The Big Push: The Cocaine-Rainforest Connection

For years a battle has been waged between those who grow coca and produce cocaine, and government forces wanting to eradicate coca crops to end the cocaine trade. In the middle stand the rainforests … but not for much longer.

Click to enlarge.

The report below, which appeared in Sierra Magazine in 1988, remains relevant to students of North-South issues and the international drug wars. At the time of publication, it drew attention in the United States both from environmental groups eager to focus public scrutiny on the destruction of rainforests in South America, and from officials in Washington, D.C., wanting to validate the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s campaign to destroy coca crops in Peru, ostensibly to stem the flow of cocaine (which derives from native coca leaves) into the United States.



The Big Push

by Mark Mardon


IN ONE ASPECT, THE TEST PLOT is a letdown. I had thought that, given its inherent scientific and political importance, it would make a stronger visual impression. Instead the plot barely stands out, a gray splotch in the midst of green fields.

Situated near the top of a low, rounded hill, this roughly 25′ X 25′ patch of ground has been treated with three different herbicides; it supports only dead and dying shrubs. Decaying logs laid end to end mark its boundaries. Slender, pale-white tree stumps dot its terrain. The site resembles nothing so much as a garden left untended and unwatered for months.

If this spot were located in the farmlands of North America, these naked stems might be mistaken for the remnants of a drought-strangled crop. This is, however, Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley, an area some 150 miles long by 50 miles wide that edges the Amazon River basin along the eastern slopes of the Andes. The plants are Erythroxylum coca var. coca, the leaves of which are used to produce cocaine.

This site is one of several where the Peruvian and United States governments are conducting anti-cocaine experiments, initiated by the U.S. State Department at the request of Attorney General Edwin Meese. These dead coca bushes are the aftermath of scientific experiments; they indicate the kind of destruction likely to occur to crops and forests alike if certain herbicides are applied heavily throughout the valley.

Hence the presence here of an impressive array of VIPs inspecting this pathetic-seeming bit of real estate. Principal among these is General Juan Zárate, commander of the anti-narcotics force of Peru’s Civil Guard, wearing his characteristic sunglasses, visored cap, and green fatigues. Zárate stands on the hilltop beneath the stationary rotor of a blue Bell 212 helicopter provided by the U.S. State Department. He rests his right hand atop the holstered pistol on his hip as he talks with the chief press officer of Peru’s Ministry of the Interior. Close by stand two agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) dressed in full military camouflage gear. M-16s slung over their shoulders, they alternately scrutinize the general, scan the hillsides, and watch a second helicopter, piloted by another DEA agent, circle overhead.


The gist of remarks the State Department officials make openly, and of what they leave unsaid, is that the coca war is a no-win situation as far as the environment is concerned.


Down the hill, within the testing area, a chemicals analyst from the United States is poking around among the dead shrubs. He is one of four researchers from the Arlington, Virginia, laboratory of Labat-Anderson, Inc., who at the State Department’s request prepared an environmental assessment on the use of herbicides to eradicate illicit coca in the Andean countries of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia. Even though his name appears on the final report, this is his first visit to South America, and his first look at a test site.

Reporters from Newsweek, The New York Times, the Indianapolis Star, the Boston Globe, Sierra, and ABC News are tramping through the test plot, trying to find something to report on. Unfortunately, there is little to learn. As an environmental reporter, I would like to know which herbicides have been applied to which areas, but no one in our present company is qualified to say.

One of the herbicides used here was tebuthiuron, produced by Eli Lilly Company in the United States and sold in pellet form under the trade name Spike. Basing its decision in part on the Labat-Anderson study, the State Department determined that Spike is the most effective, least environmentally troublesome herbicide available for the U.S.-supported war on coca. When the pellets are dropped from airplanes onto coca fields, their weight is expected to keep them from drifting very far into the surrounding rainforest. And except for preventing photosynthesis in plants, says the Labat-Anderson study, Spike is essentially nontoxic. It is, therefore, the product State Department officials are intent on using in their eradication campaign.

Unfortunately for them, Eli Lilly refuses to sell Spike for this purpose, citing “practical and policy considerations” preventing such a sale. The company’s intransigence has caught the State Department off guard, prompting the agency to mount a campaign to mobilize U.S. public opinion in support of its anti-cocaine operations, and to pressure Eli Lilly into cooperation. As part of that public-relations thrust, selected media organizations have been invited on a fact-finding tour of the Upper Huallaga Valley.

