Indecisive Drug Policy Symptom of Humala’s Evasiveness

Peru’s antidrug policy wavers from crop substitution to eradication, reflecting its president’s flipflops.

Peru’s newly appointed anti-drug chief, Antonio Otarola, claims that his agency, Devida, is on course to meet its coca plantation eradication targets for 2014. Unfortunately, this is part of a rather worrisome picture.

Otarola, a former defense minister, says that in the fight against the growing narcotics trade, his agency is set to reach 30,000 hectares of coca plantation eradication per year, triple the levels managed under the previous government.

Those figures sound impressive and are in keeping with the notion that the war on drugs is a priority for President Ollanta Humala but, as ever, the realities of Peruvian politics are rarely what they seem.

Humala’s treatment of the largest drugs trade in the world has shown no signs of any deeply considered consistent policy. Indeed, it is the lack of consistency that has been an enduring aspect of an, at times, ill considered populist term in office.

Peru’s now plateauing economic success disguises what has been a far from stable stewardship under Humala’s government. He is on his fifth prime minister since July 2011, the appointment of whom led to nineteen ministers offering their resignation. Numerous other cabinet reshuffles have displayed a discontent arising from unfulfilled policy promises and fears of corruption and crime. The most damning indictment against the president must be the fall in public approval ratings which this month reached a new low of 21 percent.

Otarola finds himself as the third head of Devida in as many years, trying to give direction to a hitherto incoherent and indecisive policy on how to tackle a thriving drugs trade. The initial incumbent, the progressive academic Ricardo Soberón, was removed after just six months, following his decision to halt a coca eradication plantation program, supported by $100 million of funding from the United States. Soberón had sought to reevaluate the effectiveness of these measures, with a view to implementing crop substitution.

His successor, Carmen Masías, chose instead to accelerate and increase the eradication program by 14,000 hectares per year by the end of 2013. She was relieved of her duties for fear of reprisals from the undaunted Quispe Palomino terrorist splinter cells — remnants of the Shining Path terrorist organization that was so prominent in the last two decades of the twentieth century. They are based in the southern Huallaga Valley region where they protect and profit from farmers who are responsible for 54 percent of Peru’s cocaine production.

While Otarola says new plantation eradication targets are met, these relate to areas where Quispe Palomino are not active. Where they are, Otarola has reverted to a policy of crop substitution. This appears to be a U-turn in returning to Soberón’s earlier policy.

Nevertheless, the government continues to avoid the prime issue, that where there is a terrorist presence, this will continue to allow local farmers to enjoy the more lucrative coca harvest.

In spite of Humala’s perceived no-nonsense approach toward the Quispe Palomino clan — 24 arrests being made just a few months ago — the region in southern Peru where it is most active remains a terrorist stronghold. Unsurprisingly, the Peruvian public still regards the government’s counternarcotics efforts with suspicion.

Humala’s political history shows a predisposition for changing his ideals to secure the easy vote. He campaigned in 2006 as a leftist with pan-American ideals. He was then reelected in 2011 as a centrist looking to tackle inequality through economic growth. To date, Humala has shied away from a concerted attack on the terrorist element in southern Peru. Yet however many anti-drug policies he engages in, he is almost certain to fail unless he faces up to the terrorist involvement in the coca trade.