New Challenge to U.S. Drug Policy in Andes

Ollanta Humala, with his wife Nadine Heredia, says that coca is grown largely for medicinal purposes. Eradication of the plant, which is also used to make cocaine, is a major part of U.S.-funded anti-drug efforts in the Andes.
Ollanta Humala, with his wife Nadine Heredia, says that coca is grown largely for medicinal purposes. Eradication of the plant, which is also used to make cocaine, is a major part of U.S.-funded anti-drug efforts in the Andes. (By Karel Navarro -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

LIMA, Peru -- The front-running presidential candidate in Peru, having pledged to put a stop to coca eradication, represents the latest challenge to a regional U.S.-financed counternarcotics effort that shows signs of fraying at its edges, according to U.S. and South American analysts.

Like the recently elected Bolivian president, Evo Morales, Ollanta Humala has campaigned against the coca eradication programs that are central to an anti-drug plan in the Andes. Humala says much of the coca being cultivated is being used in teas and traditional medicines, not being turned into cocaine.

"We're going to protect the coca grower, and we're going to stop the forced eradication of their crops," he said during a rally last month, La Republica newspaper reported. "It must be understood that there are more than 30,000 families that cultivate coca leaf, and no government has ever protected them."

The United States has poured about $5 billion into an Andean anti-drug plan since 2000, including about $720 million in Peru. But if Humala wins the decisive second-round election, to be held in May or early June, the United States' main ally in its eradication efforts -- Colombia -- will stand as a virtual island in the Andes, surrounded by countries with governments critical of Washington's policies. If continued breakdowns in cooperation occur in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador, some U.S. officials say they fear that progress made to fight coca cultivation in Colombia could be undermined as production migrates across its borders.

Recent U.S. government estimates suggest such shifts have already begun. Despite record eradication hauls in Colombia, coca production has been on the rise in Bolivia for each of the past four years. In Peru, U.S. government analysts detected a 23 percent increase in the traditional cultivation zones between 2004 and 2005; when including data from new zones of cultivation, Peru's annual increase was 38 percent.

For years, U.S. counternarcotics officials dismissed the "balloon effect" -- the shifting of the drug problem from one area to another -- as a myth perpetuated by critics. But now the idea is widely accepted, even among some of the anti-drug program's most steadfast supporters.

Aggressive aerial spraying in Colombia "is forcing drug traffickers to move shop, and they are on the run replanting in other parts of Colombia and crossing borders into Ecuador and Peru," Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said recently in testimony before a congressional hearing about anti-drug strategies in Latin America. "This balloon effect must be tamped down."

Persuading neighboring Andean leaders to cooperate is an increasingly difficult challenge as the region's elected governments call for more independence from U.S. intervention. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez last year disbanded several enforcement units supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and President Bush consequently decertified Venezuela as a cooperating partner in the drug fight.

In Ecuador, the government has refused U.S. requests to condemn Colombian guerrilla groups suspected of widespread drug trafficking, preferring to remain neutral in the Colombian conflict. Eradication in Bolivia has slowed since Morales took office in January, though he says his government's coca agency -- formerly called Coca Control, now named Coca Development -- aggressively opposes cultivation of coca intended to be used in cocaine.

Humala has adopted Morales's slogan of "Zero Cocaine -- Not Zero Coca," and he says he wants to strengthen the legal marketplace for coca by promoting such products as coca teas and herbal medicines. To combat hunger, his campaign has proposed the daily distribution of 27 million loaves of bread made with coca to impoverished schoolchildren.

Humala, a 43-year-old former lieutenant colonel in the army who led a coup attempt in 2000, also named two coca farmers to his party's slate of congressional candidates. Nancy Obregon, who won a seat in the legislature, said she would try to push legislation banning the kinds of U.S.-financed eradication efforts that last week eliminated about 1,600 acres of coca from her home district of San Martin.

"We must have a sovereign national government that comes up with its own solutions, because the U.S. government sees no difference between coca leaves and cocaine," said Obregon, who says she grows the plants for legal purposes.

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