Dispatch From The Heart Of Peru's Cocaine War

Every year, some 200 tons of pure cocaine is produced in the Peruvian valleys
Every year, some 200 tons of pure cocaine is produced in the Peruvian valleys
Frédéric Faux

PICHARI - Miguel doesn’t make a sound on his way to the plantation.

“Best to keep a low profile, put away your microphone,” he advises. The path leads all the way over the Apurímac River, whose brown waters wind through the middle of the forest, to a clearing where shrubs of coca grow across 12 square yards.

“Those are less than two years old and I can reap a harvest every three months,” explains the family man. The 80 bags of leaves are worth 6,250 sols ($2,465), four times a year. Coffee or cocoa is only worth 4,000 sols ($1,554) once a year. "Coca puts bread on the table and lets me send my children to school,” Miguel says matter-of-factly.

The same calculation is made by hundreds of settlers scattered across the foothills. This is why the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro valleys, a region known as the VRAEM, ranks as the world’s biggest coca producer.

It’s also a time bomb for president Ollanta Humala’s police forces. Every year, some 200 tons of pure cocaine is produced in these Peruvian valleys. The army is busy fighting in this rugged terrain against the secret drug labs, as well as the Shining Path terrorist group, who are allies of convenience.

It’s in Pichari, capital of the VRAEM, where the tension is most intense. Every day, helicopters take off from the base across the river Ene, next to the city, to scan the surrounding valleys. The region has been declared a national emergency and, since Nov. 7, a law allows the military to be part of anti-drug operations.

Despite these efforts, the “narcoterrorists” of the Shining Path often have the upper hand: In April, they kidnapped 36 workers on the gas project site of Camisea, that provides 30% of Peru’s energy source. Since the beginning of 2012, at least 20 soldiers and policemen have been killed.

“The drug dealers are hidden in the mountains, I don’t know who they are,” says Miguel, in his wooden house in the small village of Natividad. “I quit my job as a driver to get a better standard of living thanks to coca. I’m not a drug trafficker. Trucks come in the afternoon, we weigh the leaves, I get paid, then they leave. Whatever happens to the coca doesn’t concern me.”

A priest's call

His neighbor, in jeans and a torn T-shirt, offers his two cents: “Would a smuggler live in such an isolated village, without electricity, where the streets turn to mud as soon as it rains?”

Most of these settlers only know how to grow coca, which is why the government launched a project in the VRAEM to “boost development,” which means applying tar to the six-hour trail leading to the nearest city of Ayacucho.

Crisostomo Oriundo, the technical head of the project in Pichari, is having doubts regarding the impact of those measures on farmers: “Today, they are no longer limiting themselves to planting. Just around the corner, you can buy plastic tarp, cement, some kerosene and, in a day, you have your soaking well. It allows you to turn coca into paste, which is the first step in cocaine cooking. A lot of them are already doing that.”

It’s not very safe to talk about these things with strangers in Pichari. Father Tomas’ preachings led to threats from angry drug traffickers in his unfinished church. “I’ve been invited to their houses several times for celebrations. They pay a lot of heed to what I might say or whom I talk with," Tomas explains. "They have a very efficient system of information, they are very careful about their business, they keep an eye on the peasants. If they stop growing coca, they have to sell their parcel and leave. We cope with this because here, everyone needs the coca business, farmers and their families, teenagers working weekends in the wells to pay for school.”

The young priest stands up to leave his sacristy, to cross the abandoned grounds leading to the church. “There’s the real issue, right here,” he concludes, pointing at a light green shrub that had randomly started to grow there – maybe from a coca-growing parishioner’s shoes. “Not only do we have Peru’s best coca, but it’s everywhere.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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