Peru set to surpass Colombia as world's top coca producer

A UN report released Thursday shows Peru is just shy of overtaking Colombia in coca cultivation, demonstrating the 'balloon effect' that drug war watchers always warn about: when pressure is applied in one area, production 'balloons' in another.

In its darkest years, Colombia held some unfortunate titles: the kidnapping capital of the world, home to the most murderous city, the most deadly place to be a union member and, of course, the main world producer of coca, the raw material used in making cocaine.

In the past several years, the country has managed to shed some of those ignoble claims to fame. And, according to a new United Nations report, it may soon ditch another.

A UN report released Thursday says that Peru is just shy of overtaking Colombia as the world's top coca producer.

In 2010, 151,200 acres (61,200 hectares) of land in Peru were used to cultivate coca, claims the report. That's a 2 percent rise from the previous year.

Colombia had 153,205 acres (62,000 hectares) under cultivation in the same year, a 15 percent drop from the previous year.

Colombia touts success

For Colombia, it’s an excuse to crow about its questioned drug policies of the past decade, which included mass aerial spraying of drug crops with herbicides, and that were backed by more than $6 billion in US aid.

“It’s fashionable these days to talk about the failure of drug policies, but here these result show something else,” said Gen. Oscar Naranjo, Colombia's national police commissioner, referring to the report. It is the third straight year showing a decline in coca cultivation.

A separate report by the Rio de Janeiro-based Global Commission on Drug Policy earlier this month declared the “war on drugs has not and cannot be won." The panel included former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, and British business mogul, Richard Branson.

The 'balloon effect'

While overall coca production in the Andes was down by 6 percent in 2010 compared to the year before, the increase in Peru is proof positive of the “balloon effect” that drug war watchers always warn about: when pressure is applied in one area, production “balloons” in another.

Data for 2010 for Bolivia, another coca producer, was not available when the report was printed, but in 2009 some 30,900 hectares were under cultivation in that country. A certain amount of coca is grown legally in Bolivia for domestic consumption, as chewing coca leaf is an ancestral tradition.

The three Andean nations account for 100 percent of all coca production worldwide.

US remains largest market

Then United States is still the world’s largest market for cocaine, with consumption in 2009 estimated at 157 tons.

Last year, Colombia is estimated to have produced between 310 and 350 tons of cocaine powder, 170 of which were interdicted before reaching market, according to Mr. Naranjo.

Figures for estimated cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia were not available, but the UN report states that there is evidence of a technology transfer from Colombia to the two other countries, and that “labs that use the ‘Colombian method’ are far more efficient in extracting cocaine from coca leaves.”

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