Where Cocaine is King, but Few Grow Rich

Peru is now the world’s leading cocaine exporter. In a new dispatch from the Dromomanos team in Universal Domingo: exploring the country’s premier coca producing region, the Apurimac valley, where small farmers sell their leaf crops to middlemen who roll through town in big trucks, asking few questions, where politicians campaign with coca slogans, where the remnants of a vast and violent guerilla movement still control parts of the trade.

The road is dusty and full of curves. In some areas, rocks tumble from cliffs and block the highway, which is crisscrossed by small waterfalls from the rain. Everything is green: acre after acre of coca leaf plants. On the wall of a wooden home there is a political slogan: “Guillermo for mayor, coca”. Further ahead, a sign can be read amidst the trees: “No trespassing. Criminals will be punished with lynching. Be careful!”.

A woman on the side of the road stops our car to ask for help. Her two-year-old daughter can’t stop coughing and she needs someone to take her to the doctor in the nearest town, some 15 kilometers from where the mother is busy harvesting coca leaves with her three children. Each week, entire families work in the coca fields, whether it is planting, harvesting or drying the plant. Coca governs life here in this impoverished area, isolated from the rest of Peru. The children, dirty and visibly ill, climb into this carload of strangers, and their mother stays in the field to work. She is stripping the plants’ leaves and throwing them onto a tarp to dry in the sun.

The region is called the Valley of the Rivers Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro (often shortened to VRAEM) and, according the United Nations, is the area with the world’s most coca leaf crops and laboratories for making cocaine paste and coca extract. Every year, 200 tons (out of 600 throughout the country) are produced in this region, according to the (UN), although some experts say the real figure is 400. Peru has displaced Colombia as the top cocaine exporter.

“Right now we have 22 coca-growing watersheds in the eastern jungle and we have three large export outlets. One goes down the Amazon River for export to Europe, then there is the Pacific highway which connects to Central America, and then there is the growing VRAEM market to Brazil. The latter is the new big trend,” explains Ricardo Soberon, the former anti-drug czar of Peru and founder of the Investigation Center on Drugs and Human Rights.

To get here from Lima it is 20 hours by car, taking into the account the possibility of landslides on the highway. Until 2006, the Peruvian government didn’t have much presence in this area, but resistance from the Shining Path’s last bastion, the Quispe Palomino, has prompted the army to try to recover the area, which has also turned into the main route for drugs going to Bolivia. Since then, there has been a war between the Shining Path and soldiers. Assaults are frequent, as is the trade of guns and drugs, for which authorities have imposed a curfew preventing people in the streets after 10 at night. A few months ago, terrorists took down a government helicopter.

There’s Nothing Else

Cheldo Perez — 34 years old, dark hair, black eyes, wide back — has always lived in Kimbiri, the region’s capital, a town where the Internet barely reaches and many of the buildings are crumbling. The market consists of three stalls and Peru’s famous gastronomy loses its glitter here, a place where there is only one restaurant that “won’t make you sick”, in the words of the owner of our hotel.

When he was young, Perez watched as the struggle between the Shining Path, the army and the local civilians, who organized self-defense groups, piled up the dead. In those days, the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group led by Abimael Guzman, alias ‘Presidente Gonzalo’, was attempting to overthrown the government and install a communist regime. To do it, they launched an armed struggle in which they recruited and also kidnapped and killed peasant farmers in the regions like VRAEM.

After the conflict wound down, Perez, like most farmers, took to planting coca leaves because it is harvested up to four times a year and earns more than any other crop. Twelve kilos of coca can sell for almost 500 pesos and a worker earns twice in the coca fields what they earn working cacao or coffee. Even though coca kills the land and does not allow for other crops to grow for two years, Perez doesn’t hesitate to plant a monoculture on his two hectares.

