Peru fights drug traffic by destroying coca crops

Every day at 6 a.m., 18-year-old Daniel Quispe shoulders a pick- axe, climbs aboard a truck, and heads for the fields surrounding this Peruvian jungle town. But he doesn't go to hoe or harvest. He spends his day destroying a valuable cash crop -- coca. Using pick-axes and their bare hands, Mr. Quispe and his fellow workers literally tear the drug-yielding bushes up by the roots, leaving them to wither and die.

The job pays about $2.85 each eight-hour day. But that was more than Quispe was making as an apple-picker outside Lima, and, what's more, he says, ``It's a little bit amusing.''

Quispe is one of 921 men who work for Corah -- the joint United States-Peruvian government coca eradication project of the Upper Huallaga Valley.

Corah received $1 million from the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics Matters in fiscal 1985. The theory behind Corah's activities is that ``the fight against narcotics trafficking has to be based on the primary material [coca],'' says Julio Samanez, who supervises Corah's field hands.

But so far the coca and those who grow it seem to be winning that fight. Fred Coral, Corah's executive director, says that, since it began operations in April 1983, Corah has eradicated over 16,000 acres of coca in the valley. The valley is one of the world's largest centers for cocaine production and distribution. The most recent US estimate put the total acreage in the valley of illegal coca cultivation at 100,000 acres.

Coral concedes that he ``wouldn't say it's a success.''

``Eradication has meant displacement of coca to areas beyond our responsibility,'' he adds.

A major problem for Corah has been a wave of attacks by the Maoist-inspired Shining Path guerrillas during the second half of 1984. The attacks prompted then-President Fernando Bela'unde Terry to declare the Upper Huallaga Valley coca producing area as ``emergency zones'' and place them under absolute military control.

The Peruvian Army has forbidden Corah teams to enter the most densely planted areas, citing the danger of guerrilla activity. Corah has not advanced beyond Aucayacu because of security concerns, says an interior ministry official. The Army recently eased its policy at President Alan Garc'ia P'erez's request. Corah planned to move into the dense coca growing area. A thousand new workers were recruited but the plan was scrapped because of security concerns.

Last November, Corah had to suspend operations after a suspected narcotics hit squad ambushed and killed 19 workers.

Since then, Corah has only sent its eradicators out in large groups sometimes as many as 120. They are guarded by heavily armed members of the Rural Mobil Patrol Unit, known as Umopar -- a special Peruvian antidrug police force with US-trained commanders.

But three recent guerrilla attacks this fall have cost the lives of a police guard and four workers and injured three guards, and one worker. The danger makes it hard to recruit workers. ``People from the valley won't work for us. They're afraid,'' says Mr. Samanez. ``Besides, they are children of coca growers.''

So Corah dispatches recruiters to the low jungle in the east, to the impoverished highlands, and to the unemployment-plagued slums of Lima.

Workers say they are used to the perils of their job. Some proudly take the name ``matacoca'' [coca killer]. But they grumble about their pay, which is more than the legal minimum of just over $1 a day, but less than what coca farmers in the valley pay their workers.

``I have to work three days just to make the bus fare home and back,'' says one worker. Several workers said those who complain about pay are fired.

Corah's schedule calls for a 21-day ``campaign'' followed by a seven-day rest period during which workers may go home and visit their families.

During the campaign the men are confined to the muddy, temporary tent city Corah has built for them. This restriction is to protect them against violent reprisal from valley residents, officials say. Conditions are Spartan inside the camp, where the men live four or five to a canvas tent. Their only entertainment comes from the odd soccer game, or from films on the camp video cassette recorder.

The camp is heavily guarded by machine gun-equipped members of Umopar. The working day includes six-hour round trip hikes through jungle terrain where coca farmers try to conceal their crops.

On a recent visit to a coca farm, a Corah contingent surprised a woman sitting in a nearby lean-to. Claiming to be ``just the cook,'' she watched silently as the coca bushes fell. But a Corah police guard suspected she was more than just a cook. ``Generally, out of fear, they say they're just workers,'' he said.

A coca farmer visited by Corah would have reason to feel depressed. Corah offers a one-time-only compensation of about $120 per acre to farmers who turn themselves in. This is ``almost nothing'' compared to the gross revenue of $2800 and $3200 an acre annually that a coca farmer receives by selling his leaves to narcotics makers.

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