The Balloon Effect, in Effect: Humala, Peru, and the Drug Dilemma (Part 1 of 2)

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The arrest of two young British women, Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, on suspicion of drug trafficking on 6 August 2013 grabbed the attention of European media outlets as the details of their encounter with anti-drugs officers at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport began to filter out. The Peruvian authorities formally charged the foreign nationals with the promotion of drug trafficking after they were caught with 24 pounds of cocaine (worth an estimated $2.3 million USD) concealed in food packages in their luggage. [1] On 25 September both women pleaded guilty to the charges in a closed hearing in Lima. [2]  The pair, who are currently being held in a classification unit in the Virgen de Fatima jail (also known as Ancon 2) while they await their sentencing hearing on 6 October, are expected to jailed for at least 6 years and eight months according to Peruvian authorities. [3]

With few concrete details available in the immediate aftermath of the arrest, the British press in particular scrambled to provide their readers with comprehensive context on the legal system of the characteristically little discussed South American nation. Coverage focused primarily on the squalid, cramped conditions of Peruvian prisons and the lengthy waiting time of up to three years for trial. The story of two girls incarcerated in a strange country thousands of miles from home for a crime they initially suggested they were coerced into committing, provided journalists with an irresistible chance to produce related copy for several days. [4]

Despite the media visibility afforded to this ongoing case, the arrest of foreign nationals on drug trafficking charges in Peru is far from a rare occurrence. The Peruvian National Police’s anti-narcotics unit, DIRANDRO, claims that at least 248 foreign nationals were arrested at Lima International Airport in 2012 for attempting to smuggle drugs to the U.S., Europe or Asia. [5] There are 325 foreign inmates currently housed in Ancon 2 alone, many of whom are serving sentences for drug convictions, including other British, Irish, Spanish, Greek, Bulgarian, and French citizens. [6] In January 2013 the French daily Le Figaro reported that 695 Europeans were in prison in Peru, with 90 percent incarcerated on drugs charges. [7] While the McCollum and Reid case has drawn attention to the number of foreign nationals caught participating in illegal drug activity within Peru, it is safe to assume that many more are able to pass through the country carrying contraband (knowingly or unknowingly). But the narrative of naïve individuals risking their liberty just to make a quick buck, either of their own free will or due to coercion, does not address the fundamental and systemic issue at the heart of drug production in Latin America today: that Peru’s importance as a center of production of illegal narcotics, specifically cocaine, has increased as a result of displacement, and that the current interdiction-focused counter-narcotics strategy being pursued by President Ollanta Moisés Humala Tasso will have little long term impact without the fundamental reform of counter-drugs strategy on a hemispheric basis.

A Coca Farmer Walks on Dying Coca Leaves in Omaya, Peru. Photo Source: AP/Martin Mejia

Peru Regains Cocaine King Status

In the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s World Drugs Report 2013, Peru was named as the world’s largest grower of the illicit coca bush with an estimated 64,400 hectares under cultivation in 2011. [8] Unsurprisingly, Peru was cited as by far the greatest producer of dried coca leaves for the same year, with the potential to produce 126,100 tons of the essential ingredient in the production of cocaine annually. The 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report published by the U.S. Department of State stated that Peru has the highest potential production of pure cocaine in the world. [9] In surpassing its Andean neighbours Bolivia and Colombia, the United Nation’s figures indicate that Peru has once again ascended to reclaim its position as the most effective cocaine producing nation in Latin America. While Peruvian government officials have been sceptical about the methodology and assumptions made by the UN and US government assessments, in recent months Lima has generally come to accept Peru’s current position as the world’s largest producer. [10]

The coca leaf has played a fundamental role in Andean culture for hundreds of years. Its cultivation, exchange, and consumption has formed an essential element of life in the montaña, with leaves of the plant still used today to counter fatigue, assuage cold, and heal ailments. [11] But it was the narcotic properties of the plant discovered as early as the eighteenth century which caused the coca bush to proliferate across the Andes. [12] Historically Peru was the epicentre of cocaine production. From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-1980s the country was the principal supplier of refined cocaine to the U.S. and in 1985 was estimated to produce approximately sixty-five percent of global coca leaf stocks. [13] This dominant position of Peru as leading cocaine producer ebbed somewhat during the late 1980s and early 1990s. President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) , supported by military aid provided by the U.S., adopted a shoot down policy targeting the small aeroplanes that transported coca paste or base from growing areas in Peru’s Alto Huallaga valley to cocaine laboratories in Colombia. The closure of this ‘air bridge’, alongside the U.S. supported eradication programs in the Chapare region of Bolivia after 1986, pushed coca cultivation into Colombia. This later contributed to the rise of the Colombian cartels, most prominently the Medellin Cartel led by Pablo Escobar, and the concepts of the ‘narco state’ and ‘narco terrorism’.

