<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Blockades Begin in Peru

Coca Growers, Tired of Broken Agreements, Adopt the Tactic that Worked in Bolivia


By Sarah de Haro
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

April 21, 2004

Peru’s coca growers began yesterday, as promised, to blockade highways and roads in protest of the government’s broken promises. Last year, over 15,000 farmers swelled the ranks of an 18-day march from their hometowns to the national capital of Lima. How many will join the blockades in 2004? There could be even more, as their dissatisfaction is rising.

Let’s have a look at the latest news. We learned some of their reasons for being angry with the situation in the three-part series about the Drug War in Peru (see Peru Before the Battle, by Luis Gómez, Feb. 27, March 15 and 22). You met representatives of the National Federation of Farmers of the Coca Growing Basin of Peru (CONPACCP, in its Spanish initials). Their aggravation is growing by the day. As “Rocoto,” one representative from Puerto Pizana, told us over the phone just days ago: “We are ready to launch blockades. We are ready for a crisis. We want to be heard, which means: we want to be respected.”

The economist and coca expert Hugo Cabieses is worried for the growers. “The five claims of the growers have a legitimacy the government cannot ignore. But still, the government ignores them. This could lead to a violent confrontation.” In March 2004, he sent a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, entitled “The coca growers are right,” and warning about the risks of refusing to negotiate with the growers. In this letter, he also says that the growers are still ready for a dialogue, but not with Devida (Peru’s lead “anti-drug” agency), “which proved to be totally inefficient.” He proposes the creation of a High Assembly, with representatives appointed by the growers, who are, he notes, “citizens, not outlaws.”

Cabieses explained to Narco News that the Supreme Decree #44, signed by the government on April 2003, has not been applied as promised by the Devida (the Drug Control Policy Unit, National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs). For example, the money promised for self-eradication was cut from $180 to a mere $49 for any grower taking part in the process.

Peruvian coca growers, or cocaleros, won’t give up their claims. After their second congress held in February in Lima, the representatives of the CONPACPP had addressed the President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, with five claims, leaving him 60 days to answer:

  1. To immediately free their Secretary General, Nelson Palomino. He was put in jail under the charges of “apology of terrorism” and “narcotrafficking”, which provoked indignation all over the country.

  2. To put an end to the eradication of coca, forced or voluntary.

  3. To put an end to the Devida (the Drug Control Policy Unit) and other US NGOs like Chemonics, which benefit from the prohibition and supposed alternative development and put growers at disadvantage, without keeping their promises.

  4. To organize a new census of coca growers throughout the country. They also ask that the National Coca Company (ENACO) move under the administration of the regional governments, to be monitored by the coca growers.

  5. The suppression of law #22095, passed under a military government in 1978, which outlawed the coca leaf in Peru, and the enactment of a new Coca Law which includes the plant’s industrialization and commercialization.

After more than 60 days now, the Peruvian government still refuses to negotiate with the growers. As a result, the blockades have begun. If the government and Toledo still refuse to meet with representatives of the CONPACCP, this could lead to a new “march of sacrifice” to Lima. And this could be the start of a larger movement: coca growers are not the only workers who feel deceived by the policy of Alejandro Toledo: coffee and palm growers have already called for a march of sacrifice starting this Saturday, April 24, and schoolteachers are now threatening to go on strike. As a result, these blockades could be the first step leading to the eventual resignation of President Alejandro Toledo.

In an interview with the conservative newspaper La Razon, on April 16, Elsa Malpartida, secretary of the CONPACCP, makes herself perfectly clear: “If Nelson Palomino is not released, then Toledo will have to leave. We are inviting thousands of growers in every region and province to join us, and we already have the support of a majority of them… The march will begin with the national blockades on April 20. We will take the road to Lima on April the 24th. Lima should be ready to welcome ten times more growers than last year.”

The greater capacity for self-organization of the growers and the increasing clout of their struggle on the national level suggest that a new era could be dawning in Peru. Stay tuned, kind readers, to learn more about this new hope.

To understand why the growers are fighting, it’s interesting to have a look at their living conditions. The trip reported below was made in July 2003. At that time, growers were awaiting a lot from the Supreme Decree signed by the President Toledo in April 03. The testimonies they gave in July 2003 underline why their dissatisfaction is so big, and why their fight will not stop before their dignity is fully respected, with the recognition of a legal status for coca leaf.

Roots of Anger

There is a mountain range overlooking Tingo Maria called “Sleeping Beauty.” But the mountains are not the only charm of this small city, located some 12 hours by bus from Lima, on the edge of the tropical jungle leading to Amazonia. In the streets, an animated market bustles. Among local products, some women sell coca leaves. Let’s sit among them and listen.

