Cocaine Country

United States

new internationalist
issue 197 - July 1989

Cocaine country
A white powder sold in small packets fuels much of Peru's economy.
Cocaine is at the centre of a violent clash of interests. Mark Day reports on
Peru's number one export - and the US's number one social headache.

Dawn is breaking over the high jungle valley. Rain clatters on the metal roof, awakening peasant farmer Enrique Sánchez. But there is another sound too: the familiar whine of a small aircraft overhead. Then silence, followed by a loud explosion.

Enrique gets up quickly and makes his way through the well-cultivated fields and up a hill to the clandestine airstrip where he reckons the plane was heading. Sure enough, just short of the runway, he finds the smouldering remains of a single engine Cessna. Pilot and co-pilot are both dead.

It is not hard to guess what they were doing in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley. Enrique spots a charred suitcase full of money near the wreckage. But when he reaches out for the stacks of one hundred dollar bills - more than $250,000 of them, he later learns - they turn to ashes in his hands.

This is one coca deal that never made it. Most do. Scores of private aircraft land daily in this region, bearing traffickers who come from Colombia to exchange dollar bills for cocaine paste - the raw material from which pure cocaine is derived.

Enrique does not mind. Why should he? Like most people in these parts he is a coca grower. It makes a lot more sense - and about six times more profit - than growing cacao or coffee or yucca (a staple root vegetable) or bananas.

Coca has, in any case, been grown here - on a much smaller scale - since pre-Inca times. The chewing of leaves is an integral part of Andean religious festivities. And the high jungle conditions of the Upper Huallaga suit coca cultivation perfectly. Unlike most other crops, coca grows easily in the most difficult terrain and at angles of up to 40 degrees. And it provides four harvests a year.

No one paid too much attention to coca cultivation until the early 1970s. The story they tell here is that the cocaine industry began with a local woman called Rosa who fancied herself as a bit of a healer. She made coca leaves into paste as a remedy for various ailments. As cocaine became the fashionable drug in the rich world in the 1980s, production grew in the Andean countries accordingly. Illegal coca today takes up 200,000 hectares of Peruvian farmland, it accounts for over 45 per cent of export revenue and it provides work for about 300,000 people.

Enrique and others in his community have no interest in coca as a drug. It is a crop, like any other - with the important difference that it enables him to ride a shining new 250cc Yamaha on those rough jungle roads. And he can buy a few rounds of beer without having to worry about where the next meal is coming from.

Peru's boon, however, is the blight of the United States - where most of cocaine ends up. Things have got worse since 'crack' - unrefined cocaine paste - hit the streets of New York in the mid-1980s. Not only is the drug cheap (five dollars a fix) and easily available, it is also much more dangerous than refined cocaine because it is highly addictive, causes severe physical and mental damage to the taker and provokes violent anti-social behaviour towards others.

By the roots
The US Government thinks it might deal with its problem by eradicating coca production at source, in the countries where the leaf is cultivated. Since 1987, the US has stepped up its anti-drug operations in the so-called 'white triangle' of South America (Peru, Bolivia and Colombia), channeling its efforts through the Bureau of International Narcotics Management.

Nicknamed 'Operation Snowcap' the South American strategy seeks to intensify police actions against coca producers, eradicate coca plantations and substitute coca with other crops. With the help of US advisers, Peruvian anti-drug police have destroyed numerous jungle laboratories and clandestine landing strips. Efforts at crop substitution and eradication, on the other hand, have failed miserably. Critics say the anti-drug policy is a disaster. It criminalizes coca farmers like Enrique without offering them viable incentives to cultivate other crops.

More serious from Peruvian Government's point of view is the fact that the heavy-handed tactics of the anti-drug police are pushing coca-producing communities into the arms of guerilla movements. Indeed, Sendero Luminoso guerillas now control over 90 per cent of the Upper Huallaga Valley. And in recent months they have intensified their attacks on police posts and army patrols. Since 1984 the guerillas have managed to kill over 300 policemen and 33 eradication workers. Meanwhile Sendero has also organized the exploited coca-growers so that they demand better prices from the traffickers.

