How Peru could become America's next drug war debacle
VRAE, Peru — For decades, locals in this isolated Andean valley have cultivated copious quantities of coca, the small bush at the heart of Washington’s “war on drugs.”
Untroubled by the level of narco-violence that’s roiled Mexico and Colombia, and beyond the reach of the Peruvian government, many poor farmers here have come to depend on coca as their only source of cash.
No wonder that, according to United Nations data, more coca now grows in the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers (VRAE by its Spanish initials) than any other region on the planet.
But that’s about to change — and many here are predicting strife.
Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, has vowed to finally tame and control the VRAE. A key part of that strategy will be forced coca eradication — sending in heavily armed police to uproot the plants by hand.
His anti-drug czar, Carmen Masias, is keeping mum about the precise dates, but the move is widely expected within the next 12 months.
Already, the government is preparing to expropriate more than 1,100 acres of farmland on the valley floor to build a new military airbase, and weathering attacks from the feared Shining Path rebels to pave the road into the VRAE.
Driven by a particularly savage interpretation of China’s Maoist revolution, the Shining Path launched a civil war in the 1980s and early ‘90s that cost 70,000 lives.
Since then, the insurgents have been cornered into the far reaches of the VRAE, from where they still launch occasional attacks, killing more than 100 police and soldiers in and around the valley since 2008.
“There will be serious conflict,” says Fredy Linares, 48, from the village of Otari. He stands to lose the family farm, which his father cleared from virgin forest three decades ago.
“There will be another guerrilla group. Not like Shining Path but a new one. No one is going to put up with having their crops destroyed. Of course, people are going to rise up.”
Linares does not speak of violence lightly.
In the early 1990s, at the height of the bloody internal conflict, he was forced to flee the VRAE for several years after speaking out against the Shining Path.
The group had long been terrorizing the valley but the final straw for Linares came after it murdered two of his neighbors — one of them for refusing to cut down a mango tree partially blocking a dirt track used by the rebels.
Yet Linares’ sense of grievance now is heightened by the fact that he and the other farmers who will lose some of the VRAE’s best land to make way for the airbase do not even grow coca.
But for others, it’s all about hanging on to that controversial crop that never fails to put food on the table.
“We don’t know what we will do if they destroy our coca,” Glicerio Rojas, a 49-year-old farmer from the village of Los Angeles, says, as he contemplates the possibility of losing the harvest that every three months keeps him, his wife and their six children afloat. “What am I supposed to feed them? We are just farmers. We don’t make [cocaine] paste or cocaine.”
No one disputes that coca has left most of the region’s farmers trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and dependence on the drug traffickers.
Masias regularly reiterates the point, while also insisting the government has to convince the farmers that “the costs of illegality are tremendous.”
“Eradication on its own does not work,” she told GlobalPost. “Neither does development on its own. There has to be eradication and development.”
Some of the resources for that policy will be coming from Washington. The Humala administration is a close ally of the United States and has been keen to be seen as cooperating in the so-called war on drugs.
In emails, the US Embassy in Lima said it was this year handing Peru $68 million for counternarcotics operations and $32 million for alternative development, including support for testing new crops and increasing their yields. Combined that is almost double the 2012 total of $55 million.
But after decades of being abandoned, as locals see it, by one government after another in the faraway capital Lima, few in this troubled, spectacular valley are holding their breath for meaningful official help.
Meanwhile, residents view the increasingly present police and army with a blend of fear and contempt.
Many locals believe they were the ones — rather than the security forces— who stopped a rampant Shining Path in its tracks back in the 1990s.
Unable to take any more bullying and murder from the rebels, villagers here and across the Peruvian Andes and Amazon organized into armed vigilante groups known as “self-defense committees.”
The perception of ineptitude by law enforcement and the military has only been heightened by recent disastrous operations.
In one episode near the VRAE in 2012, the body of a 9-year-old girl was found hidden in a ditch, after apparently being inadvertently killed by security forces as they chased suspected Shining Path members.
Several months earlier, the father of a policeman murdered in a rebel ambush spent several days in the jungle, retrieving his son’s body, after it was abandoned by his fellow officers.
The US appears well aware of the challenges in bringing its Peruvian partners up to speed.
The State Department’s counternarcotics goals for Peru include combating “corruption, especially within the Peruvian National Police force,” and building “institutional capability to investigate and prosecute” drug kingpins, the US government says.
Both the police and Peru’s Defense Ministry failed to respond to GlobalPost’s requests for interviews with commanding officers in the VRAE.
“As Peruvians we support the armed forces and the US to fight the narco-terrorists, but we have never given permission for this war to happen on our land,” says Kecizate Atahualpa Capac, an indigenous Ashaninka activist from Otari, worried about the impending conflict.
But for others here, the challenge remains just keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table.
And without government support to develop alternative crops or increase yields from coffee and cacao, coca has proven the only reliable way of doing that in the VRAE.
Asked if he would grow other crops if they could match coca’s returns, Rojas, the farmer, responds: “Of course! We would eradicate ourselves. We wouldn’t need the army or police to do it. It would be magnificent.”
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.