Coca? It started in the seventies for some, the 80’s sound more probable, bringing some wealth at the beginning, and then much trouble. By the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, the Shining Path guerrilla movement was all over the valleys around Tingo Maria. Then came the terrible army of Montesinos, Fujimori’s henchman. Now, it’s quieter. Selling coca leaves in the streets is illegal, though: to be legal, coca has to be bought by the ENACO, the national firm buying and marketing the “legal” leaf, as opposed to coca sold on the black market or to the narcos.

After a short conversation, and a few gazes around, it is clear that the leaves sold here aren’t only bought for personal consumption. Peruvians from other parts of the country come here to find “a fresher and tastier leaf” than the one sold by the ENACO. Among other towns, coca goes to Huanuco, where there is still a strong tradition of chewing, or to Lima, where workers like taxi drivers and builders alike learned to use the leaf to be able to work hard for hours, initiating a new “tradition.” There is another reason why the illegal coca leaf continues its life despite ENACO: peasants earn more with illegal coca: 12 soles ($3.47 dollars) per kilo from the illegal market, 5 soles ($1.44 dollar) from the ENACO.

But for Elsa Malpartida, the coca grower leader, if the black market is in a way “unavoidable,” the truth is also that more and more peasants come to see her, to join the census of legal producers. It is a success for her organization. Since the government, with a Supreme Decree (the “Decreto Supremo”, which followed the “march of sacrifice” led by the growers from Ayacucho to Lima in April 2003) has agreed to allow a half to a full hectare (one hectare equals 2.47 acres) of coca to every grower’s family, more than a thousand people have come to participate in the census.

In this area where more than 80,000 hectares (197,000 acres) of coca have been destroyed in 20 years, the participation of the growers in this project is encouraging, “but the government needs to fulfil its promises,” says Malpartida. Which means, first, to stop eradication. But it could go further. Elsa Malpartida has her idea about fighting illicit coca: “What we need is more education, so that our sons and daughters can build another future than coca.” What could sound like a very simple idea, is, for the moment, a dream of a few conscious growers, willing to create free student housing in Tingo Maria.

Let’s go with her to a farm in a village near Tingo, named Supte San Jorge. What do we see? The family of Guillermo Mendoza has been living here for 50 years, growing coca for 15 of them. This is what we learn from Guillermo: “Coca has been around since the 50’s, when Peru allowed the US to develop laboratories to produce what used to be ‘legal’ cocaine. There was ‘pasta basica’ (base paste, from which cocaine is processed) produced in Tingo, Puerte Duran and the Monzon Valley. Then the first eradication programs started in the early 1960s.”

Mendoza continues, “We need to show to the Northern countries that growers are not criminals, and together with the civil societies of those countries, that we can come up with solutions.” Neither Guillermo nor Elsa ignore the illegal use of the destructive fungus, fusarium oxysporum, a biological weapon, to destruct coca fields: “It’s been used since 82. Greenpeace is investigating the matter in the area. And that would explain how two acres fields that used to yield 40 arrobas (one arroba = 12 kilos) are now yielding 7 arrobas.”

But not all the growers agree with Elsa and Guillermo. The pursuit of eradication without any compensation as promised, the price paid by ENACO, but also deeply rooted customs, explain why some of them would never accept to take part in the governmental census or produce for the ENACO. “In the Monzon valley, explains Elsa, the growers do not support the Supreme Decree. Each family has 10 to 15 hectares (20 to 30 acres) of coca, and many sell to the narcos.” In 2003, according to Devida, there were 26 maceration pits (to make base paste) and one laboratory (needed to add chlorohydrate, to make cocaine hydrochloride) were discovered in the Monzon valley. But even here, some cocaleros want to choose the legal path.

Mama Coca

To go to Puerto Pizana, you have to take two colectivos or buses. The trip is rough but interesting. First, try to guess why concrete blocks have been placed on the road. Answer: the road was used as a clandestine airfield for the small aircraft picking up the pasta produced in the 80s to bring it to Colombia where it was manufactured into cocaine hydrochloride. Are the blocks useful? Surely not as efficient as the air control the US imposed on Peru during the 90’s.

The first colectivo brings you to Tocache, a town of 110,000 inhabitants, “tierra de paz, amor y trabajo” (Town of Peace, Love and Work). Derelict buildings, ruined villas, and a discarded airstrip are the only remnants of a “glorious past.” Tocache used to be the capital for narcotrafficking in the Alto Huallaga during the eighties and beginning of the 90’s. Its citizens would like to be able to forget this past and the 15 years of violence that followed, which finally ruined the city.

