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Peru's coca growers protest US antidrug policies

Gen. Barry McCaffrey says coca growers are rehabilitating abandoned cocoa plots

Coca leaf growers took to the streets yesterday to protest the policies of the US-Peruvian war on drugs.

The march, in the central jungle city of Tingo Maria, was called to protest the forcible eradication of coca plants - a traditional medicinal plant in Peru, but also the source of cocaine - and to demand greater participation in the design of alternative crop development programs.

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The protests come on the heels of US drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey's visit to Lima last week as part of a five-day tour of Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina.

McCaffrey's second trip to South America within a month stresses Washington's growing concern that the current strife in Colombia could destabilize the region. The visit also underlines increased US reliance on Peru in its efforts to halt narcotics traffic in the Andean territory.

McCaffrey told reporters Thursday that President Alberto Fujimori "has achieved such dramatic reductions in drug production here in Peru."

McCaffrey has been congratulatory of Peru's record in the war on drugs in the past, and frequently cites it as an example to other countries. But he maintains that the present crisis in Colombia is linked to other nations in the area. The leftist guerrillas now battling Bogot's government in a country that supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine are financed by drug money. Much of the coca leaf for these narcotics comes from Peru and neighboring countries, he says.

McCaffrey cites Peru's reduction of the coca crop by 56 percent and Bolivia's by 36 percent in the past three years as positive steps toward a solution. He reemphasized his plans to ask Congress for $1 billion to continue battling drugs in Peru - as well as his fears that abandoned coca plots are being rehabilitated.

Critics maintain that the recent increase in surface area dedicated to coca-growing in Peru - roughly 18 to 20 percent - is evidence that the US-Peruvian drug policy is flawed and ineffective.

"The extraordinary decline in the surface area of coca lands was the work of the market, not of the antidrug policy of the US," says Roger Rumrill, a local expert in drug trafficking. "This 'virtual success' was invented by the supporters of current drug policy who claim that the decline in coca was a result of alternative development programs and the efficiency of intervention, vigilance, and control. But now this virtual success is being undone by reality."

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A major emphasis of the US-Peruvian antidrug strategy is the eradication of existing coca plant plots - over 30,000 acres between 1996 and 1998.

"We are not against eradication. We support eradication if and when it comes after alternative product development programs. They can't take the coca away from one day to the next- we have no other products to sell," says Guillermo Mendosa, a director of the coca growers' federation.

Since 1995 the US has invested $59 million in developing alternative crops for coca growers, such as pineapple, palm, and cocoa. But these programs, coca growers say, have fallen far short of their expectations.

"These products don't bring fair prices or enjoy a secure market. The coca is the only way we can survive," says Juan Navarro, the mayor of the jungle town of Uchiza and a march organizer.

The development programs also have constructed and rehabilitated roads, bridges, medical posts, and schools. Coca growers say too much emphasis is put on activities like these, which afford politicians ribbon-cutting opportunities but do little to generate income. They insist that more income-generating activities will result in the voluntary abandonment of coca crops. Coca growers and drug policy experts also maintain that the current policy fails to involve the coca growers in the design of the programs. They say that the development programs divide communities by creating and funneling projects through new community organizations parallel to the ones that already exist and enjoy a broad base of support.

In addition to meeting with the the president here, McCaffrey met with his Peruvian counterpart, and human rights leaders.

Coca growers marching yesterday say they would have liked to have been part of McCaffrey's agenda on his visit to Peru. "He should speak with us too," Mr. Navarro says. "The program is doomed to fail as long as we are kept on the margins of the decisionmaking."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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