The People of the Sacred Leaf
The Peruvian Coca Growers Bring their Struggle to the Capital
By Luis Gómez
Part III of a Series on the Drug War in Peru
March 22, 2004
What did the Peruvian coca growers do in Lima in February? What do they want? In times such as these, are they looking for confrontation or for openings in the maze that is their lives, marginalized and poor like millions of peasant-farmers in our América? Peruvian researcher Hugo Cabieses begins to provide some answers to these questions in a report published February 5 in Mama Coca. In that document, Cabieses reviews the situation in two of the most important coca-growing valleys in Perú: the Apurímac/Ene vally and the Huallaga-Aguaytía heights, which he visited last October and December, respectively.
Of the Apurímac/Ene valley, which Cabieses visited as an employee of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), he explains that aside from the “extreme poverty, lack of developement, and intensive coca cultivation primarily for illegal uses,” there was an obvious situation of “decline of law and order, widespread ‘narco-trafficking,’ and restrictions on civil rights.” There were also remnants present of the armed Maoist insurgent group Shining Path.
For his visit to the Huallaga-Aguaytía Heights, Cabieses was hired by the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America “to carry out a comparative study on the impact of ‘alternative development,’ the reduction/eradication/fumigation of coca crops and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.” He also detailed and confirmed the claims of coca grower Marisela Guillén – that the US company Chemonics and the National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA, in its Spanish initials; an agency of the Peruvian government) are cheating the farmers by not paying the agreed compensation rate for eradicating illicit coca ($180 US dollars per family) and refusing to negotiate with the coca growers’ leadership.
Hugo Cabieses also looks at the coca growers’ morale. He reports that while the cocaleros (as they are called in Spanish) were organizing two regional congresses and the later National Congress, they would not carry out “mobilizations and work stoppages” unless the government (through its institutions such as DEVIDA) made “some grave error” with them. Again, Cabieses is clear: “The leaders are inclined toward dialog and it would be a great mistake for the government not to open its doors to this.” But that didn’t happen. The Minister of the Interior, Fernando Rospigliosi, returned to his old bad habits, and the cocaleros pressed on, firmly, down their path.
A Replay of Bolivia?
Elsa Malpartida made the announcement on January 11, during a powerful speech at the early regional congress in the city of Tingo María. In that address, Malpartida, a leader of the National Confederation of Farmers of the Coca Growing Basins of Peru (CONPACCP), proclaimed that the organization would hold its second National Congress from February 18 to 20 in the capital city of Lima, the center of the power and money of Peru’s European-descended upper classes.
OK, kind readers, we have come this far in the series speaking of “the Peruvian coca growers and their first Grand Congress.” No, it was no mistake. The CONPACCP’s second National Congress was their first Grand Congress. For the first time, cocaleros from across the country traveled to the seat of power to speak their piece, to make a challenge. For the first time, they unleashed the demons of fear on the government.
Malpartida’s call to action was also a detailed assessment of relations with the government – of its insistence on avoiding the movement’s top leaders (Nelson Palomino and Nancy Obregón), its failure to follow through on agreements, and all the other insults the cocaleros have born. Demonstrating her willingness to continue negotiations, she proposed something that the cocaleros consider fundamental to real change in Peru: the creation of a law that recognizes the dignity of the coca leaf and regulates its cultivation.
“History has changed in terms of the possibility of governance from below and from within,” said Malpartida as she concluded her speech. “Communities and trade unions will determine the destiny of this country. This gathering, rising from the people and for the people, is a key indication of this. If our local, regional and national politicians persist in breaking the accords that they have signed, we will be forced to leave the negotiations and take more radical measures at the second National Congress in February.”
Any questions now about the position of the Peruvian coca growers?
Fernando Rospigliosi, President Toledo’s Minister of the Interior, had no questions. For him, the cocaleros were embarking on a campaign to “destabilize” the government, with the help of other groups. Once it became known inside the government that several social and political leaders were supporting the cocaleros, Rospigliosi began accusing them of trying to provoke violence.
“They are touring the [coca-growing] valleys and trying to incite people, telling them they must imitate what happened in Bolivia,” said Rospigliosi on January 21. “We don’t know yet whether or not we’ll see a bolivianazo [literally, a Bolivian blow or strike] here.”
Another Bolivia? Might the people of Peru sack Toledo and his government for being murderous, corrupt sell-outs, as did the Bolivian people to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada last October? It’s possible. What Rospigliosi didn’t make clear when he said the government was worried “about the uprising” was whether the social movements had any motive for “another Bolivia.”
In any case, the coca growers have already made their position clear. “We have no intention of going to war,” said Nancy Obregón. And after a meeting with the Congressional Defense Committee on January 22, where she explained the difficult conditions faced by farmers in Peru’s coca-growing basins, Obrégon was even more direct: “We are responsible people and we know that our demands are best directed to dialogue,” she announced, adding that the cocaleros could sue Rospigliosi for defamation.
Minister Rospigliosi, who had already demonstrated that he understands nothing of markets, drugs, and coca prohibition, outdid himself yet again on January 23. As reported in an article from the Lima daily Correo, this man, sporting a Pablo Escóbar-style moustache, said that the coca growers should beg forgiveness for “flooding the streets with the basic ingredient for cocaine, which provokes violence and crimes,” since, according to him, the coca used to make cocaine comes from the two coca-producing valleys.
“We have more and more drug addicts in Peru,” he said. “Where do you think the drugs come from? From the air? From other countries? Of course not. They come from the Apurímac and Huallaga valleys, and from the Monzón.”
