And the wheel turns. Twenty years ago, Peru produced about 60% of the world's coca crop, from which cocaine is derived. But crop disease and aggressive anti-trafficking efforts in Peru hurt output there even as cultivation blossomed in Colombia, which took first place honors by the turn of the century.
coca leaf statues in Peruvian village (Phillip Smith)
But now, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has regained its status as the number one producer. In a report issued last week, UNODC estimated that Peru had 151,000 acres of land devoted to coca production, compared to 125,000 acres in second place Colombia and about 63,000 acres in third place Bolivia.
Just as aggressive eradication and interdiction campaigns in Peru -- including a US-aided policy of shooting down suspected drug trafficking planes -- reduced the coca supply there in the 1990s, the massive US aid program known as Plan Colombia, with its aerial fumigation and aggressive eradication programs, has managed to shrink production in Colombia.
At its peak in 2000, Colombia accounted for 90% of the world's cocaine, with about 400,000 acres planted with coca. Since then, that figure has shrunk by about one third.
But in a clear example of "the balloon effect," Peru has taken up the slack, and has been well-situated to take advantage of growing Brazilian and European demand for cocaine. Peru's reemergence as the global coca leader comes despite renewed efforts by President Ollanta Humala to crack down on coca cultivation, as well as the trafficking and armed rebel groups -- remnants of the feared Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s -- who protect and profit from it.
Peru actually managed to decrease cultivation this year by about 4,000 acres, or 3.4%, according to UNODC. But given continuing declines in Colombia and stable, lower-level production in Bolivia, the country retakes first place even with the decline.
Unlike Colombia, both Peru and Bolivia have long histories of indigenous coca use, and both countries have large legal coca markets. But according to the UNODC, of Peru's estimated 129,000 tons of dried coca leaves, only 9,000 tons were destined for the legal market. That leaves 120,000 tons of leaves ready to be turned into cocaine hydrochloride and snorted up noses in Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and Riyadh.
Last Friday, the White House released its annual score card on other countries' compliance with US drug policy demands, the presidential determination on major drug producing and trafficking countries. It identified 22 countries as "major drug transit and/or major illicit drug producing countries," but listed only three -- Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela -- as having "failed demonstrably" to comply with US drug war objectives.
Cocaine has Washington's nose out of joint when it comes to Bolivia and Venezuela. (wikipedia.org)
Among those countries that are not listed as having "failed demonstrably" are the world's largest opium producer (Afghanistan), the world's two largest coca and cocaine producers (Colombia and Peru), the leading springboard for drugs coming into the US (Mexico), and the weak Central American states that serve as lesser springboards for drug loads destined for the US. They are all US allies; Bolivia and Venezuela are not.
Both the Bolivians and the Venezuelans responded angrily to the determination.
"We strongly reject the accusation... The United States is trying to ignore our government's sovereign policies," Alejandro Keleris, the head of Venezuela's national anti-drug office, said late on Saturday in response to the US report.
Keleris said Venezuela had arrested more than 6,400 people for drug trafficking so far this year and seized almost 80,000 pounds of various drugs. Venezuela had arrested over a hundred drug gang bosses since 2006 and extradited at least 75 of them, including some to the US, he said.
Drug enforcement ties between Washington and Caracas have been strained since at least 2005, when then President Hugo Chavez threw the DEA out of the country, accusing it of intervening in internal Venezuelan affairs. Venezuela is not a drug producing nation, but has been a transit country for cocaine produced in Colombia.
Bolivia's denunciation of the presidential determination was even stronger.
"The Bolivian government does not recognize the authority of the US government to certify or decertify the war on drugs," Vice Minister of Social Defense and Controlled Substances Felipe Caceres said Saturday. "The only internationally accredited body is the UN, whose report was recently met."
The UN report that Caceres referenced was last month's Bolivian Coca Monitoring Survey, which found that the government of President Evo Morales had successfully reduced the number of acres under coca cultivation for the second year in a row.
"President Obama makes that statement even though only two months ago the Office of National Drug Control Policy of the White House verified that the total cocaine production in Bolivia has fallen by 18% since 2011," the Bolivian government said last Friday. "The United States seeks to undermine that the government of President Evo Morales has achieved these things with dignity, sovereignty and social control without any type of interference from abroad."