The gist of remarks the State Department officials make openly, and of what they leave unsaid, is that the coca war is a no-win situation as far as the environment is concerned. Even if Spike does inadvertently kill rainforests, officials imply–though they steadfastly deny it will have any significant effects on forest ecology–the coca plantations are already doing the same thing. Since one way or the other the forest is lost, there’s no reason not to go ahead with an eradication program that will make some contribution to stemming the flow of cocaine to the inner cities of America.

“Isn’t this impressive?” asks the chief of the U.S. embassy’s Narcotics Assistance Unit. He is referring to a landscape logged to make way for coca plantations. He gazes across a shallow valley, focusing on a hillside where neat rows of healthy coca shrubs grow on expanses of land surrounded by rainforest.

“They don’t grow anything else,” he says, mistakenly, of the coca farmers. New to his assignment in Peru, he doesn’t recognize that the plot he is looking at contains yucca, a staple food crop, as well as coca.

“Yeah, well,” he mutters when someone points this out to him, “that’s one of the rare times you’ll see a mix like that.”

A few minutes later, I ask him why a few coca plants are still surviving within the test site. He suggests almost apologetically that some seeds must have fallen onto the test site since the spraying was completed. It’s a wild theory, though. The plants we’re discussing are mature specimens. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture sprayed this plot only eight months previously. Seedlings, if they could sprout at all (given the presence of residual herbicides in the soil), would be quite small. Two of the herbicides applied here– hexazinone and dicamba– persist only a few months in tropical environments. But the third, Spike, has an estimated half-life of more than 11 months in tropical soil, meaning that it persists for years at strengths sufficient to control vegetation. Woody plants absorb Spike through their roots and die after it spreads through their stems and leaves, inhibiting photosynthesis. Once sprayed with Spike, the land could support no life, other than grasses, for at least two years, and probably for much longer. Our Labat-Anderson researcher dismisses the narcotics chief’s idea, suggesting instead that the herbicides used were unevenly applied on the site, so that not all plants were affected. This makes better sense.

Around the hill’s perimeter, at least 16 Peruvian policemen carrying automatic rifles stand guard against possible attack. The situation is as potentially grim as it looks: Our party would be a likely target for a variety of dissidents–narcotics traffickers, of course, but also local farmers angered by the government’s destruction of their coca crops. The policemen watch also for any sign of movement by members of Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), a Maoist revolutionary group, or by the equally militant Tupac Amarú Revolutionary Movement, better known by its Spanish acronym, MRTA. One year ago, armed MRTA forces moved through the northern end of the Huallaga Valley, taking control of several towns. In response, Peruvian President Alan García established emergency military zones in the departments of San Martín and Huánuco, placing most of the Huallaga Valley and the region’s principal town, Tingo María, under martial law. In an uneasy division of powers, Peru’s military suppresses revolutionary movements, while its civilian police force, the Civil Guard, fights the war against cocaine. So far, at least, the two forces have respected each other’s territories.

On a level area one or two hillsides away from us, a band of peasants has gathered to stare at the intruders in their midst. Standing still, they make no threatening gestures, and the police ignore them. Many of the police, who have been sweltering in the afternoon heat and humidity, have taken refuge in the shade of a peasant’s shack on top of our hill. I ask one of these men the whereabouts of the owner of the house and its surrounding coca plantation; he shrugs his shoulders. “He has gone away,” he says in Spanish.

General Zárate maintains that this shack and other like it are not permanent residences, but “refuges”– temporary shelters built by farmers who understand, but do not accept, that coca growing is an outlaw activity. Even so, this particular refuge appears sturdy, its heavy wooden planks set firmly on the ground, topped with a corrugated tin roof. Inside, the floor is hard-packed earth. Two wooden platforms, piled with bedding and overhung with canopies, are attached to the walls a few feet above floor level. Otherwise, the interior is spare. Two roosters– one at either end of the large room– are tethered to the walls by strings tied around their necks. Oddly out of place in this setting, a backpack- type herbicide sprayer leans against the wall in the shadows of one corner of the room.

Outside, the sky is hazy, as smoke from burning forest spreads across the valley. Clouds appear only intermittently on the horizon–unusual weather, considering that the Huallaga Valley is so frequently overcast that aerial reconnaissance flights for anti-narcotics intelligence-gathering have proved difficult to conduct.


