Pubdate: Tue, 26 Jun 2012
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: John Lyons

CUSHILLOCOCHA, Peru - The soggy lowlands here were long seen as
inhospitable for growing coca potent enough to make cocaine. The plant
mainly thrives at steeper, higher elevations of the Andes Mountains,
where it was first cultivated by Indians many centuries ago.

But new techniques have given this Ticuna Indian village near the
banks of the Amazon River in Peru a surprising distinction in the
global drug trade: It is now home to some of the world's fastest
expanding plantations of coca, the raw material in cocaine. The United
Nations' annual drug report, to be published Tuesday, is expected to
document the big changes in the global cocaine business that are
helping drive coca cultivation and cocaine consumption deep into
Peru's Amazon near its border with Brazil.

Traffickers are adapting to declining cocaine consumption in the U.S.
by pioneering new markets and smuggling routes in places such as
Brazil, recent U.N. data show.

In May, Brazil deployed troops to back up Federal police charged with
preventing smuggling along its Amazonian borders. "Where do you think
all this production is headed?" said Sergio Fontes, who commands
Brazil's Federal Police in the state of Amazonas, which borders Peru.

Ticuna farmers, clad in rubber boots to protect their ankles against
snakes, show how lower Amazon coca may eventually lead to a more
globalized cocaine industry. Their success has big implications for
the rain forest, its peoplea=C2=80"and potentially the cocaine business

Today, the entire world's coca grows in the Andean nations of Peru,
Colombia and Bolivia. The coca being grown in the Amazon region of
Peru could just as easily be grown across the border in Brazil.

The economics of cocaine are changing in a way that could provide
incentives to grow it outside of Latin America entirely, such as
Africa or Asia. West Africa has become a transfer point for South
American cocaine headed to fast-growing markets in Europe. It could
someday make sense to move some production there, much the same way
poppies came to the Americas from Asia decades ago, allowing Mexico
and Colombia a share of the U.S. heroin market.

"Right now, South America meets global demand, but as long as it's not
difficult to export the know-how and technology, there is always a
risk that it moves elsewhere," said Flavio Mirella, who runs the U.N.
Office on Drugs and Crime in Lima, Peru, and is responsible for
surveying Peru's coca grows.

New coca patches in Ticuna towns helped drive a 70% expansion of total
coca cultivation last year in Peru's "lower Amazon River" region, a
sparsely populated area near Peru's border with Brazil and Colombia,
according to current U.N. estimates.

A decade ago, virtually no coca was grown in this area. Now, the deep
Amazon accounts for some 8% of Peru's coca acreage, these estimates
indicate, and that number is likely to rise.

Coca won't grow just anywhere. It is a tropical plant and grows best
in an equatorial band around the globe. Though coca would
theoretically grow well in Hawaii, much of the soil in the U.S.
doesn't have the acidity levels the plant needs. In other parts of the
country, overnight freezing temperatures would kill the perennial plant.

The arrival of the coca economy at the floor of the Amazon basin marks
a troubling milestone for one of the world's most fragile ecosystems.
Slash-and-burn coca agriculture is already a cause of deforestation in
Peru's lower Amazon region, local environmentalists say.

Traffickers dump leftover kerosene, acid and other chemicals used to
make cocaine into pristine rivers. Indian tribes with few resources
can be pulled into the drug economy, or in some cases even pushed off
their land.

"It's getting more violent by the day, and indigenous populations are
getting involved in a vicious cycle," said Peruvian National Police
Gen. Carlos Moran, who ran a coca-eradication operation in the region
last year.

Amazon coca already has brought change to Cushillococha, a collection
of tidy shacks around a sun-baked concrete square unreachable by road
from the rest of Peru.

It is a source of income for a poor community with little access to
government services, and separated from bigger economic centers by
long boat journeys, says Walter Witancourt, a town leader. Other tribe
members, however, said coca also brought alcoholism and cocaine use,
and placed Ticuna villages in the crossfire of rival

Mr. Witancourt, a slim man in his 60s with a sun-worn face, said some
locals started planting coca around five years ago. They knew it was
for illegal cocaine, but they needed cash to purchase basics like food
and construction materials for their meager dwellings.

Thanks to coca, some families have sent children to study in the
regional capital of Iquitos, he said.

"We have been abandoned by the government for 50 or so years," Mr.
Witancourt said. "Our children also have the right to study, to become
lawyers or professionals."

In Peru, coca mainly grows at elevations of the Andean mountains
between 6,500 and 1,700 feet. It used to be widely believed that
potent coca couldn't be grown on the floor of the Amazon basin.

A variety of the coca plant that thrives naturally in the lower Amazon
jungles, called ipadu, has a 10th the potency of highland
counterparts, for example. What's more, coca's roots rot and die in
wet earth, a serious farming issue in the flood-prone Amazon flatlands.

In 2000, a U.S.-backed military crackdown on coca farming in Colombia
provided more incentive for coca farmers to push eastward, deeper into
that country's jungle, to escape pressure.

That year, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright flew to
Brazil with a warning that the crackdown could push Colombian coca all
the way to the country's Amazon border with Brazil, creating a
security issue.