Like Venezuela, Bolivia has thrown out the DEA, which has been absent from the country for five years now. In May, Bolivia announced it had expelled a USAID official, and in June, the US embassy announced it was ending anti-drug efforts with the Bolivians.
Remnants of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas are calling on coca farmers in the country's south-central coca-producing region to take up arms to defend their crops against government eradicators. The call came in a recording made by the rebels and broadcast on local radio, according to a report in the Lima daily El Comercio.
drying coca leaves in Peru's Ayacucho province (Phillip Smith)
The radio broadcast in Ayacucho province came last week, just one day after Sendero Luminoso guerrillas handed out pamphlets in nearby Huancavelica calling on coca farmers to confront eradicators "with arms in hand."
The guerrilla remnants, a mere shadow of the fearsome insurgency that cost the country some 75,000 lives in the 1980s, operate in Peru's most productive coca-producing region, a series of ultra-montane river valleys known by its Spanish acronym as the VRAEM (Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valleys). The current Senderistas have shed the hyper-Maoist ideology of their long-imprisoned leader Comrade Gonazalo (Abimael Guzman) and now operate as well-armed and often uniformed protectors of producers and traffickers in the coca and cocaine trade.
Peru and Colombia are currently the world's largest coca and cocaine producers, with Bolivia in third place.
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has pledged to wipe out the Senderistas in the VRAEM and has vowed that eradication will take place there this year. His government has already begun building military bases in the remote region.
Peruvian soldiers and police are already being targeted by Senderistas in the VRAEM. Dozens have been killed in guerrilla attacks in the past two years alone.
The proposal came one day after the FARC ended its self-imposed cease-fire (the Colombian government never agreed to a cease-fire during the peace talks) and launched a series of attacks on security forces, leaving at least one soldier dead.
The FARC is a socialist político-military formation that has been in rebellion against the central government in Bogota since 1964. Its military strength seems to have peaked about a decade ago, but it remains a potent forcé in some sectors of rural Colombia.
After first opposing the cultivation of coca among the peasantry, it gradually shifted to supporting and taxing it, and the group has had some involvement in the cocaine trade as well. Colombia is either the world's largest or second largest coca and cocaine producer, depending on which figures you believe. That's despite more than $7 billion in US anti-drug and counterinsurgency assistance since 1999 and massive, years-long aerial fumigation campaigns.
In its agrarian reform proposal, FARC negotiator Rube Zamora called on the government to "contemplate actions regarding the cultivation of illicit crops to transition toward substitute or alternative production or for their legalization for medicinal or therapeutic ends or cultural reasons."
More broadly, the FARC called for the creation of a "land bank" of unused or underused areas that could be distributed to landless peasants and for a more democratic method of rural planning. The land would include "latifundia," or large rural estates, confiscated from drug traffickers. The proposal marks a retreat from the previous FARC position that called for the seizure and redistribution of all latifundia.
There is no word on the Colombian government's response to the proposals. Both parties in the talks have agreed not to talk publicly about their progress. They restarted Tuesday after going on hiatus for the Christmas holidays.
Bolivia will rejoin the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty's requirement that "coca leaf chewing must be banned" was successful last Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.
The re-accession marks the end of a process that began in 2009. Bolivia attempted to amend the Single Convention, and when that effort was blocked by the US and mostly Western European nations, it withdrew from the Convention with the intent to rejoin with the reservation that it did not accept the language on coca.
Coca, from which cocaine is derived, has been used as a stimulant and appetite suppressant for thousands of years in South American's Andean region. The Bolivian government of President Evo Morales considers coca part of its national patrimony.
The Bolivian reservation applies only on Bolivian territory, and the export of coca remains proscribed under the Convention.
The nations that objected to Bolivia's reservation mainly objected on procedural grounds, though some worried that it could lead to an increase in coca production. Only Sweden objected on the basis that coca leaf chewing should be abolished, arguing vainly that "the ambition expressed in the convention is the successive prohibition also of traditional uses of drugs."