IT IS ESTIMATED that anywhere from 400,000 to 940,000 acres of the Huallaga Valley are now planted in coca. A figure midway between those extremes is probably accurate, according to conservationist Marc Dourojeanni, a former head professor at the National Agrarian University in Lima who is now with the World Bank’s Latin American environmental division. In a report released by the U.S. State Department, Dourojeanni says that no crop except coffee is planted so extensively. He maintains that coca farms–together with “exhausted lands abandoned by the growers; areas used by peasants who have fled regions dominated by narcotics traffickers and terrorists; land used by coca growers fleeing police repression; and areas deforested for clandestine landing strips, camps, and laboratories”–account directly or indirectly for the deforestation of some 1.7 million acres of jungle in the Peruvian Amazon. That adds up to roughly 10 percent of the total rainforest destruction in Peru this century.

Dourojeanni, in agreement with most Peruvian agronomists, considers the Upper Huallaga Valley ideal for forestry and for wildlife reserves, but poorly suited to agriculture. Situated in a mountainous region, the valley receives heavy rainfall, and has the nutrient-poor soils associated with tropical forests. Farmers do manage to eke out livings by cultivating cassava, banana, corn, and yucca. Because these plantations are widely dispersed and relatively small, their presence has so far had little impact on the landscape. In contrast, the loss of ground cover to coca cultivation, especially on hilltops and steep hillsides, has led to massive erosion.

“No other crop in the world causes similar levels of erosion,” Dourojeanni says. As a result, “thousands of people have . . . died in floods and landslides in the montane jungle region of Peru.”
Dourojeanni is concerned about the effect of the herbicides used to control weeds on coca plantations: “Because the crop is so profitable, and the growers generally very ignorant, agrochemicals are applied in overdoses.” Most common among the agrochemicals used in enormous quantities in coca plantations are Tiodan, Malathion, Sevidan, and Taman– all of which, Dourojeanni says, leach out of the soil and into the waterways, where they “almost certainly” are causing damage.

But deforestation, erosion, and chemical dumping are not the whole problem, Dourojeanni says. “The coca zones are a no man’s land where the rule of law has been replaced by the rule of anarchy. Logging, hunting, and fishing are completely uncontrolled. The few protected areas that have been established to preserve the ecosystems of the region cannot be developed; worse still, they are being invaded by drug traffickers and coca growers. The most pathetic example, Tingo María National Park, was invaded in 1972.”

“Gold rushers” is what Ambassador Alexander F. Watson calls the Upper Huallaga Valley’s new immigrants. From his heavily guarded embassy on Avenue Garcilaso de la Vega in downtown Lima, Watson maintains a close watch on Peru’s anti-drug operations, and has been instrumental in providing U.S. assistance to the anti-drug police. He strongly advocates the use of Spike or some other herbicide for eradicating coca fields in the Huallaga Valley.

“These people know they’re engaged in an illicit enterprise,” Watson tells journalists at an embassy press conference. “They’re not traditional farmers. They’re not growing other crops.” Nor, he adds, are they traditional coca users–as are some 2 million Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians who live on the high plains of the the Andes and chew coca leaf for its mildly stimulating effect. Coca has played an integral role in Andean cultures for thousands of years.

“They’re a different kind of person,” says Watson of the newcomers, and for this reason he has few qualms about wiping out their coca crops. Enough coca would continue to be produced legally in the country– under the auspices of the National Coca Enterprise (Empresa Nacional de la Coca)– to continue supplying the leaf to traditional users.

Watson believes weakening the hugely profitable cocaine-trafficking organizations, which are dominated by Colombians, is a necessary step toward reducing the demand for coca. Those are the organizations that pay Peruvian farmers the equivalent of $3.60 for each kilogram of coca–$3 more than the government pays. “If you have less of a demand,” Watson says, “then the price drops, and some sort of alternative economic endeavors become more attractive.”

Watson’s briefing is followed by an invitation to a cocktail gathering that evening hosted by the embassy’s deputy chief of mission. His home in the upscale district of San Isidro is surrounded by a high wall and guarded by security guards. We are chauffeured there in an embassy van that is protected against terrorist gunshots by inch-thick plexiglass panels bolted to the interior walls, covering all the windows.

