The New Peruvian Coke Kings

The New Peruvian Coke Kings

Why you should care

Because while one country tackles its cocaine problem, another one gets addicted.

Colombia has long been thought of as the cocaine king, but its reign over the dangerous but lucrative coca crop ended when Peru seized the crown in 2013.

In 2000, Colombia grew 74 percent of the world’s coca leaves, but crackdowns helped reduce the country’s production by 25 percent between 2011 and 2012. In the same period, another large producer, Bolivia, also made great strides in cutting production, dropping it by 7 percent.

40 percent

Increase in Peru’s cocaine production since 2000

20 percent

Amount by which Peru’s cocaine production outstrips Colombia’s

These wins in the global battle against narcotics left the dubious honor of being the world’s top coca producer to Peru, which has seen its cocaine production increase by 40 percent since 2000. According to the latest U.N. survey, the little Andean nation now has more than 60,400 hectares of coca — 20 percent more than Colombia.

Turns out the country was growing the most coca as far back as the 1980s, but ex-President Fujimori cracked down on narcotics, and the business shifted to Colombia by 1997.

Local Peruvian consumption of cocaine is low — just 2.4 percent — but Peru’s love affair with coca is more than 5,000 years old. The leaf that is used to make the drug is also a sacred part of Andean religious tradition, and many Peruvians use it as a coffee substitute or a traditional medicine.

Among the crop’s alternative virtues is its apparent ability to boost economic growth. The legal coca sector — under the monopoly of public company ENACO — has helped Peru’s poverty rates drop from 48.5 percent of the population in 2004 to 25.8 percent in 2012. Coca helps reduce poverty because it adds to the incomes of otherwise extremely poor peasant producers and adds foreign exchange earnings that, at least in part, flow through to the legal economy and help finance imports.

Peru’s government has declared war on the jungle laboratories.

Despite this, the districts that cultivate coca are still the poorest. Only 25 percent in these areas have electricity, and only 40 percent have safe water to drink.

So, despite the risks of breaking the law, poor farmers find it more lucrative to sell to narcos. ENACO pays about $3.30 per kilo of coca leaf and only buys the best-quality leaves, while drug runners usually pay about a dollar more per kilo, regardless of quality. This helps explain why about 90 percent of the country’s output is turned into cocaine.

Woman holding child as another child is playing in a field of coca leaves

Saiumi Yasumi, 4, right, peeks out from a pile of coca leaves as her mother Magali Rua Gonzalez, 25, who holds her 8-month-old daughter Astrid, uses her feet to spread out coca leaves on a tarpaulin.

Most of this illicit coca production takes place around the Apurimac-Ene and Mantaro River Valley, also known as VRAEM. This patch of dense forest holds 19,965 hectares of coca plantations and produces about 200 tons of cocaine every year.

So far the country’s unfriendly topology has made it very difficult for authorities to access growing areas. But this may be about to change, because the government has declared war on the jungle laboratories.

In 2012, and after seven years of increased production, Peru finally managed a 3.4 percent reduction by seizing 14,234 hectares of coca plantations. Last year, the anti-drug teams succeeded in chasing virtually all drug dealers away from the Monzon, a former drug heartland north of Lima.

However, the VRAEM, the most productive district, remains virtually untouched. This is mostly due to the presence of the Shining Path — a Maoist guerrilla-style terrorist organization that has taken advantage of the area’s inhospitable terrain and stands ready to wage war to keep its monopoly of the smuggling routes.

Production is likely to continue hopping from one country to the next…

Wrenching the thorny crown from Peruvian narcos won’t be easy. Most previous attempts have been thwarted by Shining Path members, who have ambushed army patrols and even shot down helicopters.

It took Colombia over a decade and $7.5 billion from the American government to successfully beat back narcotics.

Peru has asked for similar support but has thus far received only $55 million in U.S. aid — perhaps owing to less public pressure or the economic crunch. Still, the government plans to take a bolder stance against drug traffic by building an airfield and a military base on the eastern edge of the VRAEM.

All efforts, in global terms, pale in comparison to swelling demand. Unless the world can significantly cut demand for the dangerous crop, production is likely to continue hopping from one country to the next — with growers scrambling for the lucrative title of top-producing king, and governments fighting to dethrone them.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of cocaine victims continue to die each year.

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