“It’s their petty cash. Every three months cash comes in to pay the bills,” explains Soberon. Of the 20,000 hectares of coca in VRAEM, only 6 percent is sold legally and registered with the National Coca Enterprise (Enaco). Farmers who clear their crops via this organization can process coca leaves to make tea, soap and medicinal products, or sell it to chew, a typical activity in the Andean region to combat altitude sickness and mitigate hunger, thirst and fatigue. The remaining [94 percent] of the region’s crop goes to drug trafficking.

“Who exactly is buying it from me is none of my business,” Perez says, on a Sunday morning at 7, while he eats ceviche in a restaurant in the town’s main square, which is now under construction. “All the sudden, someone will come by in a truck and buy the entire harvest,” says the coca grower, who each season employs around 60 people in his fields. Besides, the drug traffickers pay three times what Enaco pays. Most of the peasant farmers do not know where the coca leaves go, or that cocaine forms part of a multimillion-dollar business that leaves thousands dead on a continental level. “Many have never seen anything else, other possibilities”.

In one of the poorest regions in Peru, where most people earn less then $282 a month — the minimum salary — Perez gets around on a motorbike, wears clean and bright clothes in contrast to the workers in the coca fields, and carries a laptop in his hand. Others must compete for a place at a computer at Internet cafes.

“Where are the pozos (places where coca leaves are turned into cocaine paste)?” we ask Cheldo Perez while visiting his fields.

According to the last report by the Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (Devida), there are 200 clandestine labs in VRAEM and it is more and more common to find clandestine airstrips in this area and in the central jungle region.

The farmer flashes a smile, revealing very white teeth, and gestures at the mountains. “There and there,” he says indifferently, as if it were a very distant problem for him.

No Man’s Land

In cell block seven of Lurigancho prison, the largest penitentiary in Peru, some 30 minutes from Lima, a member of the Italian mafia cohabits with a representative from a Colombian cartel and with a Spanish drug runner named Jordi who, pressured by the financial crisis in Spain, tried to get on a plane with a suitcase full of cocaine. And there is Flores, a forty-something Peruvian, an extrovert with an easy smile, who has been in the penitentiary for more than a decade. (He) was also charged with drug trafficking, and has seen how as his country’s role as a cocaine producer and exporter grew, the cocaine sector transformed into a little United Nations.

Several prisoners and a guard walk us through the jail, amidst the computer labs and artisan workshops and hallways where some inmates smoke crack. In cell block seven there are businesses, like Walter’s chicken stand with its plastic chairs where meetings are held while people play basketball nearby. Depending on the buying power of each prisoner some sleep in individual cells, others in shared cells, and others on mats on the ground. However, there’s still plenty of air to breathe in a jail where the number of prisoners is four times its capacity.

A little before leaving, when the guard who was with us walks away, Flores slips a card with his cell phone number written on the back. “Call me and I’ll tell you about it.” A couple days later he answers our call from his cell: “This was no man’s land. Everyone knew it, even the army. There was no control.”

Flores is talking about the Alto Huallaga region at the end of the 1980s and into the 90s, when it was the epicenter of (cocaine) production in Peru. Today, after many millions in aid from the United States for coca eradication and pressure from authorities, VRAEM has taken its place.

Like many young people from this region that borders the Amazon in the north, Flores was fascinated by the arrival of the Colombian drug traffickers. “They gave out toys and on Mother’s Day money,” he remembers. The traffickers would hire around 40 people, “a troop”, to camp out in remote areas for a week, surviving on canned food. First they would harvest and then dry the coca. After three days, they would mix the plant in a big hole in the ground with sulfuric acid, ammonia, and potassium permanganate. The solution, Flores recalls, was fetid. He says that anyone who saw how the paste is made would not want to take cocaine.

The work of the Peruvians, who were also watched over by 20 armed men, was over when they made large balls of cocaine paste, up to 400 grams, and put them in barrels.

“They paid us 70 soles [around $25]a day to work from 6 in the morning to 6 at night, with no breaks. It was miserable, but it seemed like a lot of money to us.” Little by little, life-long coca growers started to realize that with the proper process, the plant could yield far more in the illegal market.

“Today there is more land dedicated to coca growing than before eradication efforts started,” adds Soberon, who currently works as a consultant on drugs for governments like that of Evo Morales in Bolivia.

