Peru’s Cocaleros on the March

September 25, 2007

Farmers and local organizers from Peru’s prominent coca-cultivating regions staged a mass demonstration last April. Led in large part by women, the cocaleros (coca farmers) cornered the U.S.-leaning administration of President Alejandro Toledo into a veritable checkmate. The protestors had several demands. Most fundamentally, they called for the legitimization of the coca leaf as a cash crop and an end to the administration’s U.S.-sponsored coca eradication policy. They also demanded the integration of their coca-growing communities into the national economy, to prevent their further descent into poverty and oblivion. As their demands make clear, the cocaleros advocate for addressing coca cultivation as a human, political and technical issue, and not as a criminal, judicial, security or—worse still—military problem, as seems to be the preference of the U.S. and Peruvian governments.

Compared to their Bolivian counterparts, Peru’s cocaleros arrived late onto the national scene. This is largely attributable to the bloody insurgency of the Shining Path guerrillas in the 1980s and the state’s violent reaction. Together, these forces destroyed social organizing, thereby preventing the maturation of a cocalero movement in that period. In the early 1990s, the few surviving coca-related organizations chose to follow bureaucratic procedures and to operate politically within official avenues. President Alberto Fujimori’s “Doctrine on Drugs” suspended coca eradication from 1990 to 1995 and recognized that coca farmers and their organizations are not part of the drug trade’s criminal chain. The Fujimori Doctrine intended to formalize and license the informal coca sector in order to ally coca-growing campesinos with the government and against the Shining Path. Rather than eradication, the Fujimori Doctrine promoted crop substitution with support from international bodies, particularly the UN’s International Drug Control Program.

Fujimori’s Minister of the Interior reinstated the forced eradication of coca in 1996, under the auspices of the entirely U.S.-funded Coca Eradication Project in the Upper Huallaga Valley (CORAH). Three years into CORAH, the coca-growing valleys erupted; roadblocks and strikes became common. The protests eventually forced the government to the negotiating table in November 2000, on the eve of Fujimori’s inglorious downfall.
Upon taking office, President Toledo named Ricardo Vega Llona the Drug Czar of his administration. Vega Llona sought to continue the dialogue with the cocaleros that had begun under the transitional government that replaced Fujimori’s. He formed the National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA) to replace Contradrogas, the previous anti-drug agency. Contradrogas was a bastion of corruption and inefficiency, created with Washington’s blessing by Peru’s National Intelligence Service under the command of the shadowy spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos.

At the end of 2001, after seven months of dialogue, the government submitted to the cocaleros a relatively progressive proposal for a new national drug and coca policy. The proposal included a strategy that tackled production, trafficking and consumption as integrated problems. It also provided for the participation of coca farmers in designing alternative sustainable development schemes. Internationally, the new policy would seek the help of both producing and consuming nations jointly responsible for the drug trade, while pushing for a reevaluation of the plant’s traditional consumption and industrial benefits. In the proposal, the government promised to push for the removal of the coca leaf from the UN’s official list of narcotic drugs.

A few months later, the government reneged on its proposal. The death knell for the new agreement sounded with the visit of President George W. Bush to Lima in March 2002, at which time he pressured Toledo’s government to adopt a “zero tolerance” stance on coca cultivation. The government then pursued forced eradication with renewed vigor, sparking widespread strikes, marches and road blockades by cocaleros. The government responded to the unrest by engaging in dialogue on a case-by-case basis with different cocalero communities—subduing the farmers with insignificant agreements that amounted to little more than window-dressing. Nonetheless, DEVIDA systematically violated even those narrow accords.

At that point, prominent cocaleros from the Upper Huallaga, Aguaytía and Apurímac Valleys, led by Nelson Palomino, decided to establish a national union of coca cultivators. Some 1,200 delegates founded the National Association of Peruvian Coca Producers (CONPACCP) in January 2003. The delegates chose Palomino, who is from the Apurímac Valley, as the organization’s Secretary General, and Nancy Obregón as Vice Secretary. Leaders from the various valleys agreed to organize road blockades and strikes if forced eradication were imposed on any CONPACCP-affiliated area.