While Colombia continues to receive the majority of media and analyst attention as a state whose legitimacy and territorial sovereignty is in danger of being challenged by narcotics trafficking, the increase in coca production in Peru cannot be ignored by policymakers in Lima or Washington. Although Peru is still considered to be a relatively stable and safe there are fears that the growing drug trade is driving an increase in violence. [14] Analysts living in the country have argued that the increased availability of cheap coca paste is creating a growing number of drug addicts who are committing crimes such as robberies and assaults while under the influence. [15] There is also concern over a rise in drug-related targeted killings and members of drug trafficking organisations from Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil crossing the border to operate within Peru. [16] Further complicating the security environment is the increasing involvement of remnants of the Sendero Luminoso in the drug trafficking business. While the insurgent group did have links to drug traffickers during the early 1990s, primarily the rebels taxed the narcos in exchange for protection to generate funds for their conflict with the Peruvian state. [17] Now there are indications that members of the Shining Path are forging links with the new generation of traffickers from other Latin American nations, and are increasingly acting as intermediaries between the campesinos and the cartels purely for their own financial benefit, rather than a greater political cause. [18] Currently, Shining Path is but a shadow of its former self, and now consists of an estimated 300 fighters divided into two factions in the Peruvian highlands. While the insurgent group does not pose a direct threat to the Peruvian government as it did in the 1980s, its ties to drug trafficking mean that it remains a threat to national security. [19]

Humala is, of course, aware of the challenges that curbing the production of coca and cocaine in Peru poses, and as president-elect referred to the U.S. as a “strategic partner” in these efforts. [20] Since taking office in July 2011, however, Humala’s counter-drug strategy has been marked by inconsistency, and the current focus on interdiction supported by the U.S. is a classic case of a one step forward, two steps back policy that may achieve temporary gains, but will make little difference to Andean cocaine production in the long term.

Humala’s Counter-Drug Strategy – “Game don’t change.”

Ricardo Soberon, the recently installed head of the Peruvian anti-narcotics advisory body (known as DEVIDA), announced in August 2011 that the Peruvian government was suspending its only coca eradication program. [21] Some believed this to be evidence of the new president’s willingness to make drastic changes to counter-drugs policy. [22] Washington was also surprised by the news: the manual eradication program focused initially on the Upper Halluaga Valley region was funded by the U.S. which had in 2011 spent around $10 million USD on the project. [23] Particularly puzzling was the fact that in his inaugural address on 28 July, Humala had reiterated his commitment to eradicating illegal coca. Speaking on the reversal, U.S. ambassador Rose Likins was reported to have commented that, “it would have been nice to have been informed in advance.” [24] Those who advocate a reform to U.S. counter-drugs policy in Latin America were heartened to see figures such as Soberon, a well-regarded drug policy analyst and lawyer with progressive views on coca politics, being placed in positions of influence. [25] Similarly, a shift in counter-drug policy was theorized as being the reason behind the removal of the commander of DIRANDRO, General Carlos Moran, and his replacement with the far less experienced drug warrior Francisco Pasco.

Despite the initial indicators that Humala might try something different in Peru, the suspension of drug eradication lasted little more than a week. [26] The announcement of the resumption of eradication was accompanied by proclamations that Lima would pursue a “sustainable” eradication program that would replace coca with alternative economically viable crops such as cocoa and coffee. Further doubts were raised about Humala’s convictions to implement change with his removal of the more progressive officials he had initially placed in charge of drug policy. [27] The argument that Humala’s policy retreat was caused primarily by a fear of antagonizing Washington is certainly persuasive. Indeed, in the two years since Humala took office Peru’s counter-drug policy has become increasingly focused on eradication and interdiction, which is the type of strategy that is closely aligned with how the United States’ agenda on drugs has been positioned for the last three decades.

