Though reports say Peru has surpassed Colombia as world's top source of cocaine, it has not faced the same kind of violence. Is Lima turning a blind eye toward drug trafficking?
BOGOTA — The four administrative departments in Peru’s so-called VRAE — the Valley of the rivers Apurímac and Ene) — lie between flatlands and the rainforest and produce 200 tons of cocaine every year, making it the world’s premier cocaine production district. By comparison, the whole of Colombia produces about 300 tons of cocaine annually.
But while the two countries have this crop in common, the prevalence of armed gangs and violence as a result of coca cultivation and processing is very different in our two Latin American countries. Somehow Peru has been spared the kind of bloodshed that drug trafficking has caused in Colombia. This, even though the VRAE is home to mafia groups and Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, who move amid the coca-growing peasantry between revolutionary decadence and the bonanza of drug trafficking.
The big question for Colombia as we view an area that is replacing us as the world’s top production district is how Peru has managed to maintain a murder rate of just eight per 100,000 inhabitants while becoming such an important factor in global drug trafficking? Why, despite its problems of violence, is the VRAE not comparable to our “war-like” territories on the Pacific coast or in the Lower Cauca or Catatumbo regions? In the past six years, 90 police officers and soldiers have died in Peru’s great coca-producing area, clearly many fewer than in our country, where a single attack on state forces can cause a dozen or more casualties.
There may be a variety of reasons for this. One could say that the VRAE is just the first link in a coca chain, where criminal action consists merely of buying coca from peasants. The purges are concentrated in Colombia and Mexico, where the multimillionaire lords of international drug routes are based.
Better said, Peru devotes itself to cultivation, and leaves to others the big fortunes and big fighting. Or, the Peruvian state may have decided to overlook the cocaine business, out of incompetence or fear. Part of its cultivation is in any case legal pursuant to Peruvian laws.
Only one of the militiary bases in VRAE works against drug trafficking, while 29 bases are engaged in hunting down the Quispe Palomino brothers, local leaders of the Shining Path. Eradication has been more a threat than a reality, and the State itself has offices to legally buy coca leaves for traditional uses. Perhaps it is this low-intensity strategy that has meant less violence than what we see in Colombia’s cultivation and processing districts.
Now, as the government talks of eradication, mayors in the VRAE have warned that people are armed and will defend their crops. We know what fighting to the death means here — production may drop a little, but violence will increase — while the Shining Path will step forward as defenders of the peasantry.