There aren’t any tourists there, and the only non-Peruvian visitors all belong to Chemonics and other US NGOs engaged in the juicy business of alternative development. The atmosphere is dull, and rumor has it that the Shining Path is around, deeply hidden in the forests, and could make a comeback, which everyone is afraid of, whether true or false. People are not very talkative in Tocache, maybe because their first concern is to forget such a burdensome past. Or because they’re just trying to survive somewhere between the prohibition forces (police, army and NGOS) and the narcos, somewhere where hunger and silence meet.

Another colectivo brings you to Puerto Pizana, in the Mishollo Valley. Here we are. This is where Nancy Obregon, the charismatic leader of the CONPACCP, lives with her husband and her five children – one of them adopted after his parents were killed by the Shining Path. Her house is more precisely in Santa Rosa del Mishollo, a hamlet of 150 families, twenty minutes by car from Puerto Pizana. It is a remote place, where both the rebels and the army were present at the beginning of the 90s, fighting for control over the terrain and the coca. Nancy Obregon Peralta was deeply involved in last year’s march of sacrifice. In February 2003, she was coming back from a the Drug Legalization Summit in Mexico after Nelson Palomino had been arrested. She immediately left her “chacra,” her field, to visit him in jail.

From Ayacucho, where Nelson Palomino is imprisoned, she took part in the march along with 5000 others: “We left Ayacucho on April the 6th, and arrived in Lima on April the 23rd. The beginning of the march was very hard, but then, once we got to Pisco, people started to help us. We first received a call from the government asking us to stop the march before it got to Lima. But we wouldn’t. And then, we received a call from the brother of Alejandro Toledo, and we began to hope something was possible.”

In Lima, growers settled in the posh neighborhood of Miraflores, right in front of the Sheraton. “That’s how we got all the press.” And finally, the President himself called. “We had learned that the government was working on a supreme decree without having consulted us. We requested an interview with Alejandro Toledo.” And she met him: “He told us he had a mere 3 minutes to listen to us. I was crying. I reminded him he was elected with our hope, our votes. Finally, he listened for 30 minutes, and promised the Supreme Decree would be drafted with our advice.”

And that’s how it has been done. But it was a lie, and Nancy is now, in April 2004, ready for another long march. Nancy knows all the issues of a grower’s life very well. She has coca fields, and manages a small restaurant where the growers start and end their day drinking chicha, the local beverage made of fermented corn. Her story illustrates how peasants and workers have turned to coca:

“I was born and bred in Lima. My mother had a little shop and I worked with her. Then when I was 16, I went to a national army school to learn to be a nurse and left when I was 19 because I had no money to go to the university. I married my husband Fabio, who comes from a peasant family, when I was 20, and we started growing coca in 1989, because we needed money for our families. We arrived in Santa Rosa in 1990.”

Then the dull years came, and Nancy’s voice breaks as she explains how growers were stuck between the rebellion, which protected them, but also tried to recruit, and the army: “Montesinos’ army tortured. Here, they raped a woman in front of her husband, for example. The Shining Path would never do that, they would protect us.” Montesinos? Probably the biggest narcotrafficker in the history of Peru… But Nancy’s story becomes more and more interesting:

“In 2000, there was a very violent forced eradication campaign. I left Santa Rosa for the Monzon (the main coca producing area) for a year and a half. When I came back, I had started working as a representative of the peasants in a local organization. I had some evidence of the use of Fusarium Oxysporum, interesting documents proving this illegal use. But then, in 2001, my house was burned down one day.” Burned? “I’m just sure it came from the Secret Services,” ends Nancy. Secret Services? She’s not someone to easily doubt. This woman could be a real danger to the powerful: she has the eloquence and the attitude of someone fighting with pride for her people. She has seen the worst and still gives her best.

Women play a large role in campaigning for the recognition of the coca leaf, and defending the growers’ rights. After our visit to Nancy, we went to Aguaytia, far from Santa Rosa, east of Tingo Maria. Carmen Romero Luisa, 36, has been working there as a peasant farmer since she was 12 and cultivating coca since then. She explains: “I’ve sold coca leaf by the road for a long time. Customers would pay 30-40 dollars for one arroba. Today, we sell to the legal market. But coca does not produce much anymore, and yucca or mango don’t grow very well, because of all the defoliants used against coca.”

Flavio Sanchez, secretary of economy for the CONPACCP, also living in Aguaytia, insists on the inefficiency of all the alternative development programs monitored by DEVIDA in the province of Padre Abad: “In 2002, we tried to set up our own alternative development program, which included producing yucca, palm oil, cotton, and a reforestation program. We were told there was no money. We sent our project to the US Embassy. All we got was a congratulatory letter, stating they would send our project to DEVIDA…”

Still wondering why coca growers will remain coca growers? Sure, kind reader, they don’t have to feel guilty for the damage done by cocaine in western countries, as western countries don’t care much about them anyway. They can be proud of fighting for their dignity.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America