After hors d’oeuvres and several pisco sours–the traditional Andean cocktail– one State Department official presses me for my opinion about coca growing and the destruction of rainforest. I have no doubt, I say, that the issues are inextricably linked. But, I ask him, isn’t the only real solution to curb demand for cocaine in North America and Europe? Yes, he says, but since that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, it is essential in the interim to stem the supply of cocaine from Peru and Bolivia. As we pursue these themes, a tall, imposing gentleman strides directly toward me. “Are you the man from the Sierra Club?” he interrupts.

“Yes, I am,” I reply. “I write for Sierra magazine.”

“Do you think,” he asks accusingly, “that you can be objective when the State Department is paying your way here?”

The man’s straightforwardness puts me in an awkward position. Alone among the news organizations present, Sierra alone chose to rely on State Department funding to cover its reporter’s travel expenses.

I respond as simply as I can: “I’m trying to do my best.” But now I’m puzzled. I had assumed that all the officials at the cocktail gathering–the ambassador included–were interested in convincing the visiting press of the necessity of using Spike or some other herbicide to eliminate coca. Clearly this man has other ideas.

He introduces himself as the chief of programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in Peru. In exchange for President García’s cooperation in eradicating coca leaf, his agency supplies training and credit to Huallaga Valley farmers, helping them develop markets for coffee, palm oil, yucca flour, and forestry products. The Peruvian government is eager for this type of economic help, because such agroindustrial products require farm machinery, chemicals, and management services that are in short supply in Peru.

“We’re spending too much money on this coca-eradication thing,” he says. “We should start spending money to stop rainforest destruction in other parts of Peru where it’s happening on a much greater scale.”

I look around to see if anyone listening to this apparent heresy is about to grab this man and quiet him. But no one seems particularly concerned, and he continues uninterrupted.

The State Department is pumping money into the anti-cocaine effort in the Upper Huallaga Valley, he explains. Eighteen million dollars were budgeted for the effort this year. By itself, AID spent almost $4 million in fiscal 1987 to develop agriculture and employment in the valley. These efforts, the program chief hopes, will ease the peasant community out of coca-growing without causing economic chaos.

“Is your program working?” I ask.

He shakes his head, looking doubtful. It is going slowly, he admits. Because Sendero Luminoso has rallied public opinion against U.S.-sponsored programs of any kind, the valley’s farmers tend to resist US-AID’s development efforts, even though they are aimed at improving the valley’s economic welfare.


“TODAY AT 7 A.M. we had good luck finding a laboratory,” the police commander at Tingo María announces on the second morning of our press tour. “Our men are in the jungle, securing the area now. We are going to take you there so you can see how the narcotraficantes produce the base paste that is used in processing cocaine.”

This is a surprise. The itinerary for our tour of the Huallaga did not include a trek into the jungle. But our arrival in Tingo María coincides with a bustling of police activity related to the lab discovery, and the day’s activities promise to be enlightening.

The frontier town of Tingo María is on the Huallaga River some 17 hours from Lima by bus along Peru’s Central Highway. In esthetic terms, the town is fortunate: It sits in a beautiful tropical niche at the base of the Andes, and is the gateway to Tingo María National Park.

In economic terms, though, Tingo María’s blessings have been mixed at best. Colonized in the mid-1930s, the town was a sawmill, wood-processing, and distilling center into the late 1960s. Then came the cocaine boom in North America and Europe, and Tingo María’s economy blossomed. Farmers began clearing jungle land, planting coca, and selling the dried leaves to cocaine producers. In return, they received far more cash than they could earn for coffee or cacao, two of the more profitable crops competing with coca leaf for the farmer’s attention. As word of the boom spread throughout Peru, laborers from as far away as Lima and Arequipa moved into the valley, clearing more land, planting more coca. In the process, Tingo María acquired a nickname, “Little Chicago,” reflecting the violence that came as capitalist drug barons jockeyed for control of the region’s coca commerce, eventually pitting themselves against the puritanical Maoists of Sendero Luminoso.

In the late 1980s the town’s character has changed again: Civilian government has been suspended and administrative control assumed by the military. Even more of a headache for coca growers, the 64th Command of the Civil Guard, the “anti-drug police,” bases its operations here. A combat-zone tenseness envelops the town. Tourists visiting the national park are warned not to take photographs of the bridge across the Huallaga River, “for security reasons.” One reporter who points a camera at an air force helicopter is warned away at gunpoint by a nervous young soldier standing sentinel on the grassy landing strip outside the civilian flight terminal.

