Peru: The New Home of Cocaine?

Peru attracted a new unwanted title as ‘the King of Cocaine’ when it overtook Colombia in coca production in 2013. The president of the National Commission for Development of Life and Drugs (Devida), Alberto Otarola, has explicitly stated, ‘Peru doesn’t want to be a country with the title of coca or cocaine producer’, but losing such a label will be an enormous task.

In response, the US government has doubled the funding it allocates to Peru under the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) – to US$58 million. Peruvian authorities have also stepped up their counter-narcotics activities, and it has become clear that the appointment of Alberto Otarolo has not led to a softening of drug policy, but rather a militarised response.

The Response
The government has announced it will establish a no-fly zone over the Valle del Río Apurímac y Ene (VRAE), where almost half of Peru’s coca comes from, and home to the Shining Path. Aerial interception of aircraft suspected of transporting drugs will also be resumed, a practise halted in 2001 when a US missionary and her daughter were mistakenly shot down.

The US State Department reports that aircraft is the primary method of drug trafficking from Peru. With estimates that between 150 and 180 metric tonnes of cocaine were transported via light aircraft in 2013, the focus on air transportation is an important step.

But paired with the plan to build new military bases, the acquisition of new aircraft, including C-27Js and Mi-17 helicopters, and the installation of new radars, this strategy is heavily militarised. Peru also plans to eradicate 35,000 hectares of coca bushes in the VRAE, a strategy that has previously resulted in violent backlash.

Prospects of Success
Flight is the preferred method of South American drug traffickers because it is less expensive and less risky than land or water-based transportation. The lack of radar has been cited as a problem for numerous countries in South America, but the no-fly zone tactic has seen successes, with Colombia recording a 99% decrease in narco-trafficking flights in the past decade. Only six aircraft transporting drugs were detected in Colombian airspace in 2014, compared to 700 flights in 2004 (although this has been contested by Guatemala), attributed to increased aerial surveillance, and interdiction agreements with other South American countries, including Panama and Honduras. It is now believed that river and sea routes are the main method of exporting drugs out of Colombia – playing into the hands of counter-narcotics authorities, since they are easier to interdict. Peru’s plans could further contribute to the effectiveness of an increasingly regional strategy.

Previously, Peruvian aerial surveillance was being used to monitor distribution routes and discover clandestine airstrips located in the VRAE. The new policy suggests recognition of the futility of attempts to sabotage these makeshift runways, which criminals could repair relatively quickly. In 2011, Devida knew of around nine airstrips being used for cocaine smuggling in the VRAE. By 2013, this number exceeded 70. In total, there are believed to be hundreds located throughout Peru’s countryside. Dedicating resources to catching traffickers in the air could well be a simpler task when supported by the necessary technology.

Potential Problems
Despite these positive indications, there are also potential limitations and drawbacks. It is entirely possible that militarising the response to high levels of coca production will have undesirable outcomes. A harsher response by authorities could provoke more violent means by traffickers, potentially creating an ‘arms race’ scenario between organised criminals and Devida.

An unintended consequence of success is the balloon effect – as one country’s production is gradually extinguished, another’s reignites. Colombia’s effective no-fly zone policy has been cited as a source for increased production in Venezuela, and has likely contributed to Peru’s synonymous rise as the region’s top producer too.

Devida’s coca eradication policy is also not guaranteed to succeed. This plan will need to be supported by wider socio-economic strategies. In May 2014, Otarola said the government would place greater emphasis on finding legitimate activities for coca leaf growers, such as attempting to persuade them to plant alternative crops like coffee. This appears to be gaining traction; in 2014 Peru converted 53,680 hectares of former coca-growing areas to sow licit crops– beating a target of 22,000 hectares. However, licit crops are far less lucrative for Peruvian farmers, and will remain less attractive for at least the short term. The policy could therefore alienate rural farmers who might be impoverished by the policy. If the squashed balloon effect is to ever be overcome, effective longer-term social and economic policies will need to accomplish structural and cultural change to supplement military deterrents. In other words – there needs to be substantial pull factors as well as push factors.

Ultimately, given Peru’s growing infamy as the world’s largest cocaine producer, it was inevitable that law enforcement authorities would escalate their response. Only time will tell if the militarised strategy will work. While it may be an effective short-term deterrent, longer lasting decreases in coca production will require long-term social and economic policies. Either way, it is also equally possible that both will simply further contribute to the South American balloon effect.