There's a New Cocaine Capital in the World, and It's Upending South America

Though they're just 20 years old, two UK women are facing stiff jail sentences after having been caught with a cocaine shipment valued around $2.5 million. The pair stands trial in Peru, the country that, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, just overtook Colombia as the world’s largest producer of coca, the crop from which cocaine is produced. Regarding the drug itself, the U.S. government estimates that Peru was capable of producing 290 metric tons of pure cocaine in 2012, some 65% more than Colombia, due in part to better crop yields.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this picture? The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that Peru is having a difficult time combating drug production. Since his election in 2011, President Ollanta Humala has opted for a heavy-handed approach focusing on eradication. Destroying coca crops — as opposed to interdicting drug shipments already in transit or controlling precursor chemicals — has been criticized as ineffective and harmful to local communities in Colombia, where the United States has underwritten massive eradication campaigns. Nevertheless, the Humala administration has sought to increase eradication by some 50% in 2013. Experts assert that in response, “growers have proven adept at shifting production” to less accessible areas of the country.

Ricardo Soberón was Peru’s drug czar during the beginning months of the Humala administration, but was sacked for promoting a strategy that deviated from those of previous governments. Soberón had advocated for an approach that was less militaristic, less dependent on U.S. assistance, and less focused on eradicating peasants’ coca crops. In an interview following his departure, Soberón criticized current policy as beholden to outside governments (especially Washington), as well as corrupt military and police forces. He questions the assertion that Peru is the largest producer of cocaine — which relies on debatable assumptions regarding crop yields — implying it is part of a U.S. strategy to pressure the government to stay the current course. (Soberón is not the first to suggest a link between drug statistics and the U.S. political agenda.)

Peru’s story is all the more dramatic when compared with that of its northern neighbor, Colombia. According to Daniel Mejía, an expert from Universidad de los Andes, over the past five or so years the Colombian government has shifted away from eradication towards interdiction. This has resulted in a dramatic supply shock. Some experts partially attribute rising Peruvian production to the “balloon effect” — success in one area displaces, like squeezing the end of a balloon, the problem into other areas.

This is not Peru’s first time as the “cocaine capital” of the world. Indeed, up until the 1990s the country accounted for over half of global cocaine supply. But the global market for the drug has changed dramatically since then. Colombia primarily serves the U.S. market (officials estimate that 95% of cocaine seized in this country originates in Colombia.) But in the United States, long the world’s largest cocaine consumer, user rates have dropped by nearly half in less than a decade. Peruvian product, meanwhile, is largely destined for Brazil, the world’s second largest consumer, as well as Europe and Africa. These markets, in contrast to the United States’, are growing. The Economist reports that cocaine use in Britain doubled between 2000 and 2010, while a budding middle class in emerging economies represents millions of potential new users.

Cocaine is an old challenge, but barring new developments, it's one that seems likely to continue bedeviling South America for the foreseeable future.