We should remind Rospigliosi of the misery and sickness that Hugo Cabieses details in his visits to the coca-growing valleys, of the violence to which the army submits the locals, but we won’t. Better we leave him to worry about “another Bolivia” as we continue on to the Grand Congress in Lima…
Solutions: Dialogue, Laws and Freedom
The celebrating Peruvian cocaleros began arriving at the Huayna Cápac Park in the Miraflores district of Lima. By Tuesday, Feruary 17, the first delegations had already arrived from the Huallaga and Uyacali valleys. While their colleagues settled into the site that would host the CONPACCP congress, Nancy Obregón and Elsa Malpartida met with Susana Higuchi, president of the Congressional Commission on National Defence, Alternative Development and Drug Control, to explain to her in greater detail what so many peasant-farmers were doing together.
The atmosphere that day, as reported in an article in the magazine Caretas, was not one of confrontation, and even less one of preparation for “another Bolivia.” What’s more, Fernando Rospigliosi, after months of verbal accusations and persecution by the forces of the Ministry of the Interior, saluted the “realization of the meeting” and even said that the Peruvian National Police would provide them with any necessary security.
But problems now came from another source: Ricardo Noriega Salverry, a lawyer, former freemason (accused by fellow masons of embezzling the order’s funds), and former presidential candidate. Noriega came out with a statement that Nelson Palomino, whom he represents as a defense attorney, had discredited and disassociated himself from the congress.
Later it would be known that Noriega was supposedly supported by one of the coca growers’ federations. This federation in fact wanted to control the entire event, had been carrying out a political campaign in the coca-growing basins and had a position on the issues facing the coca growers that was very close to that of the government, as illustrated in an interview with Carteras. Nancy Obregón and other leaders accused Noriega of opportunism and moved on.
On Wednesday, February 18, the Second Congress of the CONPACCP began as scheduled. That same day, they produced their first resolution: the immediate and unconditional release of their top leader, Nelson Palomino Laserna. Palomino was also confirmed as the Secretary General of the organization. Imprisoned without trial for one year now, Palomino’s name received wild applause from his colleagues.
Several guests from Peru and other countries, including Colombian coca growers’ leader Omaira Morales, were also present, and demonstrated their support for the Peruvian cocalero movement.
Of course, there were debates and proposals outside of the set agenda. One was the proposal of those from the Monzón Valley, whose leaders demanded a fight for free coca cultivation. Many people from the Monzón were against the strategy put forth by Obregón and Malpartida of dialogue and accords with the government. The debate was a bitter one and many farmers walked out of the congress amid a barrage of conflicting accusations.
But after the Thursday, February 19 sessions, as the evening drew to a close, a surprising phone call soothed the atmosphere and lifted everyone’s spirits. Nelson Palomino called Elsa Malpartida from the prison in southern Peru where he is being held. According to a February 20 report from the daily El Comercio, Palomino told Malpartida that he backed the congress, the unity of his collegues and their fight for the dignity of the coca leaf. He condemned certain leaders’ attempts to divide the congress, and denied that attorney Noriega Salaverry spoke with any authority. With that three-minute phone call, all was resolved. And although the government denied that such a call was possible from the Yanamilla prison, the Yanamilla authorities confirmed that Palomino could make such calls without incident, and that there are four telephones at the jail which the prisoners can use freely.
The coca growers finished with their proposals and specific questions, formed eight workgroups and dedicated the rest of the congress to writing their final resolutions.
When they were finished, the results were impressive, and were condensed into a document that was unanimously approved on Friday, February 20. The text, entitled “For the Reassessment and Industrialization of the Coca Leaf, In Defense of the Peasent-Farmers’ Movement of the Coca-Growing Basins, and Against Narco-Trafficking,” is a meticulous analysis of the situation in Peru, which demands the exit of Chemonics, improvements in the industrialization of the coca plant, and even the rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and other international trade arrangements. The best synthesis of these ideas is their “plan of struggle”:
CONPACCP PLAN OF IMMEDIATE STRUGGLE 2004-2005
TERM OF 60 DAYS (APRIL 20)
1. The immediate release of comrade Nelson Palomino Laserna.
2. The immediate suspension of coca plant eradication, in all its forms (voluntary or forced).
3. The immediate demobilization of DEVIDA and the expulsion of the nongovernmental organizations that work on the coca problem in the coca-growing basins.
4. That the National Coca Company (ENACO) move under the administration of the regional governments, with the oversight of the coca growers.
5. The prompt enactment of a Coca Law that includes the plant’s industrialization and commercialization.
Concrete and clear, isn’t it? The people of the sacred leaf in Peru have given their word this time. The following day, as the event in Lima was wrapping up and before departing for their own regions, an appointed committee handed the document to Congress and to the office of President Alejandro Toledo, to advise them of the progress that had occurred.
And now, we must follow them further down their path, though the government does not. On February 23, the government announced that all was in place to resume the interdiction flights and continue harassing coca growers.
Sixty days have now passed, and the best that Toledo has managed to do is to meet with DEA chief Karen Tandy to say, during a continental anti-drug meeting that took place last week in Lima, that the cocaleros are not his “enemies.” As for Rospigliosi, he keeps making his typical statements, speaking of “dirty money” behind the coca growers’ great political offensive organized at and after the CONPACCP congress. And as for the gringos, they continue building their military base…
Meanwhile, the Peruvian coca growers met again several weeks ago in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan empire. They continue working and preparing for what, if the political landscape does not change soon, could be a decisive battle in the so-called “War on Drugs.” Stay tuned, kind readers; this is just a beginning…
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