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Peru's Carmen Masías Outlines Agency's Efforts to Combat Drug Scourge
Diálogo / May 21, 2012

By Larry Luxner

The Humala government vows to step up coca eradication efforts and adapt new strategies to help Peru’s estimated 100,000 drug addicts kick the habit — even as it battles severe budget constraints and continuing violence by Shining Path terrorists.

So says Carmen Masías, director of Peru’s National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo y Vida Sin Drogas).

“President Ollanta Humala, in his inauguration speech, was abundantly clear when he said that Peru would continue its struggle against drugs and associated violence. At this moment, we are completing the mandates of the president and his ministries,” Masías told several dozen experts during a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Masías, a psychologist and family therapist, took over as Peru’s drug czar in January following the resignation of her predecessor, Ricardo Soberón Garrido.

Her May 11 presentation at CSIS came less than a week after a fire swept through a Lima drug rehabilitation center, killing 14 people in the second such blaze this year. A similar fire in late January claimed 29 lives, prompting Masías to acknowledge that the state has limited capacity for treating drug addicts.

A 2010 DEVIDA study found that Peru has 222 private rehab centers containing 700 beds. But 80 percent of those centers are unlicensed, and many lack doctors and psychologists. This is one reason the Humala government is seeking additional help from Washington.

“My visit to the United States is first, to thank a brother country for its constant support over the years in our struggle against drugs. This is a global problem and the U.S. is our principal partner in this fight,” she said, noting that “this is a very important moment for Peru. We have the political will, our economy is increasing by 7 percent a year and our government is committed to this struggle.”

DEVIDA boosts spending on anti-drug programs

Before her current position, Masías represented Partners of the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization and other regional bodies, and developed courses for the Peruvian National Police. A renowned social development expert, she’s also written extensively on gangs and organized crime.

Masías, who adamantly opposes the legalization of drugs — a subject raised during last month’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia — said Peru’s anti-drug budget has jumped from $13.4 million in 2002 to $101.9 million in 2011. This year, despite a substantial drop in international assistance, the government will spend more than double that amount ($223 million) and is projected to further increase anti-drug expenditures to $278.3 million in 2013, $284.9 million in 2014 and $291.5 million in 2015.

Yet over roughly that same time frame, global production of cocaine has skyrocketed, from 140 metric tons in 2000 to 325 tons in 2010. Colombia accounts for roughly 42 percent of that total, followed by Peru (39 percent) and Bolivia (19 percent), according to UNODC statistics.

In Peru, some 61,200 hectares of land in 14 distinct regions are devoted to the coca crop, led by three regions: Valle Río Apurímac-Ene (19,723 hectares, or 32 percent); La Convención-Lares (13,330 hectares, or 22 percent) and Alto Huallaga (13,025 hectares, or 21 percent).

Drug use increasing

The number of Peruvians who use illegal drugs continues to rise. In 2010, the country reported some 168,000 marijuana smokers, 143,000 users of coca paste and cocaine, 14,300 inhalant abusers and 5,800 ecstasy addicts. In addition, some 30,000 Peruvians get hooked on cocaine every year, she said, and 47 percent of those new users are younger than 25.

“Peru produces cocaine but we also consume it, and we’re a transit country. The United States has reduced cocaine consumption by 50 percent, but Brazil has increased substantially, so the panorama is changing,” said Masías. In fact, only 4 percent of Peru’s coca production ends up being snorted by Americans; the “vast majority” of it is smuggled to neighboring Brazil.

“There is no real possibility of having success unless we eradicate the crop,” she said. Last year, authorities destroyed 10,290 hectares of coca, down from a peak of 12,033 hectares in 2010, and 10,025 hectares the year before.

“Eradication is absolutely necessary,” she said.“Positive results have been found where eradication was accompanied by alternative development programs. Negative results have been found where there was no eradication.”

Masías said DEVIDA’s goal this year is to eradicate 14,000 hectares of coca, a 40 increase over last year’s figures. That would increase to 18,000 hectares in 2013, 22,000 hectares in 2014, 26,000 hectares in 2015 and 30,000 hectares in 2016 — a total of 30 percent over the next five years.

Masías: Eradication can’t succeed without alternative development

DEVIDA also aims to provide alternative development programs to 68,000 Peruvian families this year, increasing that by 4,000 families annually to reach 84,000 families by 2016. Among the most successful alternative development programs are those involving cash crops like coffee, cacao and winter vegetables. Some 1,000 former cocaleros are now harvesting palm oil, she said, with annual profits of about $17,000 a year per family.

In 2000, total revenues of the 14 agricultural entities in DEVIDA’s alternative development program came to $15 million. By 2009, total sales of those 14 entities had jumped to $72 million — rising further to $101 million in 2010 and an impressive $140 million last year, thanks to excellent prices for coffee and cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate.

“This involves the active participation of small agricultural producers who leave illicit crops, as well as a change of attitude toward the problem,” she said, emphasizing that only sustainable crops with access to domestic and foreign markets are likely to remain viable over the long term.

One of the biggest drawbacks, however, remains Peru’s long-running war against the Shining Path. That conflict has killed some 70,000 people since 1980, when the group was established.

“The Sendero Luminoso is definitely financed by the narcotraffickers,” Masías said. “The worst thing is that they are capturing children as young as 8 or 9 years old. This is unconscionable.”

The Shining Path is a shadow of the Maoist rebel group that once terrorized the country 20 years ago, with only 300 to 500 hard-core fighters believed to remain in the Ene and Apurimac Valley region, where most of Peru’s coca is cultivated. Yet the group has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent months. In April, the rebels kidnapped 36 natural-gas workers and in the past two months have killed nine police officers and soldiers.

Empowering women is key to success

Peru, which next month hosts an anti-drug summit for 80 countries, has also stepped up confiscation of chemical products and controlled substances used in the manufacture of drugs. The average seizure of chemical products is now 2,500 metric tons — up 400 percent from 2007.

Masías said that while much emphasis has been placed on alternative development and interdiction and punishment of narcotics smugglers, the third part of DEVIDA’s three-pronged strategy — prevention and rehabilitation of drug abusers — is equally important.

That means boosting educational programs and advertising campaigns that warn about the dangers of drug abuse; strengthening programs to help drug users quit the habit, and generating job opportunities for young people — particularly women with limited education who are often the most vulnerable members of society.

It is precisely these women who live in coca-growing regions that play a key role in getting their families to switch from coca to other crops like coffee and cacao. A number of DEVIDA programs offer technical training and management advice for Peruvian women who want to get out of the coca business once and for all.

“We don’t want to see women only as victims, but also as agents of change,” Masías told her audience. “Stigmatization is not the answer.”

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