Legalize Peru!

Posted on May 4th, 2014 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , .

After last year's victories for cannabis legalization measures in Colorado and Washington state, the US prohibition regime is under unprecedented pressure. But there is little awareness in Gringolandia of the strides in breaking with the US-led "war on drugs" in South America. Over the past decade, Argentina and Colombia have removed penalties for personal quantities of drugs, and Uruguay just passed a measure that essentially legalizes cannabis, with even cultivation permitted under state regulation. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have all barred the DEA from their territory.

That leaves Peru—now overtaking Colombia as the Andes' top coca producer, and also a burgeoning cannabis producer. Like Colombia, Peru remains a stronghold of the DEA in South America—even as it has moved towards decrim of personal quantities. Both countries have experienced long and bloody counterinsurgency wars related to the struggle for control over coca production. Much to Washington's displeasure, Peru even suspended eradication two years ago—before the empire struck back. But now activists are mounting pressure to break with the prohibition model—both in the remote campesino communities of the mountains and jungles, and in the streets of Lima.

Ricardo Soberón and the Peruvian Spring

Peru, with little fanfare, eliminated all penalties for personal possession of cannabis as well as cocaine in 2006—even public use is officially "de-penalized," as the Peruvians say. But police abuse of young tokers who don’t know the law remains a problem. National Police coca eradication programs in the high jungles on the east side of the Andes are a source of resentment and unrest—even fueling a revival of the Shining Path guerilla movement in parts of the coca-growing belt. And in recent years, cannabis eradication campaigns have been launched in the Andean valleys.

The election of the left-leaning populist Ollanta Humala in the 2011 presidential race was looked to as a turning point. Humala appointed as his "drug czar"—officially, head of the National Commission for the Development of Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA)—a longtime vocal critic of prohibition with organizations such as the Andean Commission of Jurists: Ricardo Soberón. In August 2011, Soberón called off eradication in the principal area where it was underway—the restive Upper Huallaga Valley. The ban was quickly extended throughout the country.

Soberón, interviewed at the Lima office of his non-governmental organization, tells his story. Soberón calls his appointment to DEVIDA "the most fantastic moment of my life." 


"My first day on the job, we ended eradication throughout Peru. I went to my office on Monday, August the eighth, spoke to my staff, and then I received a telephone call from a peasant. He said 'Dr. Soberón, the police are overtaking the area, and provoking us.'"

Soberón said the peasant, calling from coca-growing Tingo Maria, in the Huallaga, told him the police were threatening the cocaleros with reprisals for having supported Humala.

"So I immediately called the president. And he ordered every US agent in Peru to return to their bases. He was pissed off."

But the next day, Soberón says, he was personally confronted at a breakfast cabinet meeting by the US ambassador, Rose M. Likins, accompanied by a DEA representative. They expressed their displeasure over the eradication halt. "And this started the worst media campaign against me," Soberón  relates. "In every single newspaper, TV station, radio, and of course the political opposition—they were accusing me of being a cocalero supporter, a legalization supporter. Et cetera, et cetera."

Nonetheless, progress continued. On Sept. 15, Soberón presented his strategy to Congress and it was approved—calling for reducing illegal coca yields both through subsidies for legal crops like coffee and cacao, and by expanding the market for domestic traditional uses like teas and chewing. "Humala supported me, and the next day I got to work," he says. "September, October, November—and then Conga happened."

Humala, like more than one Peruvian president before him, did a proverbial 180 once in power—a tilt to the right, and a cabinet purge.

It was prompted by unrest over the controversial US-backed gold-mining project at Conga, in the north of the country. After National Police fired on peasant protesters, leaving several wounded, the progressive-minded  prime minister Salomón Lerner resigned Dec. 10—and under law the entire cabinet had to follow suit. Humala formed a new conservative cabinet, led by the interior minister, Oscar Valdés—a former military officer who served as Humala's instructor in the army in the 1980s, during the war with the Shining Path. The Interior Ministry controls Peru’s militarized National Police force.

"Salomon Lerner was sacked and Oscar Valdés came in," says Soberón. "And he hated me. And the US ambassador immediately started to have very close ties with him. At the end of the day, he decided to get rid of me." Soberón lost his position in January 2012, after five months in office.

"I thought that Humala was going to support me," Soberón says. "But there were big political reasons why Humala decided to change." Among these, he cites Humala's ambition for his wife Nadine Heredia to succeed him in office (as consecutive terms are barred by Peru’s constitution). "And for that, he needs—at least—US acceptance. So I think basically the US told him—you give us an anti-narcotics policy."