In February 2012 Carmen Masias, Ricardo Soberon’s replacement as head of DEVIDA, announced that Peru’s new five year (2012-2016) anti-drug strategy had been approved by the Council of Ministers. [28] With a budget of approximately $1.05 billion USD over a five year period, the new strategy, Masias commented, focuses on encouraging campesinos to replace their coca crops with economically sustainable cocoa and coffee. [29] Some progress has been made on this front: U.S. officials state that U.S. alternative development assistance (coordinated by USAID) supported over 19,000 Peruvian families to cultivate 37,000 hectares of licit alternative crops in 2012. [30]

Coca eradiation, however, was certainly not scaled back in favour of alternative development in the new 2012-2016 strategy playbook. Eradication goals form a crucial element of the initiative and have taken precedent over other aspects, with the call for a 200 percent increase in the destruction of illicit coca by 2016. [31] In 2012, the Humala administration aimed to destroy a total of 14,000 hectares of coca through U.S. funded eradication programs, a forty percent increase on the 10,000 hectare per year goal that existed prior to 2011. [32] Nor has interdiction been side-lined in the new anti-drug era. As Humala demonstrated in remarks made during his June 2013 bilateral meeting with President Obama in Washington D.C., his rhetorical stance on “substantively and qualitatively” fighting “the scourge of drugs” in Peru remains staunch and firmly in line with the traditional U.S. anti-drugs position. [33] Institutional reforms have also been made to the Peruvian National Police, including in their organisational structure and the number of officers and police stations in the key drug growing regions of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM) and Huallaga Valley (the two regions in which the Shining Path continues to operate) has been increased. This has led to an increase in the seizure of precursor chemicals and the elimination of a number of high profile traffickers. [34] While Lima may wish to present its strategy as a progressive initiative that will make a meaningful difference to counter-narcotic efforts in Peru (and Latin America more broadly), in operational terms it still emphasises narcotics control and enforcement over alternative development.

The international community has been broadly supportive of Humala’s 2012-2016 strategy. In March 2013 the European Union announced a $41 million USD aid package to support Peruvian anti-drug efforts until 2016. [35] In keeping with the EU’s primarily development-based approach to countering drug trafficking, the assistance will be mostly used to fund the kind of demand reduction, alternative development, and infrastructure improvement programs it has supported in the past in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru. [36]

The vast majority of international counter-drug assistance received by Peru, however, is still supplied by Washington, which continues to prioritize control and law enforcement above other aspects. Figures released by the U.S. embassy in Lima show that Washington provided $132.8 million USD of assistance in total to Peru for FY2012. [37] $54.3 million USD was allocated broadly to counter-narcotics, but a break-down of this assistance reveals that a significantly larger proportion of this funding was provided for law enforcement ($34.3 million USD) than alternative development programs ($20.1 million USD). [38] Moreover, the U.S provided $26.7 million USD for “military cooperation”, a category of funding which includes counter-drug assistance within its remit, and effectively acts as another pool of funding available for interdiction and eradication efforts in Peru. [39] This financial support echoes other militarized enforcement approaches to countering drug production and trafficking in Latin America implemented by the U.S., particularly the Andean Regional Initiative and Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia – Temporary Anti-Drug Success

The most ambitious U.S. funded counter-narcotics program ever mounted, Plan Colombia (which later became the Andean Regional Initiative), provided almost $5 billion USD to the governments of Andrés Pastrana Arango and Álvaro Uribe Vélez during the first decade of the new millennium. [40] This counter-drug strategy emphasized the use of military resources and aerial fumigation and, despite claims to the contrary, placed alternative development and similar measures in the background. Plan Colombia has been hailed as a great success. Both President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have praised the improvements made to internal security in Colombia over the past decade. [41] During a joint press conference after a bilateral meeting between Obama and President Juan Manuel Santo Calderón held in April 2012, the Colombian head of state commented that: “thanks to Plan Colombia, and thanks to the U.S. […] today we have a very strong democracy.” [42]

