In a surprise move in late May, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala fired Peru’s top drug official, Carmen Macias, replacing her with a longtime confidant, former Defense Minister Luis Alberto Otarola. Humala also backed away from a controversial coca eradication campaign about to get under way in the Apurimac-Ene-Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM) that faced strong local opposition. The government is sending mixed messages, however, regarding how these actions will impact Peru’s broader drug control strategy and the role that Peru’s government will play in regional drug policy debates, where it has strongly resisted any move toward drug policy reform. Ironically, Macias’ abrupt removal came just before the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that Peru’s net coca cultivation declined by 17.5 percent in 2013, from 60,400 hectares in 2012 to 49,800 hectares last year. (One hectare is about 2.47 acres.)
Since becoming head of DEVIDA, Peru’s National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs, Macias has pursued a massive coca eradication campaign, destroying 14,000 hectares in 2012 and nearly 24,000 in 2013. After years of rising coca cultivation, 2012 saw the first signs of change, with UNODC reporting a modest 3.4 percent reduction. At the same time, declining coca cultivation in Colombia led the U.S. State Department to declare that Peru had become “the world’s foremost producer of cocaine.” For 2014, the Peruvian government launched an ambitious campaign to eradicate an unprecedented 30,000 hectares.
To meet that goal, the government had to initiate, for the first time, forced eradication in the VRAEM, where more than half the country’s coca is now grown. The VRAEM, however, is home to what is left of the Shining Path, which promised to militarily resist eradication. Both local residents and authorities voiced strong opposition to the plan; in such a situation, violence was almost inevitable. While Macias continued to maintain that the fear of a social explosion was overblown, Humala sent in the minister of agriculture to strike a deal. The government subsequently announced a new strategy of “productive reconversion,” working with coca growers to provide alternative livelihoods such that they can reduce their reliance on growing coca.