From this command base, the police pressure coca growers and narcotics traffickers throughout the valley. Downriver at Santa Lucía, some 50 miles north of Tingo María as the parrot flies, a collection of red-roofed barracks and huts houses the 462-man Special Project for Control and Eradication of Coca in the Upper Huallaga (CORAH). These workers have the unenviable task of destroying coca crops by uprooting the bushes by hand. Not only is their job tedious and low-paying (each man earns about 15,000 Intis–about $73–per month), it is exceedingly dangerous. In the past two years, 34 CORAH workers have been murdered by drug traffickers and both Sendero and MRTA guerrillas. Reportedly the situation in the Huallaga is so tense that police no longer travel by road, preferring instead to patrol the area in the relative safety of helicopters.

We are soon on our way across the valley to see the laboratory the police have discovered. High above the forest canopy, I sit unharnessed on the slick metal floor of one of the State Department helicopters, inches from the side opening. The serpentine Huallaga River winds through the rainforest below, curling back on itself, crisscrossing, forming white-sand beaches under overhanging palms. A powerfully built young man with a very large gun resting across his knees sits opposite me, his face serious, his eyes scanning the jungle canopy. The thwack-thwack of the blades is deafening. A second helicopter shadows us: They fly only in pairs in order to support one another.

General Zárate, wearing his cap and dark glasses, sits in the center of the cabin, wearing headphones. He somehow manages to appear calm, even though a helicopter he once was flying in was shot down by a rifle grenade, after which he spent days in the jungle evading armed drug traffickers.

Now he receives a message from the pilot, nods, and says something into his microphone. Immediately the helicopter banks sharply. I find myself looking straight down into the jungle, certain that any slight jar would send me overboard into a free fall–but I have been told beforehand not to worry, because centrifugal force will keep me in the machine. I am not altogether convinced.

The rainforest below looks soft and inviting. Its smooth, green expanse is shiny in places where the sunlight glances off it at a favorable angle.

We circle above a long, narrow gash in the forest, a clearing that looks incongruously like a neatly trimmed, grassy mall. Zárate explains that this was recently a clandestine landing strip, one of many such runways used by the narcotraficantes. The strips are just large enough to accommodate small aircraft such as single-engine Cessna 206s. The planes bring chemicals and equipment to supply rustic labs ensconced in the jungle, then fly coca-base paste out of Peru into isolated border areas of Colombia, Brazil, or Ecuador. There larger, more sophisticated labs are thriving, producing freebase cocaine, which forms in chunks, and cocaine hydrochloride, the white powder so pervasive in North America and Europe.

When an airstrip is first constructed, Zárate explains, many large trees are left standing along its edges, their overhanging crowns helping to conceal the cut from police and military surveillance aircraft. Only hours before a plane is due to land are the trees cut down and cleared away.

“Since 1985 we have discovered 179 landing strips,” says the General. “We destroy them with explosives, and they rebuild them.”

This runway has been bombed by Zárate’s forces, and is now clearly unusable. Its otherwise manicured surface is punctuated by three enormous, water-filled holes.

One end of the landing strip is pointed at a large hill rising sharply from the jungle floor, dripping with foliage. Northward, the rainforest stretches for miles along the flat river corridor, disappearing into the smokey haze on the horizon. So many fires burn across the valley, so much of the terrain has been ravaged, that the region resembles a scene from the Vietnam war.

Everywhere I see coca fields carved into the jungle, newly felled logs lying on the ground like so many pick-up sticks. Almost invariably, near the center of each coca field, a small hut has been built. On the ground near each of these, amid the dark green of mature coca shrubs, there usually appears a square patch of light green: coca leaves drying in the sun.


“THE PRODUCTION CAPABILITY of this lab,” says General Zárate once we arrive at our destination, “is about 4,000 kilos [8,820 lbs.] of coca base paste per month.” He walks casually across the wooden structure’s rough floor, gesturing as he approaches what look like two large, wooden crates. Both are open at the top and lined with heavy, clear plastic.

