President Ollanta Humala announced a shift in the government’s anti-drug program in one of the world’s top coca-growing regions.
In a televised interview Sunday, President Humala said that the government would move away from plans to forcefully eradicate coca crops in mountainous jungle region of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valleys, known strategically as the VRAEM.
Instead, the government will now focus more strongly on working with coca growers to substitute their illicit crops with legal ones such as coffee and cacao.
The move is an important change in anti-drug programs by the government of the world’s biggest cocaine producing country. Eradication of the hardy coca bushes, from which the leaves are harvested to make cocaine, has been a major focus for the past 30 years.
The VRAEM is Peru’s top coca growing region, and also home to remnants of the Shining Path rebels. Experts on the drug trade had said that the government’s plan to enter the zone to eradicate crops for the first time ever was sure to have resulted in a violent backlash from farmers and cocaine traffickers.
“To enter the VRAEM, we have to follow an imaginative strategy that isn’t just eradication,” Humala said in the interview, which was reported by state news agency Andina. “We have to enter with a strategy to convert to alternative crops, without disqualifying eradication.”
“We have to go in properly, alongside the farmers, to give them an economic opportunity, an economic alternative,” the Peruvian President said. “We are relaunching the strategy for the VRAEM.”
Humala’s announcement comes a few days after the government replaced its anti-drug czar. The head of Peru’s anti-drug agency, Carmen Masias, was replaced by a former Defense minister, Alberto Otarola. Otarola is the third anti-drug chief since President Ollanta Humala took office in July 2011.
The ousting of Masias, who was a strong supporter of forced eradication and who originally announced the plan for the VRAEM, was a surprise to most and a clear sign of the government’s change in its anti-drug policy.
“We were all surprised,” retired police general Juan Zarate told IDL Reporteros. Zarate heads the Alto Huallaga eradication program, Corah.
Tension has been building up in the VRAEM, however, with coca farmers forcibly pushing the regional military chief out of the area in protest against the forced eradication. These same farmers were strongly supportive of the military during the battle against the Shining Path in 1980s and 1990s, and their change led the military to review their focus, according to IDL Reporteros. The military will now focus entirely on the angle of organized crime, and the interdiction of the small aircraft that fly into the area almost daily, often flying in groups of two or three at a time, from Bolivia to collect the coca and cocaine.
One of the critics of the government’s ousting of Masias has been Fernando Rospigliosi, a political analyst and briefly Minister of Interior during the Toledo administration, who believes that in Otarola the government has chosen someone who will do the military’s bidding in the VRAEM.
However, one of those who approve the changes is Ricardo Soberon, President Humala’s first drug czar, who was asked to resign barely four months after his appointment in 2011, precisely because he favored seeking a closer relationship with coca farmers and temporarily suspending eradication until a proper crop substitution program was in place.