A month after the first cocalero congress, CORAH and DEVIDA eradicated the crops of two association members in Aguaytía. Immediately, the cocaleros of that valley blocked the region’s main arteries, and cocaleros elsewhere took similar action. When Palomino was returning from Lima to organize more mobilizations, government agents detained him and charged him with “apologetics for terrorism” and other, still-unproven offences. Palomino and other cocalero leaders believe DEVIDA and the international humanitarian relief organization CARE were behind his arrest; Palomino had accused CARE of misappropriating U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds that were intended for alternative development projects in the Apurímac Valley. Palomino’s arrest provoked widespread indignation throughout Peru’s coca-growing valleys and moved the cocaleros to march on Lima to demand the release of their leader as well as official attention to ten other points of grievance.

The 16-day march to Lima in April 2003 involved more than 8,000 participants. Two columns, one from the north led by Flavio Sánchez and Elsa Malpartida and the second from the south led by Marisela Guillén and Nancy Obregón, converged in Lima after traveling nearly 500 miles each. After the marchers camped out for four days on the lawns of the Palace of Justice and the adjacent Sheraton Hotel, the government finally agreed to meet with the cocaleros’ 35 representatives. Toledo met with them on April 23 and agreed to sign Executive Order 44, which incorporated many of the cocaleros’ demands. That night, Toledo visited a contingent of cocaleros camped at Lima’s “La Victoria” soccer stadium. He promised to uphold the agreement. “The doors to the [Presidential] Palace are always open for whatever corrections that need to be made.” Taking a handful of coca leaves from his pocket, Toledo proclaimed: “All of you, producers of coca—you are not narcotraffickers.”

The outcome of the march signified a partial victory for the cocaleros. CONPACCP gained recognition as a legitimate interlocutor between the government and the farmers, and the government publicly asserted through the media that cocaleros are not narcotraffickers. Executive Order 44 also promised to halt the forced eradication of coca crops, recognized coca cultivation for legal consumption as a beneficial industry and proposed legislation regarding the gradual, voluntary and participatory reduction of coca crops. The cocaleros also succeeded in convincing the government to shift responsibility for overseeing coca’s “chain of production” to the Ministry of Agriculture, as opposed to DEVIDA, USAID or the private firm Chemonics International—USAID’s main executor of alternative development projects in Peru’s coca-growing valleys.

Under tremendous pressure from Washington, however, the Toledo administration quickly did an about-face. DEVIDA, CARE and Chemonics repeatedly undermined, distorted or simply violated the executive order. Government officials repeatedly slandered the organizers of the march and, in direct violation of the law, excluded cocaleros from DEVIDA’s directorship. To divide the movement, DEVIDA signed agreements with parallel or nonexistent cocalero organizations. TV and radio spots demonized the cocaleros and their crop. Repeated denunciations to government offices by cocaleros concerning these actions fell on deaf ears.

After months of government neglect, CONPACCP held its second National Congress on February 18-20, 2004, in Lima, with the participation of more than 2,000 delegates from almost every coca-growing valley. After two days of debate, the congress issued a five-point “Plan of Immediate Action.” Its demands included the release of Nelson Palomino, the immediate end to coca eradication in all forms, the deactivation of DEVIDA and the expulsion of non-governmental organizations operating in the coca-growing valleys. The plan also called for a new census of coca growers and proposed that regional governments, with oversight by local cocaleros, administer ENACO, the state-owned coca company. Lastly, they demanded the abolition of the existing coca law—passed in 1978 under the military regime—which criminalized coca, and the creation of a new national law regulating the plant’s industrialization and commercialization. The radicalization of the cocaleros’ proposals stemmed from over three years of inaction by the Toledo administration.

Approximately 35,000 of Peru’s estimated 50,000 cocaleros are now CONPACCP members, representing valleys throughout the country. In the context of mounting government pressure, the organization has experienced difficulty in maintaining unity among the different regions. At the Lima congress, two member-valleys—the Apurímac near the city of Ayacucho and Monzón near Tingo María—did not participate, revealing an evident rupture in the movement. Despite the absence of Palomino—its nominal leader—the Apurímac Valley broke with CONPACCP. Led by dissident cocalera Marisela Guillén, the Apurímac growers formed their own cocalero federation and allied themselves with the Monzón cocaleros led by Iburcio Morales. The Monzón delegates attended the first day of the meeting, but left after accusing CONPACCP and its leaders of being “financed by the government and of trying to take advantage of cocaleros to serve their own political agenda.”