Now, more than a decade later, a version of Ms. Albright's dire
prediction is coming true. "It was a myth that coca would only grow in
the Andes or the High Jungles. It grows. I've seen it," said Ivan
Vasquez, the governor of Peru's sprawling Amazonian region of Loreto,
where Cushillococha sits.

Forestry officials who work in Peru's Amazonian region of Loreto say
2010 U.N. estimates of about 3,200 hectares under cultivation there
are too low.

The regional government produced a report this year claiming that
thousands of acres of smaller coca plots are flourishing undetected in
jungle areas outside U.N. monitored areas. Their evidence: complaints
from logging executives kicked off their concessions by coca farmers
in areas supposedly devoid of coca.

The arrival of coca at the floor of the Amazon shouldn't be a
surprise, according to Emanuel Johnson, a retired U.S. Department of
Agriculture research scientist who did extensive research on coca in
South America and at a U.S. coca greenhouse facility in Beltsville,
Md., during a three-decade career.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Johnson showed scientifically that one variety
of coca, Erythroxylum coca coca, keeps its potency as it moves
downhill. Clandestine growers in Colombia were discovering much the
same thing in the country's eastern jungles, and that is the variety
that is growing today in Peru's lower Amazon.

Rather than elevation, Dr. Johnson found, the acidity level of the
soil is the key factor for producing coca powerful enough to make cocaine

Maintaining the right acidity levels in the soil can be tricky in the
lower Amazon, since rains can rinse away acidic top soils on
deforested land. To maintain acidity, fertilizers must be brought in
by boat.

"My experience was the drug business has amazing logistics. If they
need something, they will find a way to get it there, and do it in a
way you won't even see it," Dr. Johnson said.

Coca's potential to affect Amazon life is magnified by the region's
remoteness. The Nukaks, a nomadic tribe in Colombia's eastern jungles
that only made contact with modern society in the late 1980s, were
forced off their land in recent years by Colombian coca farmers backed
by heavily armed insurgents, according to Survival International, a
U.K. group that works with the tribe.

Some Nukak tribesmen left the forest for abject poverty on the
outskirts of San Jose del Guaviare, the nearest big town. Now, the
Nukaks are on a U.N. list of tribes facing imminent extinction.

Cushillococha and towns near it are attractive to traffickers because
they sit in a no man's land outside the reach of the Peruvian state.

The main form of transportation in the region is by river, but
Peruvian national drug police have only one working boat, and no
aircraft. When they want to take the boat out, they often have to
borrow gas from the local governor, police said.

Last year, Peruvian police conducted a coca-eradication effort in the
area using helicopters borrowed from the U.S. and fuel floated up
river in blue plastic barrels by Brazilian police. But they didn't
touch crop grown by the Ticuna, police said, because a conflict
between police and the tribe could have had negative consequences in
Peruvian politics.

On a recent Wednesday, Cushillococha was a tranquil place. Barefoot
children ran by a statue of an Indian in a canoe at the town. There
were few young men about, most working in the fields, hunting or
purchasing supplies.

The only excitement came when a canoe heavy with a freshly killed
alligator pulled up at the town's muddy banks.

But the idyllic scenes mask the darker reality of coca's impact, said
two members of the Ticuna tribe who declined to be named. Some years
ago, they said, men arrived and proposed setting up coca plantations.
They brought seeds, know-how, and the promise of a few hundred dollars
per harvesta, plus seasonal pay processing coca.

The Ticuna villages were divided, with some arguing that the dangers
of close links to drug trafficking outweighed the benefits. The Ticuna
knew something of the trade: During a height of drug smuggling in the
triple border area, some Ticuna villagers helped maintain a
clandestine airstrip operated by one of former Colombian drug lord
Pablo Escobar's lieutenants, the two tribesmen said.

One by one, however, more of the villages started planting, as Ticuna
growers gained relative prosperity doing it.

Life began to change, the two men said. Bars opened selling Brazilian
and Colombian liquor favored by traffickers. Alcoholism and even
cocaine use among Ticuna rose. Shootouts between rival groups
terrified locals.

According to the men, tribal elders try to set rules to limit the
impact on their societies. They banned hard alcohol and want to
require traffickers to pay Ticuna workers in cash, not cocaine. The
rules are hard to enforce, but have helped all the same, the men said.
Tribal elders couldn't be reached to confirm the account.

In 2010, two boatloads of armed men wearing masks burst into one of
the Ticuna villages, called Gamboa, firing as they came. It was 4:30
a.m. and the villagers were made to assemble in a soccer field.

The masked men said they were to set up cocaine processing labs,
according to an account by bilingual Ticuna and Spanish teachers who
happened to be working in the vicinity. Frightened, Ticuna in Gamboa
and neighboring towns vacated their villages.

More recently, they said, Colombian paramilitary fighters, groups that
waged war against left-wing rebels before turning to other businesses
like extortion, have entered the scene. They demand some villages pay
a tax on their coca sales.

"Right now what you have over there are basically poor farmers growing
coca. If we let this go too long, one day we will come back and find
that other groups equipped for war have moved in, and we will find it
hard to get them out," said Mr. Fontes, the Brazilian Federal Police

Ryan Dube in Lima contributed to this article. A version of this
article appeared June 26, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The
Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Cocaine Expansion in Peru
Raises Fears of Global Spread.
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