Soberón’s replacement was Carmen Masías, a pro-eradication advocate from the Information and Education Center for the Prevention of Drug Abuse (CEDRO), a Peruvian NGO funded by USAID. After a brief Peruvian spring, the eradication was back on.

Anti-Prohibition Activism

But as the cocaleros in the high jungle zones protest coca eradication, a core of activists in Lima is pushing to relieve the police pressure on cannabis and personal possession.  Soberon's NGO, the Investigation Center on Drugs and Human Rights (CIDDH), cooperates with local Lima activists in a "Green Line"—an emergency phone line for youth busted for possession, in spite of the law.

A co-founder of the Green Line is Peru's leading cannabis activist, Luis Gavancho, who also works with advocacy group Legaliza Perú. "People don't know the law, so the police use preventative detention for extortion," he explains the need for the line, which was launched in 2011.

Under the preventative detention law, citizens can be held up to 15 days without charge for suspicion of drug trafficking, terrorism or espionage. It only requires approval from a prosecutor—not a judge—and the police can basically impose it at will. "They threaten to treat the possession as suspicion of trafficking," says Gavancho. "It's a lever for extortion."

Legaliza Perú is trying to change the nature of the debate in the country, with its representatives having debated those of the pro-prohibition CEDRO on the radio and in other media. And every May since 2010, it has been holding the Peruvian entry in the Global Marijuana March  movement—converging on Lima’s Plaza Francia and marching through the city’s central district. "We were really proud that we had over a thousand people marching for the first time this year," Gavancho says.

There was a police presence at the Marijuana March, but no arrests—despite some open toking. Soberón and other legal observers were on hand, and public cannabis use is technically not an offense in Peru. It is treated simply as possession—and under Article 299 of the country's penal code, personal possession carries no penalty. This was actually first passed in 1991—but without any quantitative definition for personal possession. In the 2006 reform, quantities were established: eight grams for cannabis, two grams for cocaine.

Cannabis cultivation remains illegal under Article 296, but is definitely increasing nonetheless. Cultivation in Peru is still almost entirely for internal consumption, grown by independent producers—usuallycampesinos under contract to a middle-man who collects the crop and takes it Lima and other markets, with no link to the criminal networks that control the cocaine traffic. The crop arrives in the cities as moño, or bud—not compacted bricks.

Varieties are mostly sativas that have been making their way down from Colombia, with some distinctive Peruvian strains emerging. Highly prized is  Black Tingalesa from Tingo Maria, in the high jungle where the Andes start to drop towards the Amazon. Piura Red, from the mountains overlooking the coast in far northern Piura region, is related to Colombia’s famous Punta Roja, or Red Point. But it is the Norte Chico—the mountains overlooking the coast in the regions of Lima and Áncash just to the north—that are the heartland of cannabis production. The inter-Andean valleys that cut through the mountains in the Norte Chico have seen repeated eradication of plantations by National Police in recent years—some with up to 5,000 plants, all burned in the fields.



Indoor and rooftop growing is emerging in Lima too. This reporter saw a rooftop grow of a Colombian sativa strain named Corinto after the town in southern Colombia’s cannabis zone. An indica mix grown from European mail-order seed was potted alongside it.


Eradication and Unrest

But coca leaf remains the big focus of eradication efforts. These efforts are principally focused in the Upper Huallaga, where they continue to periodically provoke peasant protests. One of the two surviving remnant factions of the Shining Path remains active there, although in decline since the capture of its leader "Comrade Artemio" last year. The other major coca production area where a Shining Path faction is making trouble is the Apurímac-Ene River Valley or VRAE, to the south.

The Shining Path was beaten back by peasant militias in the lawless VRAE some 15 years ago, but has re-emerged in recent years, pulling off some spectacular ambushes and hostage-takings—including workers on the strategic Camisea gas pipeline. Now, militarization of the region by the army and police is leading to peasant anger—further fueling the guerilla resurgence in a vicious cycle.

Despite pressure from Washington, the government does not eradicate in the VRAE, in recognition of its sensitivity. Expounds Soberón: "The civilian population organized self-defense committees, and defeated the Shining Path—and now they will never accept eradication. So there is interdiction, but no eradication. There are no political conditions for it."

Humala recently announced that eradication will begin in the VRAE this year, but Soberón is skeptical. "I am very doubtful that it will happen," he says. "Because they know that it will immediately give political support to the Shining Path. And the peasants will immediately stand up and defend their crops. And that will immediately create a big humanitarian and political and military crisis."

"The Shining Path in the VRAE is determined to continue," Soberón  says. "They protect the convoys that take the coca away to the borders with Brazil and Bolivia. There is a lot of money to be made down there, and the Shining Path understand what cocaine production means for political power, and they use it."

