The US forked out $30 million last year to support Peruvian eradication as part of its worldwide war on drugs—this year's program has been shelved with only 4,000 of the targeted 10,000 hectares of coca destroyed.

Peru's program has disproportionately focused on the Huallaga Valley region, angering local farmers—they protested last year by blocking roads for a week. Humala promised them help in his election campaign and seems to have been true to his word. The country's largest coca-growing area is known as VRAE—an acronym for the Apurimac Ene River Valley—but is the stomping-ground of Shining Path rebels and considered too dangerous to operate in. Even before the current pause, eradication efforts in Peru couldn't compare to those in Colombia, which destroyed 147,000 hectares last year. "It would have been nice to have been told about this in advance," remarked US ambassador Rose Likins to the press, on her way to a meeting with Salomon Lerner. It's safe to assume her words were less restrained in the privacy of the Prime Minister's office. But the State Department hustled to dispel any appearance of a rift, stating: "We do not believe that the temporary suspension of eradication this week represents a permanent shift in the Peruvian government's counternarcotics policy." Peru's Interior Minister Oscar Valdes also struck a conciliatory note, promising that after ministers work out how to "re-direct efforts," eradication and "a frontal fight against drug trafficking" will resume "very soon." Amid little appetite for eradication in South America, Humala's early move could indicate his willingness to think creatively—about voluntary eradication schemes, for example—and to flex his populist muscles.

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