“There are always two pits,” Zárate says. “In one you put the leaves, then you add chemicals: sulfuric acid, kerosene, ammonia.” He demonstrates how someone would stomp–barefoot–on the toxic mixture. Then, he says, “you wait 48 hours. The leaf will release the liquid alkaloid, which flows into the second pit.” He passes his hand through the air, then pantomimes someone pouring a bucket. “Now you add carbonates, a suspension element. It floats.” Finally he cups his hand: “You scoop that up and it is now base cocaine paste.”

Zarate’s policemen, guns at the ready, stand alert around the lab’s perimeter. The structure, supporting a peaked roof, is open to the forest on all sides. Some of the police keep watch from under the roof; others thread their way through the damp vegetation, alert for any movement; two stand with their automatic rifles leveled at a prisoner–a young man found carrying a chainsaw in the vicinity. A giant blue butterfly wafts by just inches above the forest floor, not far from the prisoner’s feet.

Zárate cannot say how recently cocaine traffickers built this lab, obscuring it beneath the dense jungle canopy. We reached it by tramping some 300 yards through a muddy stream that flows out of the jungle and into a major tributary of the Huallaga River. Fishtail palms, birds of paradise, bromeliads, orchids, bamboos, and the towering buttresses of rainforest trees lined our watery pathway.

The police begin dismantling the lab, slowly unscrewing the circular, flourescent light fixtures attached to beams under the ceiling. As they proceed, the rest of us are asked to return to the helicopter waiting by the riverbank. The police, we are told, are going to destroy the lab by setting it on fire.

Sure enough, not more than a half hour later, as we stand by the riverbank at the edge of the jungle, we hear a loud “whoosh” and see a column of black smoke rise from the jungle.

Something about this scene is odd, though. I recall Zárate telling us earlier that after his men uncover a site, a judge is brought in to make a legal accounting of its contents. And the most valuable equipment, including plastic receptacles, is gathered and brought into Tingo María or some other police station. But no judge is present here today, and, except for two small generators, no equipment is brought to the helicopters.


AT THE COCKTAIL PARTY we attended our first night in Lima, an American freelance journalist had suggested I let him arrange a meeting between myself and member of the “opposition”–someone he vaguely described as being interested in stopping the government from using herbicides on coca fields.

I remain uncertain about much that I’ve seen–for all I know, especially given the absent judge, the lab burning was a deception staged purely to create a sensation for the benefit of visiting journalists. One of my companions among the journalists felt this was so (though he later reported the burning as fact). I’m no stranger to Peru, having lived and studied in Lima throughout 1980, but I’m eager to run a reality check on some of my suspicions with someone who’s been in the country on a more permanent basis.

When I telephone the journalist upon my return from the jungle lab, and ask him to arrange the meeting, he tells me the “opposition” member is in fact his wife, also an American journalist. I do not back out of the meeting, but I’m disappointed. I had hoped to talk to a leader of Sendero Luminoso, or a narcotraficante, or at least a coca grower.

After hanging up, I begin to get a queasy feeling. The meeting place we had decided on is a popular café, the Haiti, on a roundabout called the Ovalo in the wealthy Lima suburb of Miraflores. I remember a State Department travel advisory: “U.S. citizens are advised that terrorism is a serious problem in many parts of Peru.” As a result, U.S. government employees are prohibited from visiting the Ovalo after dark– and my meeting is to take place at dusk.

Imagining small headlines on the back page of my hometown paper (“Sierra Club Journalist Target of Terrorist Attack”), I place a call to the press officer at the U.S. embassy to confirm that the man who arranged the meeting is not by some chance in league with Sendero Luminoso. That group has, after all, waged a bloody guerrilla war in Peru since 1980, and I once knew a Canadian journalist who secretly helped organize the Peruvian leftist revolutionary movement.

“Oh, he’s a good friend of mine,” the press officer says when I ask her about my new acquaintance. “You can trust him.”

By extension, presumably, I can also trust his wife. She arrives at the café shortly after the waiter brings my capuccino, and places a stack of documents on the table.

“These were given to me by confidential U.S. government sources who are dissatisfied with the State Department’s tebuthiruon testing program,” she says. “You’re welcome to make copies of them.”

The fattest document is the half-inch-thick Labat-Anderson study. It is useful, but not something the Sierra Club couldn’t obtain simply by asking the State Department for a copy.