"The objecting countries' emphasis on procedural arguments is hypocritical. In the end this is not about the legitimacy of the procedure Bolivia has used, it is not even really about coca chewing," according to Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Transnational Institute's Drugs and Democracy program. "What this really is about is the fear to acknowledge that the current treaty framework is inconsistent, out-of-date, and needs reform."
The Institute noted that Bolivia's success can be an example for other regional countries where traditional use of the coca leaf is permitted, including Argentina, Colombia, and Peru, to challenge the Single Convention on coca. It also called for the World Health Organization to undertake a review of coca's classification as a Schedule I drug under the Convention.
"Those who would desperately try to safeguard the global drug control system by making it immune to any type of modernization are fighting a losing battle," according to John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America drug policy program. "Far from undermining the system, Bolivia has given the world a promising example that it is possible to correct historic errors and to adapt old drug control dogmas to today’s new realities."
Five Western countries -- the US, Canada, Britain, Italy, and Sweden -- have formally objected to Bolivia's rejoining the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation that allows for the traditional habit of coca leaf chewing, the Transnational Institute reported last Friday. The move is the latest twist in the Latin American nation's effort to remove the international proscription on the ancestral habit.
coca plant (UNODC)
But the Western objections are far from sufficient. Another 58 signatory countries would have to object by next week to block Bolivia's bid, and there is little sign of that happening.
[Update: On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin submiltted a bill to the Duma objecting to Bolivia's reservation, but it wasn't clear if that amounted to a formal objection.]
Coca leaf, the raw material from which cocaine is produced, has been used with little ill effect as a hunger-suppressant and mild stimulant for thousands of years in South America's Andean region. It was included as a proscribed substance in the 1961 Convention based on a 1950 study that has been found to be unscientific and blatantly prejudiced. The 1961 Convention called for the chewing of coca leaf to be phased out by 1989.
Led by former coca grower union leader Evo Morales, Bolivia tried in 2011 to amend the 1961 Single Convention to remove the provision requiring it to ban coca leaf chewing. If no countries objected, the request would have been automatically granted, but the US, supported by the International Narcotics Control Board organized a "friends of the convention" group to rally against the move. In all, 18 countries objected to Bolivia's request.
Among Latin American countries, only Mexico's conservative government objected. Colombia objected at first, but withdrew its objection, while Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela went on record supporting Bolivia's request even though they weren't required to. The objecting countries were all European, except for Canada and the US and Japan and Singapore.
Following the failure of its effort to amend the 1961 Convention, Bolivia withdrew from it and requested re-accession with a reservation regarding the coca chewing provision. The Convention allows for such a procedure, which can be blocked only if one-third of the member states object. There are 184 countries that have signed the Convention, meaning 62 must object to stop Bolivia's re-accession.
So far, just a few have done so. Other countries have only until January 10 to weigh in.
coca leaf statures, Rio Apurimac Valley (stopthedrugwar.org)
Coca cultivation in Peru increased again last year, up 5.2% over 2010, according to the 2011 coca monitoring survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Peruvian government. That was the sixth straight year of increases in coca cultivation and leaves Peru just behind Colombia when it comes to acres planted.
The survey estimated Peruvian coca planting at 157,000 acres, with government-led eradication efforts destroying only about 25,000 acres, down 14% from the previous year. The UNODC estimated total coca leaf output of 131,3000 tons, up 4.3% over 2010.
Half of the Peruvian crop is planted in the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro valley region in the southeast, but the biggest increase in cultivation came in the northern states of Bajo Amazonas, Maranon, and Putumayo, with a regional increase of 40.4%. Production in those states is on the increase to meet the demand for cocaine and crack cocaine in Europe and Brazil, which is the second leading consumer country after the United States.
"Drug traffickers are becoming more efficient," said Flavio Mirella, the head of the agency's Peruvian office, at a Lima press conference. "Traffickers need less coca leaf to produce more cocaine. Routes of supply are diversifying and producing areas are getting closer to certain routes of exit" toward Brazil and through Bolivia to Brazil and beyond.
Guerrillas of the leftist Shining Path have also been involved in the coca and cocaine trade, and have stepped up attacks on Peruvian police and military this year. President Ollanta Humala has vowed to increase both eradication and the presence of the state in remote, guerrilla-infested coca production areas.
