Published on Saturday, October 7, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Plan Colombia:
Antidrug Effort Is Fearful Of High Coca Prices In Peru
by Kevin G. Hall
LIMA, Peru - The good news on the Andean coca-war front: The price of coca leaf, the raw material used to make cocaine, is soaring, as buyers fear that a coming crackdown in neighboring Colombia will cause shortages.

The bad news: Higher coca prices are likely to tempt some Peruvian farmers to turn away from such substitute crops as specialty coffee and pineapples and return to the illicit but more profitable coca. That would be a serious setback to the U.S.-led Andean drug war, in which a reduction in Peru's coca-growing is considered the biggest victory.

Sources familiar with the coca trade say the price for what Peruvians call an arroba of coca leaves - a 25-pound sack - has increased in recent weeks from $20 to as much as $35.

"Price, more than anything, is what interests us," said a farmer from the Aguaytia Valley, a hilly central Peruvian growing region where people often grow both coca plants and cacao beans, used to make chocolate.

During the cocaine boom of the late 1980s, said the farmer, who spoke on condition he not be identified, small airplanes landed daily on local roads to pick up coca paste and fly it to Colombia for processing into cocaine.

Then, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori ordered the military to pursue and shoot down such aircraft. In response, farmers grew more cacao, and more coca-growing shifted across the border into Colombia.

However, Plan Colombia, a $7.5 billion antidrug and military aid package to which President Clinton contributed $1.3 billion on July 13, is driving up prices for coca leaves again.

"These first impacts are the result of Plan Colombia. The first sign is this price hike," said Roger Rumrill, a Peruvian specialist on the Amazon and drug trade in the vast, sparsely populated jungle where several South American borders meet.

Bolivian Coca Farmer
Bolivian Aymara Indian leader Evo Morales greets onlookers in La Paz, October 6, 2000. Morales, who leads about 35,000 coca growers in the region of Chapare, 700 km east La Paz, said his group's demands include allowing Bolivian families at least 1,000 square yards for coca cultivation. Some 40,000 families depend on coca production for survival and crop-substitution methods have failed. REUTERS/David Mercado
In Bolivia, another major Andean coca-producing country, recent protests have left 10 people dead. Among the issues: Farmers want the government to pay them more for not growing coca. As prices rise, U.S.-backed crop-eradication efforts in Bolivia's southern Chapare region are likely to suffer.

Until now, Peru has been the star of Washington's antidrug efforts. It led South America in coca production in the 1980s. Then, land devoted to the crop dropped from 319,000 acres in 1992 to 96,000 acres in 1999. Police made 15,577 drug-trafficking arrests in 1999, up from 3,664 in 1991.

The coca plant is attractive to farmers because they can grow four crops a year. If Plan Colombia seriously disrupts coca cultivation in Colombia - the world's leading manufacturer of cocaine - prices for coca leaves elsewhere could return to their peak late-1980s level of $80 per 25-pound bag.

"Why won't production pop back up in Peru and Bolivia? There is a fundamental failure to look at the cocaine market as a global commodities market," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, a New York-based think tank.

Lima drug-trade economist Hugo Cabieses agreed. "If Plan Colombia suppresses southern Colombia, where about 70 percent of Colombia's coca crop is grown, then there will be a dispersion of the crops . . . to Peru or Ecuador," he said.

To cope with spillover problems, Plan Colombia will offer $110 million in aid to Bolivia, $32 million to Peru, and $20 million to Ecuador. The money is for drug interdiction, education, alternative-crop programs and other measures.

"Concerns over narcotics-industry relocation are the reason why the supplemental package includes funds to support Colombia's neighbors," said a State Department official who asked not to be identified. "We are focusing a significant portion of our $1.3 billion Plan Colombia upon Colombia's neighbors as we seek to stem cultivation and trafficking throughout the region."

Copyright 2000 Knight Ridder News Service