Nonetheless, as we discuss the plan to use herbicides on coca, she makes a point I had not previously considered. “Sure, the government is playing this up as a no-win situation,” she says, alluding to the argument that the rainforests of the Huallaga Valley will suffer as surely from continued coca production as from the the effects of the chemical eradication program. “But consider this: If you kill the crops with Spike, what happens?” The answer is that peasants will move to new areas and start over again, clearing even more rainforest. “They’re highly mobile,” she says. “There’s no way of stopping them.” Like spraying oil to put out a fire, the eradication efforts will only cause mountainous rainforests throughout Peru to be destroyed more rapidly.

In this light, the State Department’s plan to eradicate coca crops chemically begins to strike me as untenable. The question I mull over during the long taxi ride back to my hotel in downtown Lima is whether the application of Spike or any other concoction on coca plants can solve a problem that begins with drug consumers. The demand for cocaine emanates from people traveling in the fast lanes–or, as the case may be, the breakdown lanes–of industrial society. The drug’s users can be found in North America’s and Europe’s corporate boardrooms, high-society bedrooms, professional sports locker rooms, ghetto apartments, government corridors, fashionable nightclubs, and college dormitories, among other locales. The success of any government’s war on cocaine, it seems to me, depends to a large extent on that government’s ability to foster drug-education and social-reform programs–something to nurture a cultural and economic environment within which people can effectively reconsider their habits.

The taxi passes by the U.S. embassy. As usual, Peruvian police patrol the sidewalk in front of the embassy’s wrought-iron fence. They face the avenue, toward its crush of smog-spewing traffic, and warily scan the steady stream of pedestrians walking by under a canopy of trees and the glow of streetlamps. This corner of the dusty old City of Kings is almost attractive–it’s less gray, and a little tidier, than most sections of Lima.

There is a certain incongruity here, between the powerful image the embassy projects and the seeming helplessness of the U.S. government to stem the tide of cocaine use among its people at home. The situation is made all the more ironic by the economic gulf separating the two American nations. The first, materially wealthy, has a society so weakened by drugs that its government, grasping for solutions, seeks to wage a chemical war in somebody else’s backyard. The second, fortunate in that very few of its people are habituated to cocaine, is nonetheless impoverished and reliant on the goodwill of the wealthier nation, and so agrees to bear the brunt of a war it did not start.

In this dynamic, only the rainforest is neutral– and, as so often happens in war, the innocent bystander is the big loser.


1997 UPDATE:

Since the article’s appearance, political regimes in Peru and the United States have changed considerably, yet the situation in the coca-growing region of Peru remains remarkably as it was in 1988. The Peruvian military and police continue to wage an all-out war on coca growers in the Upper Huallaga Valley, the world’s chief coca-growing region. The United States under Clinton continues to back Peru in this effort. Anti-drug helicopters, funded by the U.S., continue to patrol the Huallaga Valley, though their base has shifted 200 miles to the east, from Santa Lucía to the riverside town of Pucallpa, once a prime tourist destination.

Nonetheless, several key changes in the nature of this war have occurred, owing to political shifts. The Clinton administration steadfastly supports the drug war of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who was democratically elected in 1990 but who assumed dictatorial powers in 1992. Under Fujimori, the drug war has become little more than a cover for war on Shining Path and other Maoist revolutionaries in Peru–a war that has led to what Amnesty International terms “widespread and gross human rights violations,” involving “at least 5,000 cases of disappearance and extrajudicial executions”, and the massacres of at least 500 people by the Peruvian military.

The most significant change in U.S. involvement in the drug war has been the ascention of the CIA as the lead anti-narcotics agency, and the consequent downgrading of the DEA to second-string status. This shift was instigated by Fujimori’s Interior Minister, Vladimiro Montesinos, who upon assuming office purged the military police of its top anti-narcotics officers, including General Juan Zárate Gambini, who figures prominently in “The Big Push”.

Zárate, whether for good or ill, had proved highly effective at eradicating illicit coca crops and destroying clandestine cocaine-base-paste labs. He was, however, strongly backed by the DEA, whose agents in Lima in turn distrusted Montesinos because of his well-known ties with traffickers. The CIA, for its particular purposes, sought cooperation rather than confrontation with the new government, preferring to ignore Montesinos’ shady connections and thereby gaining the Interior Minister’s favor.

But with the CIA heading up the U.S. side of the drug war, military actions in the Huallaga Valley are now directed less at interdicting illicit drugs and more at suppressing insurrection by disenfranchised campesinos. The result has been the sharp rise in human rights atrocities.