Two Peruvian policemen were killed in an ambush on Wednesday by suspected drug traffickers in a remote Andean coca growing region, a regional police chief said on local radio.
The deaths come a week after Peru announced security forces would enter criminally controlled coca-growing areas for the first time as part of a plan to eradicate half the country's supply of the leaf used to make cocaine.
The police chief said the deaths occurred in Luricocha district in a region known as the VRAEM, where traffickers have formed alliances with remnant bands of Shining Path rebels and about 75 percent of Peru's coca is grown.
"They were returning from a road patrol when they were ambushed by alleged drug traffickers; there were six to eight attackers," Alexis Bahamonde, head of police in the VRAEM, said on RPP radio.
Peru and Andean neighbor Colombia are the world's biggest cocaine producers, according to the United Nations.
The government’s initiative to reduce coca producing areas by 50% appears to be having success, including an initiative to replace it with cacao. Are there more sides to the story?
In the past week, we have seen several big advancements in the coca eradication program that the incumbent government has put into place. First, Peru’s armed forces entered the rainforest valleys where the coca growers are concentrated.
Second, the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (DEVIDA) stated their goal of a 50% reduction in coca growing area by 2021.
Third and finally, in the valley of Bolson Cuchara near Tingo Maria, cacao has been introduced to replace coca leaves with considerable support, or some might say “pressure”, from DEVIDA.
As can be observed by the recent progression of news that has come out on the subject, there is a three-pronged attack on coca growing areas in Peru that is formed by the military, central government programs, and the introduction of a crop alternative for producers.
The allure for those producers who switch from coca to cacao, for example, is that of their work finally being under legal and formal conditions.
Another benefit reported by Telesur is the construction of infrastructure and the formal land titles those producers may receive once their business is legal and acceptable.
However, on another side of the debate, coca has been an important part of Peruvian culture for many centuries, if not millenniums, and some might consider these actions on part of the government rather heavy-handed and blind to this dimension.
That being said, the goal does not appear to be to eliminate all coca, as teas and other coca products are sold legally through Enaco,the National Coca Company in Peru.
Historically, however, it has been more profitable for growers to join the illegal market than to sell for the meager amount that Enaco pays per kilo, and so the government needs to seek other solutions apart from nationalizing the legal coca supply.
Is replacing it with cacao a good solution? Well, let’s be honest, the cacao business doesn’t have the most savory reputation either.
The last point is that it is well known in Peru that coca has often been misunderstood by foreigners for its connotation with the illegal drug cocaine, which is a highly condensed and processed form of the coca leaf.
Consumed naturally, it acts as a mild stimulant and has many medicinal properties including hunger and fatigue relief, altitude sickness, and stimulating stomach functions.
It is possible, maybe even probable, that much of the pressure to reduce or eliminate coca in Peru has come from foreign countries where the majority of cocaine consumption takes place rather than from within Peru where it is generally used as a medicinal herb or a mild stimulant.
This is, however, another theme with many economic and historic dimensions. There is so much more to the debate over coca to be taken into account than what we have covered here.
What do you think about the Coca plant and the government initiatives to reduce growing areas?
Are they right to do so, and to what extent?