President Santos addresses the nation on peace talks. (presidencia.gov.co)
He would seek "a definitive peace" with the rebels, he said. "Any responsible leader knows he can't let pass up a possibility like this to end the conflict. No doubt there are risks," said Santos. "But I believe history would be much more severe with us all if we did not seize the opportunity."
The announcement of peace talks does not mean an immediate end to the fighting, however, and that could prove problematic.
"Military operations will continue with the same or stepped-up intensity," Santos said, adding that the talks would not be open-ended. "They will be measured in months, not in years," he said. "If there are not advances, we simply won't continue."
"It's going to be so much harder to negotiate while people are being extorted and oil pipelines are being attacked, child soldiers are being recruited and land mines are being laid," Adam Isaacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America told the Associated Press.
The agreement was brokered with the assistance of Cuba and Norway, which will "facilitate" the coming peace talks. Chile and Venezuela will act as observers.
The last round of peace talks between the government and the FARC went on fruitlessly for more than three years beginning in 1999 and ended when a frustrated President Pastrana sent the Colombian military into the FARC safe haven Pastrana had ceded at the beginning of the talks.
FARC art (farc-ep.co)
Since then, the FARC has suffered militarily as Colombia has put US assistance to the tune of $700 million a year to work. Its original leadership has been killed or died of old age, and the number of guerrillas has dropped from about 20,000 to about 8,000.
But the FARC has also been killing Colombian soldiers at a higher rate than ever. It remains ensconced in its rural redoubts supported by a loyal peasantry, and continues to profit from the coca and cocaine trade.
The FARC's role in the drug trade will be a complicating factor in the talks. The US is seeking five of the group's six secretariat members on drug trafficking charges.
The FARC also seeks fundamental reforms in the Colombian state and economy, which is also likely to prove problematic. Although President Santos has signaled he is willing to discuss agrarian reform and rural development, he is likely to run into fervent opposition from wealthy rural interests who allied themselves with former President Alvaro Uribe and rightist paramilitaries during his term in office.
The paramilitaries killed thousands and generated tens of thousands of internal refugees, trafficking themselves in cocaine the whole time, until they reached an agreement to demobilize under Uribe.
Will the world's oldest insurgency be coming to an end soon? Stay tuned.
Chronicle Book Review: Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition by Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli (2012, Adelphi, 163 pp. PB, $12.50)
Longtime readers of Drug War Chronicle likely are already familiar with many -- but not all -- of the topics in Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States. The Chronicle has been on the ground and reported back from Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico -- all of which get individual chapters in this new book -- on the problems generated by drug prohibition in those producer and/or transit nations.
We've also reported to a lesser extent on the drug war's impact on Central America, but almost not at all on its impact in the countries of West Africa, which has become an important staging ground for drug flows from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East. Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States has individual chapters on these two regions as well.
Even though some of the information is new, the book's thesis should also be familiar to Chronicle readers: The present drug prohibition regime is not only failing to win the war on drugs, it is also setting off and prolonging violent conflict -- both political and criminal -- in producer and transit countries.
We have certainly seen that in spades in the past few decades. In Mexico, which is both a producer and a transit state, the multi-sided drug wars pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the state have left more than 50,000 dead in six years and shaken public confidence in state institutions. In Colombia, profits from the illicit coca and cocaine trade fund leftist guerrilla armies -- one of which, the FARC, has been at war with the state since 1964 -- and rightist paramilitaries alike. In Afghanistan, which supplies almost 90% of the world's opium and the heroin derived from it, both the Taliban and elements of the Afghan state are profiting handsomely from the illicit trade.
Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States provides succinct, yet fact-filled overviews of the deleterious effects of prohibition in all three countries, as well as West Africa and Central America. In all of them, the lure of the profits of prohibition exceed the threat of law enforcement or the ability of the state to suppress the black market economy. That's not news.
What is newsworthy about Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States is who has produced it. The authors, Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli, are, respectively the director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and a research analyst at that august institution. Not only that, Inkster is a veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service who spent his last two years as the Assistant Chief and Director for Operations and Intelligence.