In his case, Flores decided to transport cocaine to Lima. A kilogram at its place of origin, whether it be Alto Huallaga or VRAEM, costs around $800, while in the capital, which sits on the coast, the price goes up to an average of $1200. Flores earned $800 a trip, until they arrested and convicted him.

Since those early times, production and drug traffickers themselves have grown more sophisticated. “What they have done is replace the chemicals that we control,” says Renzo Caballero, a higher up in Dirando, Peru’s anti-drug force. “Now they process (coca) with 84 octane gasoline, the same used in the boats that navigate the rivers in VRAEM. Gasoline is legal everywhere!”

In Kimbiri and Pichari, towns lacking a large vehicle fleet, gas stations are everywhere. “They have also hired engineers who are able to cut and weld engines without leaving a trace. Then they wrap the packages (of cocaine) in all types of paper. It makes it hard for the dogs,” he says. Drug mules have also flourished in the region. Residents affirm that some peasant farmers walk for days carrying processed cocaine on their shoulders to the drug traffickers who take it to Bolivia. According to a Devida report, around 4000 young people from VRAEM are in the jail for drug trafficking.

Caballero, who greets us at a white table surrounded by maps of Peru, gives the impression of possessing all the qualities of a good policeman: He is eloquent, he knows the lay of the land, he knows the statistics, and he’s in good shape. He is sincere when it comes time to talk about the paradox he faces. Last year, they made more arrests, more confiscations — this year authorities seized double the amount of chemicals over last year — and they eradicated more hectares than ever. However, cultivation has grown recently and the Quispe Palomino play a decisive role in policing drug routes.

“The traffickers ask the Quispe Palomino to plant and lock down and protect the drug routes. They get together in clans of relatives and launder money in their companies. They have none of the qualities of the Shining Path. They are drug traffickers,” says Caballero.

The police, besides, are not well-regarded in areas like VRAEM. In 2012, Dirando used a school in Kepashiato, a small coca-growing town, as their headquarters because of lack of resources. The Shining Path open fire at night on police. Area residents, alarmed by the risks their children were running, demanded police leave the building. And when drug agents approach a farm with their shovels to dig up plants, there are always protests against them. This year, Ollanta Humala’s government is trying to eradicate some 30,000 hectares of coca so Peru will no longer be the world’s largest producer, but it is very complex trying to eliminate someone’s economic base and convince them they serving and protecting them.

Another prisoner in Lurigancho, born in VRAEM and arrested while carrying several kilograms of cocaine into Bolivia, told us about when he was little they gave him a bottle with coca tea. “Yes, coca is everything there,” says Caballero. The alternative crops like coffee, citrus fruits and cacao, which they are trying to impose as a solution, still have not appeared in the region. “It’s normal. Coca makes ten times more.”

Production, on the rise

Although in Peru there are not big name drug traffickers like in Colombia and Mexico, Peruvians have started to be more active players. Several clans have formed that produce and traffic drugs to the country’s borders. Today there are around 40. Jaime Antezana, an expert on drug trafficking, separates the first stage — until the mid 90s — when the Colombian cartels dominated the business and exports were mostly by plane; the second stage — starting in 2000 — in which production has grown continuously, productivity of the crops has shot up — every 313 kilograms of coca leaf yields a kilogram of cocaine — and the Shining Path’s intervention has provoked a dispute over the control of fields and routes.

Amongst Sharks and Corrupt Politicians

Godofredo Yucra worked in a pit to process coca when he was arrested and sentenced for trafficking drugs. It was 1997. Fifteen years later, this man of a tough gaze and few words serves as governor of Kimbiri from behind a run-down wooden desk that barely gets the light of day, amidst accusations of belonging to the Tiburones (Sharks) clan, one of the most famous in the region. “That is something the law resolves,” is all he has to say when we ask him about his criminal past.

After finishing work on a citizen’s change of address request, Yucra insists to us that he will not leave his post despite charges against him, so each morning he continues going to his humble office, which looks more like an old service closet than a politician’s office.