The guerillas' relationship with the traffickers is less easy. In mid-1987 they confronted each other in a deadly battle in the southern part of the valley. The guerillas won, driving the traffickers northward. Since then there has been an uneasy truce, with the guerillas exacting 'war taxes' from the traffickers in exchange for permission to operate in the area.

'New Democracy'
Some peasants complain about walking the dangerous tight-rope between the guerillas and the security forces. But Enrique is quite clear about his position.

'It's true that they (Sendero Luminoso) made serious mistakes at first. But they have helped us. They're guerillas, not terrorists,' he says as he sits sipping beer with two other farmers at a restaurant near Aucayacu, a town of 10,000 that hugs the muddy banks of the Huallaga river. He complains that the Government refuses to give them decent prices for their corn, banana and yucca crops, forcing them to grow coca instead.

'We don't even consider ourselves Peruvians,' says Enrique.

'We get no help whatsoever from the Government. No credits, no water, no drainage, nothing. We have to fend for ourselves and do what we can.'

Enrique and his companions page through a mimeographed copy of the bylaws of their local committee, founded recently under the watchful supervision of Sendero leaders.

'Committee members must think of others instead of personal gain', reads Article 19. 'Every committee member who participates in communal tasks has the right to receive help in case of accidents, sickness or death.'

The organization is a forerunner of the fully-fledged Sendero Luminoso support committees existing on the western side of the Huallaga River where police patrols and strangers rarely venture. Each committee includes several hundred families and is controlled by a central committee.

Guerillas have replaced the State with their so-called 'Republic of the New Democracy'. Sendero government is rigid, hierarchical and authoritarian. Anyone who opposes the Party is called a soplon (squealer) and is executed without mercy.

Sexual morality is austere; promiscuity is punishable by death. Thieves, exploiters and drug-pushers receive three warnings, then face execution if they fail to mend their ways. Schoolteacher absenteeism, which had always been chronic in the area has been reduced to zero.

Though Sendero control is harsh and often ruthless, many peasants prefer it to the lawlessness and corruption that prevailed prior to the guerilla takeover. Enrique and his friends say that assaults, thievery and warfare between rival trafficking families used to be commonplace.

Sendero has curbed those abuses in the so called 'red zones' under its control. But in other parts of the valley the abuses - mainly by Government forces - go unchecked.

Sitting in his simple wooden rectory in the parish of Aucayacu Canadian priest Father Paul Feeley explains. 'If you travel with money, the police or the military will take it. You can complain to a judge, but he won't touch it unless you're willing to grease his palm. That's the way everything is done.'

The priest says that a few days earlier a Sendero annihilation squad gunned down a young man and his mother, allegedly for thievery and 'misusing the name of the Party'. Their bodies were left on a road outside town.

 The priest denounced the killing from his pulpit, despite fears that Sendero might take reprisals. 'I'm against the violence they are pushing,' he says, 'but something radical has to be done. I'm not saying I'm in favour of Sendero. Unfortunately they are the only ones that are doing anything. Everyone else wants to keep the status quo.

As he speaks, a heavy rain is creating streams in the unpaved street outside. Despite the millions of dollars in drug money that flow through the Huallaga Valley, there has been little material progress - beyond a clinic, a soccer stadium, an uncompleted apartment house and a chapel built by a local drug trafficker.

Peru has nothing like the 'narcocapitalism' of Colombia. 'Just look around,' says Father Feeley. 'There's no running water, no work, no education, no real health care, no transport. Half of the children die before they are three.'

Lies and butterflies
A few blocks away at the central market, a military operation seems to be underway. But appearances are deceptive. The fifteen gun-toting soldiers, their faces covered with ski masks, are not off towipe out a guerilla cell. They are accompanying military cooks on an errand to buy potatoes for the garrison.

The townspeople here look upon strangers with a mixture of desperation and mistrust. Also distrustful are a group of North Americans who spend their evenings playing darts and drinking beers in the Tingo Maria Hotel de Turistas. The hotel, with its breezy verandas and rustling palm trees could be a scene from a Somerset Maugham novel.

Asked what he and his colleagues are doing here, a lean Texan in battle fatigues responds: 'We are here to collect butterflies. That is all I can tell you.'

