PICHARI - Miguel doesn’t make a sound on his way to the plantation.
“Best to keep a low profile, put away your microphone,” he advises. The path leads all the way over the Apurímac River, whose brown waters wind through the middle of the forest, to a clearing where shrubs of coca grow across 12 square yards.
“Those are less than two years old and I can reap a harvest every three months,” explains the family man. The 80 bags of leaves are worth 6,250 sols ($2,465), four times a year. Coffee or cocoa is only worth 4,000 sols ($1,554) once a year. "Coca puts bread on the table and lets me send my children to school,” Miguel says matter-of-factly.
The same calculation is made by hundreds of settlers scattered across the foothills. This is why the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro valleys, a region known as the VRAEM, ranks as the world’s biggest coca producer.
It’s also a time bomb for president Ollanta Humala’s police forces. Every year, some 200 tons of pure cocaine is produced in these Peruvian valleys. The army is busy fighting in this rugged terrain against the secret drug labs, as well as the Shining Path terrorist group, who are allies of convenience.
It’s in Pichari, capital of the VRAEM, where the tension is most intense. Every day, helicopters take off from the base across the river Ene, next to the city, to scan the surrounding valleys. The region has been declared a national emergency and, since Nov. 7, a law allows the military to be part of anti-drug operations.
Despite these efforts, the “narcoterrorists” of the Shining Path often have the upper hand: In April, they kidnapped 36 workers on the gas project site of Camisea, that provides 30% of Peru’s energy source. Since the beginning of 2012, at least 20 soldiers and policemen have been killed.
“The drug dealers are hidden in the mountains, I don’t know who they are,” says Miguel, in his wooden house in the small village of Natividad. “I quit my job as a driver to get a better standard of living thanks to coca. I’m not a drug trafficker. Trucks come in the afternoon, we weigh the leaves, I get paid, then they leave. Whatever happens to the coca doesn’t concern me.”
A priest's call
His neighbor, in jeans and a torn T-shirt, offers his two cents: “Would a smuggler live in such an isolated village, without electricity, where the streets turn to mud as soon as it rains?”
Most of these settlers only know how to grow coca, which is why the government launched a project in the VRAEM to “boost development,” which means applying tar to the six-hour trail leading to the nearest city of Ayacucho.
Crisostomo Oriundo, the technical head of the project in Pichari, is having doubts regarding the impact of those measures on farmers: “Today, they are no longer limiting themselves to planting. Just around the corner, you can buy plastic tarp, cement, some kerosene and, in a day, you have your soaking well. It allows you to turn coca into paste, which is the first step in cocaine cooking. A lot of them are already doing that.”
It’s not very safe to talk about these things with strangers in Pichari. Father Tomas’ preachings led to threats from angry drug traffickers in his unfinished church. “I’ve been invited to their houses several times for celebrations. They pay a lot of heed to what I might say or whom I talk with," Tomas explains. "They have a very efficient system of information, they are very careful about their business, they keep an eye on the peasants. If they stop growing coca, they have to sell their parcel and leave. We cope with this because here, everyone needs the coca business, farmers and their families, teenagers working weekends in the wells to pay for school.”
The young priest stands up to leave his sacristy, to cross the abandoned grounds leading to the church. “There’s the real issue, right here,” he concludes, pointing at a light green shrub that had randomly started to grow there – maybe from a coca-growing parishioner’s shoes. “Not only do we have Peru’s best coca, but it’s everywhere.”