It is certainly true that the security situation has improved somewhat since the implementation of Plan Colombia. Violence was checked and murder rates, kidnappings, and acts of terrorism were reduced drastically between 2002 and 2008 as the military began to reassert state authority and retook Colombian territory from both traffickers and the FARC. [43] The number of drug labs seized, hectares of coca eradicated, and tons of cocaine seized also rose considerably. But despite the huge resources expended on Plan Colombia it has ultimately had a negligible impact on the drug industry in the Andes. Colombia remains the second largest producer of coca leaf in the world, just behind Peru, and although there has been a reduction in the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia since the 1990s, attributing this to improvements in security brought about by Plan Colombia is debateable. [44]

There are indications that, in a fashion reminiscent of the Colombian initiative, Humala may be willing to escalate military involvement in the drug war. One example of this is the purchase of British made amphibious vehicles for patrolling and support of the armed forces in the VRAEM. [45] Washington will be content if Lima continues on this track. In the words of Roger F. Noriega, former hard-line Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and former ambassador to the OAS, Peru has “fully cooperated with U.S. efforts.” [46] Moreover, “[i]n recent years, the U.S. State Department has faulted the Peruvian government for not devoting sufficient resources to the anti-drug fight, and Humala appears to be reversing that trend.” [47]

Eradication and interdiction measures are essential elements of any policy which attempts to combat the illegal production and trafficking of drugs anywhere in the world. The problem for Peru, and the Andean region in general is that policies which primarily focus on these elements do not tackle the underlying systemic economic and social factors which fundamentally drive the industry. Humala’s current strategy, as with the similar policies which have preceded it, does not address the issue of displacement which has now been at the heart of Andean drug production for 40 years.

Liam Whittington, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[1] Collyns, Dan. “Peru Charges “Frightened” Women with Drug Trafficking,” The Guardian, 21 August 2013.

[2] Davis, Wyre. “Peru Drugs: Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid Admit Charge,” British Broadcasting Corporation News. 25 September 2013.

[3] Ibid.;
Salazar, Carla. “Peru: britanicas estarian presas al menos 6 anos.” El Nuevo Herald. 19 September, 2013.;
Collyns, Dan. “Embassy Official Visits Peru Drug Trafficking Accused,” The, 12 August 2013.;
Saul, Heather. “Peru “Drug Mule” Michaella McCollum Confident Story of Coercion Will be Proven After Arrest Over £1.5 Million Cocaine,” The Independent, 28 August 2013. oven-after-arrest-over-15m-cocaine-8787419.html

] For examples of the type of coverage produced, see:


McMahon, Victoria, “Peru Drug Arrests: Melissa Reid and Michaella Connolly Spend First Night in Notorious Peruvian Jail,” The Daily Mirror, 23 August 2013.;

Grant, Will. “Peru Drugs Case: What is it Like Doing Time in Lima’s Ancon 2?” British Broadcasting Corporation News, 18 August 2013.

[5] Agence France-Presse, “Drug Cartels Prey on Young European Women to Smuggle Cocaine,” The Australian, 22 August 2013.

[6] Ibid;

Sawer, Patrick. “Peru Drug Arrests: “It Sounds so Easy, Until You Get Caught,” The Telegraph, 8 September 2013. ;

Grant, Will. “Peru Drugs Case: What is it Like Doing Time in Lima’s Ancon 2?” British Broadcasting Corporation News, 18 August 2013.

[7] Fuax, Frédéric. “Les nouveaux prolétaires européens du trafic de drogue,” Le Figaro, 6 January 2013.

[8] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. World Drug Report 2013.  United Nations. New York, May 2013. Annex II.

[9] U.S. Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1. U.S. Department of State, March 2012.

[10] Ruesta, Alex. Devida: Peru seria el No 1 en la produccion de cocaina.  Correo (Peru). 26 August, 2013.

[11] Dean, Bartholomew. “Cocaine Capitalism and Social Trauma in Peruvian Amazonia – Antecedents: The Social Life of Trans-Andean Amazonian Coca.” University of Pittsburg, July 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] It is important to note that cocaine was not a controlled substance in the United States in the nineteenth century. Federal prohibition of the drug in the U.S. only really began in the early twentieth century with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act 1914 and the Jones-Miller Act 1922;

Bagley, Bruce. Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in the Americas: Major Trends in the Twenty-First Century. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, August 2012. Pp.3.