The IISS, which was founded to manage the Cold War for the West more than half a century ago, describes itself as "the world's leading authority on political-military conflict." With many former US and British government officials among its members, IISS very much is the establishment, an organ of the global security elite.
When the IISS says a policy has not only failed but has produced counterproductive results, governments tend to listen. Now, we have the IISS quite clearly and vehemently saying that drug prohibition has done both. And that's what makes Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States so remarkable -- not that we want to give short shrift to the cogent analysis in the book.
It is noteworthy that the authors also take on the international drug control bureaucracy based in UN agencies such as the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the Office on Drugs and Crime. They chide the INCB for not only failing to control the illicit drug traffic, but also with failing to uphold the other part of its mandate: ensuring an adequate supply of opiate-based pain medications. Noting that a handful of Western countries account for a staggering 80% or more of all opioid pain medication usage, Inskter and Comolli clearly think vast portions of the planet are not getting sufficient pain medications, and they blame the INCB. To be fair, though, they also acknowledge other obstacles to the effective treatment of pain in developing nations.
Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed Statesis also useful for its discussion of the alternatives to prohibition and what decriminalization or legalization would and would not achieve. Decriminalization would be a benefit to drug users, they argue, citing the Portuguese experience, but would not address black market profits. And legalization would certainly weaken, but is unlikely to eliminate, the violent criminal organizations running amok in places like Mexico and Central America.
For politically motivated actors, such as the FARC in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, for which the profits of the drug trade are not an end in themselves, but a means to achieving political goals, legalization would have little impact, except on their revenue streams. Such groups would find other means to continue, Inkster and Comolli suggest.
The book also discusses the prospects for trying to change the global prohibition regime, which is based on the 1961 Single Convention and its two successor treaties. The outlook is not sunny, the authors suggest, given a distinct lack of interest in reforms by such major players as the United States, China, and Russian, not to mention the lack of a hue and cry for change from regions including Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast and East Asia.
But even within the ambit of the global prohibition regime, there is a bit of room for experimentation. The INCB could try to find less restrictive interpretations of the treaties, and the Office on Drugs and Crime could shift its emphases. That could result in some small openings, perhaps for supervised injection sites or heroin maintenance and the like, but not in major changes and not in an end to global drug prohibition.
Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States concisely restates some old arguments and adds a few new ones, and it provides handy overviews of the problems of prohibition in producer and transit countries. One can only hope that members of the policymaking circles at which it is aimed actually pick it up and read it because the global security establishment is telling them in no uncertain terms that not only is prohibition not working, it's making matters worse.
Coca cultivation in Colombia was on the rise again last year for the first time since 2007, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) latest annual Colombia Survey. The survey, which is based on satellite and aerial surveillance photography, estimated that coca planting spread to 158,000 acres last year, up 3% over the previous year.
coca plant (UNODC)
While representing a new tick upward, last year's acreage devoted to coca cultivation was still well below the 403,000 acres planted in 2000, the year President Bill Clinton's Plan Colombia kicked in. Since then, the US has spent more than $7 billion in its effort to wipe out the coca crop and the cocaine traffic derived from it.
Despite the US assistance, Colombia has been unable to eliminate either the coca crop or the cocaine trade. Powerful armed groups, including the peasant guerrilla army of the FARC on the left and various paramilitary groups on the right, continue to profit from the trade while battling (or colluding with) the Colombian state.
UNODC also found that despite the increase in the area under cultivation, the amount of cocaine produced last year was 1% less than in 2010. Colombia produced 345 tons of cocaine last year, almost exactly as much as Peru did, leaving the two countries in a dead heat in the race to be named the world's number one cocaine producer. Bolivia was third.
The biggest increases in coca cultivation were in Putumayo and Caqueta departments near the border with Ecuador, where the FARC still maintains a strong presence. And more than 60% of cultivation is located in only four departments -- Narino, Putomayo, Guaviare, and Cauca -- where the FARC and the paramilitaries fight for control over crops and smuggling routes.
"That area has always been pretty ungoverned, it is basically wired for getting drugs out," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. "The 2011 results make apparent that momentum toward reduced coca-growing has once again stalled," he told Reuters.