These men are from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency - the DEA - which works in conjunction with the Peruvian anti-drug police. The atmosphere is tense in the hotel since the DEA men received death threats in December and had to evacuate.

The commanding officer of the Peruvian anti-drug police is more forthcoming. Speaking from his sandbagged and machine-gun-protected headquarters, he outlines the problems of the anti-drug campaign and staunchly defends his men when faced with charges that they extort money from peasant farmers. Behind him on a wall is the coat of arms of Peru's Civil Guard: 'Honor is our insignia'.

His assistant explains with maps and charts how many hectares of coca have been eradicated and how many jungle airstrips and labs have been destroyed. The achievements of the joint US-Peruvian anti-drug programme seem pitiful and embarrassing given the immensity of the problem.

'You're losing this war, aren't you?'

'Well, we're not winning it,' he replies. 'It's more of a stalemate. With more assistance we'll be able to make headway.'

The colonel's voice is almost drowned out by the loud thumping of two US Bell helicopters taking off in an adjacent courtyard. The pilots circle Tingo Maria then fly northward, following the winding banks of the Huallaga river.

Later, back in Lima a US embassy spokesman tells reporters that more helicopters and advisers are on the way. 'But will they be fighting drug traffickers or guerillas?' he is asked. 'The traffickers,' he responds, somewhat weakly.

There is clearly room for doubt.

Mark Day is a North American freelance journalist based in Lima.

SPIKE: Uncle Sam's deadly remedy

When US crop-dusting planes began spraying the defoliant Tebuthiuron (nicknamed 'Spike') on coca plantations in the Upper Huallaga valley recently, the event passed almost unnoticed.

The only witnesses were scientists hired by the US State Department and an embassy cameraman. His footage shows the experts taking soil samples and ground temperatures followed by shots of two planes spraying the chemical over hillside coca plots.

The manufacturers of Spike, the Eli Lilly Co., last year heeded protests from environmentalists and decided not to sell the herbicide to the US State Department for coca eradication purposes. But a Brazilian firm acquired the patent and is willing to provide it.

The recent spraying was the third and final phase of tests agreed by the US and Peru to find out what happens when Spike is applied in the Amazonian rain forest.

The US State Department is putting pressure on Peru to adopt Spike in a last-ditch attempt to stop the flow of coca at the source. But ecologists say the herbicide will turn the jungle into a desert, and an editorial in the pro-Sendero newspaper El Diario called it 'chemical warfare, similar to that in Vietnam'.

US embassy sources say Spike will be applied in isolated areas where no food crops are grown. 'That's pure fantasy,' said a United Nations agronomist who works in Tingo Maria. 'The vast majority of peasants cultivate less than a half hectare of coca to supplement their income and it's mixed with other food crops such as bananas and coffee.'

Peruvian ecologists argue that a thorough environmental study has to be done to measure the social and economic fallout of Spike. The Government says that's impossible in an area where guerillas frequently gun down anti-drug police and crop eradication workers

'We've got to begin spraying (Spike) before we lose any more men,' said General Juan Zarate, former head of Peru's anti-drug police said recently. 'There's no time to lose.'

Despite Zarate's urgency, some experts think it will be some time before formal spraying begins. Current tests will take a year, followed by a six-month evaluation period. 'This Government's not going to touch it,' said Livia Benavides a prominent Lima environmentalist, 'and the next administration will think twice before giving its approval.'

Other experts are not so optimistic. They think Uncle Sam might engage in diplomatic arm-twisting as a pre-condition for helping refloat Peru's ailing economy. It is unlikely that the García administration would cave in to the pressure, but a conservative government in 1990 might make such concessions.

Thus far US policy decisions in the Upper Huallaga valley have played into the hands of the Sendero guerillas. The use of Spike would give them an additional opportunity to attack US planes and personnel.

If that should happen, only two choices would present themselves: massive military intervention to protect the crop eradication program, or junking the project entirely. Both options would be politically disastrous.

Gustavo Gorritti, a Peruvian journalist, believes that: 'The herbicide could unite rival factions into a single insurgency. Sendero Luminoso couldn't ask for a better gift.'

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New Internationalist issue 197 magazine cover This article is from the July 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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