[14] To provide some context on this point, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security reports that a total of 1,421 murders were committed in 2012 out of a population of approximately thirty million. In comparison, according to the National Autonomous University of Honduras a total of 7,172 people were murdered in Honduras in 2012 out of a population of approximately eight million. For more information see:

U.S Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Peru 2013 Crime and Safety Report. U.S. Department of State. March 2013.; Fox, Edward. “2012 Record Year for Homicides in Honduras,” InSightCrime,22 January 2013.

[15] Alvarado, Carmen. “Peru: Narco Trafficking Spawns Common Crimes,”, June 2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Williams, Phil. “Insurgencies and Organised Crime,” in Williams, Phil. & Felab-Brown, Vanda. Drug Trafficking, Violence, and Instability. U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, April 2012. Chapter 2, Pp.34-36.

[18] Ibid;

Hearn, Kelly. “Peru Guerrillas Set Aside Rebellion for Drug Money,” The Washington Times, 26 April 2012.

[19] Sanchez, W. Alex. “Peru’s beating the Shining Path, but needs a new strategy.” Blouin News. Blogs. 16 August , 2013.

[20] “Ollanta Humala is Sworn in as New Peru President,” British Broadcasting Corporation News, 28 July 2011.;
MercoPress. “Humala Calls U.S. a “Strategic Partner” and Plans to Discuss Taxes with Corporations,” MercoPress, 8 June 2011.

[21] Pachico, Elyssa. “Humala Shakes Up Peru’s Drug Policy,” InSightCrime, 18 August 2011.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Leon, Adrian & Kraul, Chris. “Peru Suspends Coca Eradication Program,” Los Angeles Times, 18 August 2011.

[24] Associated Press. “Peru Suspends US-Funded Coca Eradication Programme,” The Guardian, 18 August 2011.

[25] Pachico, Elyssa. “Humala Shakes Up Peru’s Drug Policy,” InSightCrime, 18 August 2011.

[26] Quigley, John. “Humala’s Drug Czar Vows to Halt Growth in Peru’s Coca Output,” Bloomberg, 9 September 2011.

[27] This included Ricardo Soberon.

Taft-Morales, Maureen. Peru in Brief: Political and Economic Conditions and Relations with the United States – Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 7 June 2013. Pp.13-14.

[28] Andina Peru News Agency. “Peru Approves 2012-2016 Anti-Drugs Strategy,” Andina Peru News Agency, 16 February 2012.

[29] Ibid.

[30] U.S. Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1. U.S. Department of State, March 2012. Pp. 267-271.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Andean Air Mail and Peruvian Times. “Peru on Track to Meet Coca Eradication Goal,” Andean Air Mail and Peruvian Times, 28 September 2012.

[33] Humala, Ollanta. “Remarks Made by President Obama and President Humala of Peru After Bilateral Meeting,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 11 June 2013.

[34] U.S. Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1. U.S. Department of State, March 2012. Pp. 267-271.

[35] Wells, Miriam. “EU to Give $41 Million to Peruvian Anti-Narcotics Efforts,” InSightCrime, 4 March 2013.$41m-to-peruvian-anti-narcotics-efforts

[36] Ibid.

[37] Embassy of the United States, Lima, Peru. “USG Assistance to Peru FY2012: Principal Programs by Sector,” United States Department of State.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Hearn, Kelly. “Success in Colombia Shifts Drug War to Peru,” The Washington Times, 7 May 2012.

[41] Looft, Christopher. “Before Americas Summit, US Points to Colombia as Security Success,” InSightCrime, 13 April 2012.

[42] Santos Calderón, Juan Manual. “Remarks Made by President Obama and President Santos of Colombia in Joint Press Conference,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 15 April 2012.

[43] Boot, Max & Bennet, Richard. “The Colombian Miracle,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 15, No. 13, 14 December 2009.

[44] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. World Drug Report 2013.  United Nations. New York, May 2013. Annex II.

[45] British Embassy Lima. “Peru Invests in British Technology in the Fight Against Drug Trafficking,”, 10 March 2013.

[46] Noriega, Roger F. “Peru Heads in Right Direction Under President Humala,”, 24 July 2013.

[47] Ibid.