A deadly crackdown on political protests in Peru continues, as President Dina Boluarte tries to silence calls for her to resign, and Congress resists demands for new elections this year. Drowned out by the current crisis, which followed the ousting of President Pedro Castillo, is how Peruvians have lost any potential for drug policy reform—in a country where coca is produced in large quanties, and which is almost entirely without sactioned harm reduction.
Castillo, a school teacher originally from a rural town in the northern Cajamarca region, gained national prominence for his union leadership in a 2017 teachers’ strike. Running in the 2021 presidential election on a leftist platform with the Free Peru party, he won the first round and ultimately achieved a narrow run-off victory over Keiko Fujimori—a right-wing congressmember and daughter of former president and dictator Alberto Fujimori.
Boluarte is now under investigation for “alleged crimes of genocide, murder, and grievous bodily harm.”
Castillo took office in July 2021. His brief tenure as president was controversial and marked by political opposition, domestically and abroad. Congress tried and failed twice to impeach him on corruption charges. On December 7, anticipating a third impeachment attempt, Castillo announced he was dissolving Congress, installing an emergency government and calling for new elections immediately. Instead, the military and police arrested Castillo and he was removed from office. The same day, Vice President Boluarte was sworn in as president.
In the weeks since, protests have continued throughout the country and government forces have responded violently. By January 16, according to CNN, dozens of protesters had been killed. A state of emergency is in place for the capital Lima, the neighboring province of Callao, and the Andean regions of Cusco and Puno.
Boluarte and several of her ministers are now under investigation by Peru’s attorney general, for “alleged crimes of genocide, murder, and grievous bodily harm” committed in response to the protests.
Castillo’s ouster closes a very brief chapter on an economically left-wing—albeit socially more conservative—shift in Peru’s highest office. With him also went the chance for a shift in national policy on drugs, specifically the coca plant. His administration proposed an ambitious plan to buy up the bulk of the country’s coca yield, bringing it into the legal economy while investing in economically depressed areas.
Peru is estimated to be the world’s second largest producer, behind Colombia, of coca—the raw ingredient from which cocaine is produced. Its policy on coca cultivation has complex human rights, economic and environmental consequences.
The National Coca Company currently buys from about 95,000 registered growers.
Coca use among the Indigenous peoples of Peru dates back thousands of years, and continues today with many medicinal, culinary and religious purposes. Since 1978, national law has regulated coca cultivation and production—growers must be licensed by the government, grow within an approved quota and only sell for traditional uses. According to Insight Crime, the Empresa Nacional de la Coca (National Coca Company, or ENACO) currently buys from about 95,000 registered growers. Its coca can be resold as candies or tea, for example. But ENACO buys just a fraction of the total coca yield.
Around 90 percent of Peru’s coca—about 160,000 tons each year from over 400,000 unregistered growers—is used to produce cocaine; possession of up to 2 grams of cocaine for personal use is legal, but sales remain illegal. The vast sums to be made in this illicit market incentivize damaging behaviors.
“Drug traffickers have continued to grow with one clear trend, to expand their operations in the Amazon region,” Ricardo Soberón, the founder and former director of the Lima-based Centro de Investigación Drogas y Derechos Humanos (Research Center on Drugs and Human Rights), told Filter.
From 2011-2012, Soberón was board president of the country’s Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo y Vida sin Drogas (National Commission for Development Without Drugs, or DEVIDA). “During my 13 months in office, I was a witness to the aggression of drug traffickers towards Indigenous people and territories and protected natural areas, predominantly [in that region],” he said.
This was a “carrot” approach, promising government investment in social and economic development in coca-growing regions.
“Before, coca cultivation was confined to an ecological niche between [3,280 feet and 4,920 feet above sea level],” he continued. “Today, the 81,000 hectares of coca in Peru are distributed throughout, without regard to the forests, in high or low elevations.”
In May 2022, Castillo’s chief of staff, Aníbal Torres, put forward a plan to have ENACO purchase a much larger quantity of coca from both licensed and illicit growers. Unlike the “stick” of sending in armed forces or police to eradicate coca plantations, this was a “carrot” approach, promising government investment in social and economic development in coca-growing regions. In return, unregistered growers would have to agree not to plant new coca crops or engage in illegal activity.
But the economics are just not in ENACO’s favor. Currently, it pays about $18-26 for an 11 kilogram bag of coca. The same bag can fetch $210 on the informal market. Growers would lose money by selling to the government, and many would choose not to—even if ENACO were able to spend the estimated $234 million required to buy the whole crop at its much lower rate.
“Its warehouse has 1,200 tons of coca it can’t sell that’s rotting.”
A related problem is ENACO’s limited opportunities to sell the coca. A 2019 national survey found that just 14 percent of Peruvians consume coca leaves. Currently, there just isn’t a huge domestic market, meaning ENACO would have to either sit on a massive inventory or try to sell abroad.
“ENACO was in crisis, still is,” Soberón said. “It doesn’t have money, it has a debt of 200 million soles [$52.2 million US] to the national investment fund. Its warehouse has 1,200 tons of coca it can’t sell that’s rotting.”
He continued, “The solution for illegal coca is we must open a free market … We have lost the capacity for legal coca purchases, and now that’s handled by the informal market.”
So the momentum for coca reform that was lost with Castillo came with major caveats, even if some of the intent was welcome. Another problem with no end in sight is Peru’s lack of support for harm reduction services for people who use drugs.
“The Peruvian government doesn’t have a harm reduction approach to drug policy,” Humberto Rotondo, development director for Latin American harm reduction organization Proyecto SOMA, told Filter. For example, “opioid substitution therapy is not funded by the public health system.”
“Harm reduction efforts are met with hostility by the authorities.”
According to the latest Global State of Harm Reduction report, Peru has no state-authorized syringe service programs, medications for opioid use disorder, peer naloxone distribution or safe smoking kits.
“[But] even though harm reduction efforts are met with hostility by the authorities, there are private efforts,” Rotondo added. “Project SOMA does on-site harm reduction and drug checking in party settings.”
“Peru is a very conservative country generally, but our politicians represent an extremist sentiment,” Fran Brivio, Proyecto SOMA’s director of operations, told Filter. “We are taught prohibition, that ‘drugs are bad,’ ‘Say no to drugs.’ There was no other conversation.”
“We grew up with the idea that if you do drugs you will end up living under a bridge, homeless, you will have family problems,” she continued. “Or were taught there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drugs. Many of my own friends who identify as leftist or progressive have stigmas about drugs and think they are very dangerous.”
Rotondo and Brivio see little hope for drug policy reform under a Boluarte administration, or any likely right-wing successor. And even if the government’s policies on coca change, it will still have to address persisting issues related to illegal mining, logging and other illicit economies.
“We try to tackle [drugs] with violence for the cameras,” Rotondo said, “but our deepest issue is we are a very informal country [and economy] … We are a culture that has been accustomed to informality. That reflects on our illegal enterprises too. Even though we try to tackle it with repression, deep down we just live with it because we consider it part of the informal landscape in the country.”
Photograph of protest in Lima in December 2022 by Mayimbú via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0