Coca production in the Upper Huallaga has dramatically dropped in recent years—part of what the government and USAID call the "San Martín Miracle," after the administrative region that makes up most of the upper valley. But Soberón doesn’t credit eradication. He notes that the VRAE has better soil, yielding four coca harvests a year to just two in the Upper Huallaga. He believes that production has merely shifted to the south.

The heartland of Peru's legal coca production is La Convención Valley in Cuzco region, on the edge of the VRAE. Shining Path infiltration into La Convención has recently prompted the government to establish a new military command in the province. Troops roughing up and even firing on legal cocaleros has sparked protests in the zone.

Officially, the Peruvian state maintains a monopoly on the legal coca trade, through its National Coca Company (ENACO). But growers complain that ENACO buys cheap and sells high. Users complain that its leaf is dry and crumbly due to an inefficient distribution system. ENACO supplies 3,5000 tons a year, but Soberón says that internal demand for legal traditional use is as high as 10,000 tons. Some of the rest is made up by cocaleros selling their stuff directly to retailers in the town markets—usually tolerated on a de facto basis. This independently marketed stuff is generally held to be higher quality.

As in Bolivia 20 years earlier, opponents of coca eradication are entering the political mainstream in Peru, and even have a few voices in Congress. Valdemero Caceres, a grandfather figure in Lima’s activist scene and a veteran advisor to the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Growers, says: "Eradicating coca is crazy. It’s a national treasure—its like eradicating grapes in France."

South America Stands Up

Soberón draws hope from the study that was commissioned by the Organization of American States (OAS), and formally presented to the body at its Guatemala summit in June. The study, which Soberón helped produce, was the first by the OAS to question the prohibition model. In the days around the summit, even President Manuel Santos of Colombia, traditionally Washington’s staunchest ally in South America, expressed his misgivings about continued prohibition and eradication.

"What happened in Cartagena in April 2012 was dramatic," says Soberón, speaking of the OAS summit that year, when the decision was taken to commission the study. "Obama came, and all the presidents said to him, Sorry Mr. President, but we need to discuss drugs. And they decided to produce this report."

And Soberón  believes that even international enforcement efforts are evolving towards a "south-south program," rather than a US-directed one. He notes that the Brazilian government "has started to respond as a medium-sized regional power," its forces filling the vacuum left by the departure of the DEA in Bolivia. 

"I never would have imagined this," he says. "We always obeyed what Washington said on this question. And now things are happening."

Legaliza Peru is also part of an emerging network of like-minded activists throughout the continent, coordinated through such groups as the Latin American Network of Personal Drug Users (LANPUD) and the Latin American Coalition of Cannabis Activists (CLAC). The newly formed CLAC made a strong dissident showing at the fourth Latin American Drug Policy Conference held in Bogotá in December 2012. Every November since 2001, a Copa Cannábica—cannabis cup—has been held in La Plata, Argentina, bringing together connoisseurs and enthusiasts from throughout the continent.

Legaliza Perú distributes stickers with an image of an AK-47 rifle, reading "Narco-traffickers want cannabis to be illegal—And you?" Big cannabis production has long been under the control of violent cartels, paramilitaries and guerillas in Colombia. And in the new regional giant of cannabis production, Paraguay, criminal networks from Brazil increasingly control the trade—like the notorious Comando da Capital. Despite the eradication programs and corruption, Peru remains a sanctuary of relative cannabis peace in South America, along with Argentina and Uruguay. Whether it stays that way depends on whether the gains of Article 299 can be defended and extended.

Unlike his comrades in Legaliza Perú, Soberón does not speak of "legalization,"  a word he finds both vague and needlessly polarizing. "It is a very provocative word," he says. "I prefer to say 'regulation.' It is much more specific."

But by any name, he feels a shift coming. "Things are changing," he says when asked if he has a message for stateside readers. "There are movements toward a new paradigm both within the United States and in Latin America. You can never succeed in bringing about a change of paradigm in the war on drugs just in one place. You need to have it going on in both places. And therefore I will urge civil society within the US—consumers, users, activists, et cetera—to keep pushing forward to make local, state-based changes. While we here in Latin America continue to promote national and regional changes. So I would say, let's continue doing the kind of thing that we are doing."

This story first appeared in the December 2013 issue of High Times 

Photos from top to bottom:

Bubbleicious bud with one-sol coin via Legaliza Perú

Portrait of Ricardo Soberón by Erik Claudio

Landscape shot of inter-Andean valley by Erik Claudio

Lima indoor grow courtesy of Legaliza Perú


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