Apurímac has 11,000 cocaleros and Monzón 2,500. The two valleys share certain characteristics. The coca of both goes primarily into the manufacture of cocaine: somewhere around 70% of production in Apurímac and 60% in Monzón is destined for illicit ends. Unlike Huallaga and Aguaytía, these two areas have not, historically, been targets of eradication. Leaders from the two areas, however, contend that fumigation with both the brand-name chemical herbicide Spike and the coca-killing fungus Fusarium oxysporum have been used to eradicate coca in Apurímac and Monzón. To date, however, no reliable evidence supports these claims.

Guillén and Morales are widely considered the more radical of cocalero leaders. They oppose the gradual and state-assisted eradication of their crops that was accepted by CONPACCP in 2003. Yet both met with the Minister of the Interior during the CONPACCP congress last February. They also had a second meeting in May of this year with the new Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Agriculture. They reportedly reached an agreement with these officials, though the details are murky. What is clear, however, is that the government now recognizes both CONPACCP and the organization led by Guillén—the National Junta of Peruvian Agricultural Producers—as legitimate negotiators on coca issues.

The second CONPACCP congress gave the Toledo administration a 60-day grace period within which to respond to the organization’s Plan of Immediate Action. In that period, the government aimed to discredit the cocaleros with baseless accusations of the movement’s association with elements of the Shining Path. Before he was relieved of his post, then-Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi directly threatened Elsa Malpartida from Tingo María, saying she would share the fate of the still-incarcerated Palomino.
As promised, at the end of the grace period in April, the cocalero protests began and continued through May, provoking often-violent responses from authorities. Responding to the unrest, DEVIDA launched a massive public relations campaign arguing that the government had complied with the stipulations of Executive Order 44 of 2003.

Among other things, the order required that the government conduct a survey of the country’s internal legal demand and consumption of the coca leaf. Because the funding for the study came from USAID, however, the report’s findings are under “reserve,” and have not yet been made public. The government refuses to work alongside CONPACCP in eradicating coca fields that are not registered with the state coca company, also required by the 2003 agreement. In its PR campaign, DEVIDA accused the cocaleros of not truly eradicating productive fields, saying they were only “eradicating” overgrown or abandoned fields.

Negotiations with the government remain deadlocked as of this writing. The cocaleros rejected a May 12 proposal from the government because it provided only a temporary halt to eradication efforts, pending the implementation of a comprehensive coca law.
The cocaleros maintain that the coca problem in Peru can only be resolved through a strategy that takes into account the social, political and technical dimensions of the issue. Social, because preceding any solution to the crisis, the government must recognize that cocalero demands are rooted in their social exclusion and classification as criminals or, worse yet, terrorists. They want the rights and duties of all citizens and, accordingly, demand a role in shaping the policies directly affecting their lives. They proclaim a desire to be part of the solution, not part of the twin problems the government is ostensibly trying to combat: poverty and the illicit drug trade.

On the political front, the cocaleros are asking their government to reject the draconian coca policies promoted by Washington, which only aggravate the disease and prevent a cure. They hope to convince the administration to return to the 2001 guidelines for jointly crafting a national coca and drug policy independently of the U.S. government.
On the technical level, the cocaleros insist that the rural agricultural crisis that has spawned the growth of coca production requires redress. Cultivators and their organizations, they assert, must play a role from the very outset in designing and implementing an alternative agrarian project, which would entail economic and ecological zoning, soil analysis and the restructuring of small landholdings. For the cocaleros, an agricultural credit program that subsidizes small-scale agricultural production would be indispensable to such a new approach, as would a shift from export-orientation to production for local, regional and national markets.

For now, however, instability has returned to the valleys. Toledo is beset with a profound social and political crisis and has little recourse but to appease the cocaleros. His 6% approval rating leaves him little, if any, breathing room. His only other option is to move in the opposite direction: a return to the violence of the “War on Drugs” promoted by the U.S. government.

About the Author:
Hugo Cabieses is an economist at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima. He is president of the Asociación Civil DRIS and an independent consultant to rural organizations in Peru’s coca-growing valleys. Translated from Spanish by Teo Ballvé.

Tags: Peru, cocaleros, protest, coca, campesinos, strikes, march, social movement

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