The charges were filed by a former mayor, who was removed from his post for nepotism, and has implicated relatives of the current governor. Some residents of VRAEM who spoke out against Yucra’s designation — politicians, not the citizens, elect the governor — now talk about him with a resigned smile. Politicians involved in drugs is a common issue in the region.

“In Peru there are 11 or 12 governors and 12 congressman involved in trafficking,” says Jaime Antezana, an expert on drug trafficking who has denounced the link between politicians and traffickers for the past three years, mostly in turbulent regions like VRAEM.

The mayor of Pichari, Ediberto Gomez, “El Loco Edy”, is one of the officials who took office amidst accusations of collaborating with criminals. “Everything is out in the open. There’s nothing to hide,” he says frenetically on a hot afternoon in his office. “The people who consume are at fault, not the people who plant,” Gomez says proudly. Each year (Gomez) organizes the International Coca Leaf Festival of Pichari, which honors the more than 5,000-year-old growing tradition. In the festival, coca leaf is used to make candy, cakes and liquor. Besides, they crown Miss Coca.

The routine in Kimbiri or Pichari looks like a succession of scenes that represent a life that revolves around coca in a natural way, much more than (a life) of typical episodes of war for the control of territory between the army, drug traffickers and the Shining Path. The only one who spoke to us about a “war” was an army colonel who met with us at a base in Pichari. “Between these walls you have to understand that we are war,” he said. After evading our questions about the task of the soldiers in the region, he said goodbye to us with a gift: a deck of poker cards. Each card has a picture of Shining Path member and, below, the reward for valuable information leading to their capture. The ace of diamonds is for the Shining Path’s “Jose”, the two of spades is for “Alpio” and the three of clubs is for “Raul”. For all three they are offering a million soles, around $300,000.

The general feeling amongst residents is that the atrocious war of the 1980s and 90s, that left some 70,000 dead of which only a little over 20,000 have been identified, will never return. “They don’t get involved with citizens anymore. We already defeated them once,” says Cheldo Perez, the coca grower. For the residents, the conflict is on the periphery, a problem between the Shining Path and law enforcement that only occasionally affects VRAEM’s inhabitants. They think the era of political violence will never return.

Some 15 minutes from Kimbiri, in a settlement of the indigenous ashaninka tribe — the most numerous ethnicity in the Peruvian jungle — the family of Dirando policeman Damian Michael Ciuviri and the rest of the community are asking the justice system to find out who killed Ciuviri. Men and women dressed in traditional garb, a kind of brown sheet that reaches their feet, spread out under a thatched roof and talk about how their community has been affected by terrorism and drug trafficking since the peak of the Shining Path’s power. The men leave and Ciuviri’s sisters speak, surrounded by dozens of children at play.

Starting last Friday, the day of the assassination, the family had tried to call him but he never answered. Ciuviri was taking part in an operation because police had received information about an alleged exchange of weapons and drugs between Shining Path members and drug traffickers. The terrorists ambushed the patrol on the highway, killing Ciuviri, and another policeman and wounding two other agents. The Nissan truck they were traveling in ended up a charred ruin.

The ashaninkas, a warrior tribe that combats logging in the region, has been caught in the crossfire between Maoist guerrillas and soldiers for nearly 40 years. Until the end of the 1990s, they were recruited by force or accused of being subversive, and several members of the tribe have been murdered in confrontations. With the arrival of drug trafficking, the war has had more to do with skirmishes over drugs and ambushes than with ideological combat. Days after the ambush, Ciuviri’s family went to Lima to ask the president for justice. “There are no attackers, terrorists, drug addicts. But the newspapers demonize VRAEM because they have to sell papers,” says the mayor Gomez. Under the shade of the thatched roof, one of Ciuviri’s sisters states boldly: “If the government doesn’t do justice, we will take up arms.”

Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.

Jose Luis Pardo and Alejandra Inzunza

  • gilman gray

    Corruption is in every aspect of life, in political classes everyone can be bought.