Cocaine Production Is Spiking in Peru and Bolivia, and It Could Keep Going Up
The international fight against drug trafficking continues to go poorly in South America’s Andean region, and signs suggest it won’t be improving anytime soon. New figures released this month by the United States show that Peru and Bolivia have stalled, if not taken steps backward, in their attempts to eradicate prolific cocaine production within their borders.
Last year, Peru’s production of pure cocaine reached a 25-year high. Nearly 500 metric tons were produced in the country, a 20-percent increase from 2016, according to a survey published this month by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The annual U.S. survey of Peru and Bolivia, which has been undertaken to varying degrees since the office’s creation in 1989, aims to estimate how much cocaine is being produced there. Most of it ends up moving across borders and around the globe as part of the drug trade. Such a dark and hidden network of operations makes it difficult to come up with specific and accurate estimates for drug production. Officials generally agree that tallying arrests, drug seizures and lab closures is not actually as accurate as analyzing the amount of land being dedicated to growing coca, the plant used to make the drug.
The ONDCP’s survey revealed that 49,800 hectares—about 123,000 acres—were dedicated to cultivating coca last year in Peru, a 13-percent rise from the previous year. That figure is actually down from some other recent years, but not by much. Over the past five years, the quantity of coca in Peru has hovered around 50,000 hectares, having reached nearly 60,000 hectares in 2013 before dropping to 46,500 hectares the following year. Peruvian officials were quick to pat themselves on the back about that decrease, which represented a record-breaking change. But even so, the hard numbers show those efforts are somewhat futile; the government has yet to make a dent in output that will truly last.
Last year, Peru’s National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs, which is responsible for helping design the country’s anti-drug strategy, said that it intends to eradicate 50 percent of the country’s coca crop by 2021, through increased eradication efforts and a crop-substitution program. Historically, though, eradicating crops—whether coca, marijuana, poppy or something else—has failed everywhere that it has been tried, from South America to Afghanistan. Not only does it impoverish farming communities who rely on the plants for sustenance, but it spikes the price of the illicit crops that remain, incentivizing those same farmers to re-plant them. As a result, officials have to return to the same communities to cut down fields they may have visited even just a few months earlier.
Drug trafficking networks in Peru are no easier to stop. The survey noted that a central region of Peru known as the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers poses “significant security challenges.” Cocaine moves east from there into Brazil or Bolivia, taking advantage of the thick, mountainous Amazon jungle to remain undetected. Hundreds, if not thousands of trafficking routes weave across these border areas, many designed for backpackers traveling on foot. As officials continue to identify and close routes—using military fly-overs, radar and satellite imagining—new ones pop up in their place.
“It is important that our governments work together to take action against cultivation and production, and to save lives of those affected by drug trafficking,” the deputy director of the ONDCP, Jim Carroll, said in a statement announcing the survey’s results. “Peru continues to be a great partner and we have a shared responsibility to address this problem.”
U.S. officials work closely with Peru on coca eradication efforts, while at the same time implementing “alternative development programs” for Peruvian farmers. The countries are also working together on improving police training and domestic drug abuse programs.
The American relationship with Bolivia is not nearly as strong. In 2008, President Evo Morales expelled the Drug Enforcement Administration, accusing the U.S.-led drug war of doing more harm than good to his country. He claimed the U.S. did not understand or respect the cultural importance that coca consumption plays across rural and urban areas alike.
By now, Bolivia’s tolerance for American rhetoric on international drug policy has all but disappeared.
To this day, Morales adamantly supports Bolivia’s legal coca market, which last year expanded the nationwide cultivation limit from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares. That coca is mostly used for chewing, tea and a variety of ever-diversifying products, such as candy and lotion. American officials have questioned how effective this legal market can be in curbing illicit practices, especially as abundant instances of corruption continue to appear at various levels of Morales’ government.
U.S. officials have also pointed out that, although this year’s ONDCP survey found Bolivian coca production went down slightly in 2017—from 37,500 hectares to 31,000—the figure is nonetheless 9,000 hectares over the Bolivian government’s own nationwide cultivation limit. Where that coca is going and what it’s being used for remains unclear, and that is an obvious worry for the international community.
The ONDCP said in its statement that it would like to see Bolivia make “real efforts against cultivation and production” in the future—an especially strong rebuke considering that it appeared in the same paragraph praising Peru. Officials in Bolivia weren’t phased. By now, their tolerance for American rhetoric on international drug policy has all but disappeared.
Morales, in a tweet, called the report “incoherent.” Bolivia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that it “strongly rejects the unilateral reports prepared by the United States, which do not have scientific criteria and are far from the reality of the country, lacking sustenance and accuracy in their data.”
When it comes to the science, Bolivia has a good point. U.S. satellite readings of coca crop coverage are far less involved in monitoring the country than those of the United Nations, which works closely with the Bolivian government both on the ground and in the air to produce its own annual numbers. In general, they are more favorable to Morales, and this discrepancy has led him to believe that U.S. coca figures are less an expression of concern for national security and more a way for it to pout over losing influence in the region.
Tension will undoubtedly continue between the United States and Bolivia as long as a legal market for coca exists. To some extent, that argument feels moot. Peru’s laws on coca are much stricter than Bolivia’s, yet drug production there continues to plague the region. Rather than bickering over whose data is more accurate, officials everywhere need to shift their focus toward discussing better strategies for combating a problem that everyone can agree, in one way or another, certainly exists and is getting worse.
Max Radwin has reported from across South America for The Washington Post, USA Today and Vice News, among others publications. He is based in Guatemala.