Peru Now The Biggest Cocaine Producer

Peru has taken over as the world’s top producer of cocaine, overtaking its neighbor Colombia.

Colombia drastically reduced cocaine production there with a multi-billion dollar effort to eradicate the coca leaf that is used to produce cocaine.

The BBC’s Robin Lustig traveled to Peru to see that nation’s effort to stall cocaine production.


  • Robin Lustig, journalist and broadcaster. He tweets @robinlustig.


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In December, two women from Britain were sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for trying to smuggle cocaine out of Peru. Their crime might be a sign of a recent milestone. Peru has now overtaken its neighbor, Colombia, as the world's biggest producer of cocaine. The turnaround comes after Colombia drastically cut its production with the help of a U.S.-backed, multibillion-dollar eradication program that destroys the coca leaf that's used to manufacture cocaine.

So, now that the center of cocaine production has shifted to Peru, will that country do anything to cut back its own production? The BBC's Robin Lustig reports the Peruvian government says it's committed to doing something. But that's a tough sell for cash-strapped farmers.

ROBIN LUSTIG: This is the region called the High Amazon. It's where the Andes meet the Amazon jungle. It's a thriving, bustling town. You can probably hear all the traffic noise. And coca has been an intrinsic part of life here for a very long time. In fact, right where I'm standing, here in the center of town, there are two huge sacks of coca leaves being sold perfectly openly. (Spanish spoken). Good morning. (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

LUSTIG: OK. I'll have the small bag. Yeah, yeah. Thank you. OK. So what should I do with it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

LUSTIG: So, I can chew it. I can make it tea with it. How would it make me feel?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

LUSTIG: It's good for my health, she says. It'll make me feel great, make me feel strong. And to bite coca leaf like this, I'm fine. And, of course, it's perfectly legal. It's being sold perfectly openly. It's what it's processed, refined, when it's turned into cocaine, a very different matter. That's where the problems start.


LUSTIG: Well, my guide, as we drive up the narrow, winding roads into the mountains, is Raul Garcia(ph) of the United Nations' anti-drugs agency.

RAUL GARCIA: (Spanish spoken)

LUSTIG: What he's telling me, this has long been one of the main centers of coca cultivation in Peru. This is where the narco-traffickers first really took hold. There used to be huge plantations of coca out there. It's been very much on the frontline of the war against the coca. Government agents come four times a year to try and dig it up.

GARCIA: (Spanish spoken)

LUSTIG: I'm meeting Isaac Tumai Montana(ph). He used to be a coca farmer. He even had his own cocaine-producing laboratory down by the river. He's been to jail three times. And now, he says, he has started a new life.

ISAAC TUMAI MONTANA: (Through translator) I'm growing bananas and cocoa beans as part of a project supported by the United Nations. All my coca plants were eradicated. I have nothing left.

LUSTIG: Is it as profitable for you to grow cocoa beans and bananas as it was to grow coca and process it?

MONTANA: (Through translator) With Coca, I made four or five times more money. Of course, nothing's more profitable than coca. But now, I have a peaceful life with my family. I can sleep at night. Before, I was always worried that the police would throw me back in prison at any moment.

(Spanish spoken)

LUSTIG: So, Isaac is now a relatively happy man, but some of his coca-growing neighbors have simply moved away to carry on elsewhere in Peru. Others have stayed around here, but moved deeper into jungle, far from prying eyes. Well, we parked the truck just by the side of the road a little while ago. And I have just been clambering down the very steep, thickly woody side of a valley, quite muddy, slippery. At the bottom, I crossed the river on a bridge made of a single tree trunk. That was quite interesting. We come to a open clearing in the jungle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Spanish spoken)

LUSTIG: I've been brought here by the woman who owns this land. She doesn't want us to identify her, because she is still growing coca.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Through translator) Coca provides some income for us, because bananas and coffee beans take a long time to grow. They try to destroy all our coca plants. But what are we supposed to live on? There are now people here who can't even afford to eat. The government says it will support the farmers after eradication, but help never reaches us.

LUSTIG: The government's policy of digging up as many coca plants as it can find and helping farmers replace them with other crops is having some success. But it also has its critics, among them, Ricardo Soberon, who used to be in charge of the government's anti-drugs program, until he was fired because he wanted to try a less-harsh policy. He says the government's current approach, backed by the U.S., is clearly failing.

RICARDO SOBERON: From nil to 10, I will give them one as an assessment because I think that this government has continued doing the same things that in the last 30 years have been declared as a failure, a total failure. Eradication is not a good policy because peasants are poor. For them to pay the fee for having their sons in school, coca gives a bit of money in order to pay those bills. Not coffee, neither cacao or corn or whatever you think will be able to replace alone this huge business.


LUSTIG: This stylish new coffee bar in Tingo Maria is owned by a local farmer's cooperative. And it's just the sort of thing that the government wants to encourage - to make the alternative crops more profitable.

(Foreign language spoken). Good evening. Hi. Is this local coffee you serve here? (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. Si. (Foreign language spoken)

LUSTIG: OK. Could I have a single espresso, please?



LUSTIG: Very good. Mm. (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LUSTIG: Marketing locally grown coffee as a top quality product should enable former coca farmers to create a sustainable industry. It's one reason why the U.N. anti-drugs agency's man in Peru, Flavio Mirella, says it's a mistake to write off eradication as a policy that has failed.

FLAVIO MIRELLA: We've seen a considerable amount of success in terms of areas that were previously overrun with violence with a full dependence on illicit economy based on coca - cocaine production - that now are fully dependent, I would say, on alternative crops.

YOUNG: That report from the BBC's Robin Lustig in Peru. I want to take a moment to remind you that we'd love to hear your thoughts on this or any story. You can go to and click on contact us up on the right to send an email or you can scroll down and leave a comment with a story. Follow us on Twitter, @hereandnow, @jeremyhobson and @hereandnowrobin. Join us on Facebook. Go to Click the like button, which I wish there was another name for that. That is so Romper Room. But anyway, click the like button and we'll keep you in the loop about upcoming guests and stories. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.