GETTING TO KIMBIRI FROM LIMA takes at least twenty hours by car. The road is dusty and full of potholes. On my way there in November, our driver had to stop several times to clear the way of rocks that had fallen from the cliffs. As we approached, the rural landscape was covered with hectares and hectares of coca plantations, interrupted by small cascades. Along the road, little boys carried bags filled with coca leaves, and entire families worked at spreading them out to dry on canvas sheets. In Kimbiri, the facades were flaking, the market consisted of only three stalls, and there was just one paved street. There was none of Peru’s famous gastronomy here—Kimbiri had only a single restaurant where “you won’t get food poisoning,” according to the owner of my hotel, a simple house whose major luxury was an electric fan.
Kimbiri, with its 16,430 residents, is one of the main towns in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys—a mountainous and riverine region in south-central Peru known by its Spanish acronym, VRAEM. The majority of people here earn less than $282 a month—Peru’s minimum wage. When I met 34-year-old CheldoPérez, I quickly realised he wasn’t one of them. He drove a new motorcycle, wore stylish, clean clothes, and carried around a laptop while most residents of Kimbiri fought for a computer in the town’s two internet cafes.
As a child, Pérez remembered he used to walk and play between coca plants in some of the fields near the town. As he grew, he saw farmers who planted coca begin to earn much more than those who seeded cacao or coffee. Compared to those crops, coca fetched higher prices, and four harvests a year. Soon coca farmers had big trucks and motorcycles, while other farmers struggled to feed their families. So, at age 17, Pérez bought a hundred square metres of land and started growing coca himself. In the time since, most of the fields in the VRAEM have also surrendered to the plant.
Towns such as Kimbiri are the first links in the chain of production and distribution fuelling the global cocaine trade. The total value of the trade is difficult to gauge because of its clandestine nature and the widely varied prices the drug commands—from thousands of dollars per kilogram in South America to hundreds of thousands in countries such as Australia—but it is known to be worth many billions of dollars every year. According to the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime, in 2012 Peru surpassed Colombia as the world’s largest cocaine exporter. Today, the country produces about six hundred tons of the narcotic per year, of which the VRAEM accounts for over two hundred tons. The profits from the trade—a kilogramme of coca base here fetches at least $800—fund a vast economy of coca fields, and laboratories that refine the plant’s leaves first into concentrated coca base and finally into cocaine hydrochloride—the readily ingestible, powdered salt of the drug. Here, many of the forces driving cocaine production in many Latin American countries play out in microcosm, as does the struggle to contain the trade.
Much of the VRAEM’s drug trade is controlled by the Palomino clan, the last remaining faction of the Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla movement whose war against the Peruvian government since the 1980s has left about 70,000 dead, of whom only a little over 20,000 have been identified. In late November, I met Renzo Caballero, a major in Peru’s anti-drug police, Dirandro, at the organisation’s main office in downtown Lima. Seated at a small white desk, surrounded by maps of the entire country, he told me that today the Palomino clan “are not the Shining Path at all, they are just drug traffickers.” Besides holding sway over production, in recent years the organisation has expanded into trafficking and money laundering, and now controls highly lucrative drug routes out of the country. As a result, the group’s VRAEM base has become an increasingly important point of production, transit and exit for cocaine bound for the growing market in neighbouring Brazil, and for other transit points in networks that supply the United States and Europe. According to the latest report by Devida, the official body that directs Peru’s anti-drug strategy, there are at least two hundred laboratories in the VRAEM, and an increasing number of clandestine runways used by traffickers.
Peruvian authorities have stepped up efforts to reign in the trade. Last year, Dirandro and the Peruvian police made more arrests, eradicated more hectares of coca and seized more cocaine—56 tons, against 14 tons in 2012—than ever before. This year, they have confiscated twice the amount of chemicals used in processing cocaine than they did last year. Nonetheless, according to Dirandro, coca production has recently increased. And in the VRAEM, where the Peruvian state barely had a presence before 2006, when the region was dominated by the guerillas, such efforts have had little effect.
Behind the big coca plantations around Kimbiri, up in the hills, are hidden the “pits” where coca leaves are converted into base. Among the residents, no one knows exactly where they are, but the number of illegal petrol stations in the town has increased noticeably in recent years even though the area doesn’t have a great number of vehicles. “What they have done is replace the chemicals that we regulate,” Caballero told me. “Now the process uses 84-octane petrol, which is the same fuel, for example, that is used by all the speedboats crossing the rivers of the VRAEM. Petrol is legal everywhere in the world.”
Of the crop produced on the twenty thousand hectares of coca fields in the VRAEM, 6 percent is registered with the National Coca Company, or Enaco, a government venture that allows farmers to legally grow and process coca into teas, soaps and medicinal products. Farmers can also sell the leaf for chewing—a popular activity across the Andean region to counter altitude sickness and alleviate hunger, thirst and fatigue. The majority of the harvest, though, goes toward producing cocaine.
“Whoever buys it off me, it is not my business,” Pérez said over an early Sunday breakfast in a restaurant facing Kimbiri’s main square. An arroba, or 12 kilograms, of coca leaf can fetch around $38, and a day labourer earns twice more on a coca field than a cacao or coffee plantation. Nobody ask questions. The sixty people Pérez employs in his fields every season just want to get their money after a long day’s work. “All of a sudden, someone will come with their truck and buy all of someone’s harvest,” Pérez said. Drug traffickers pay three times more than Enaco. The majority of farmers, he claimed, do not know what their crop is destined for, or that cocaine is part of an illicit, multi-million-dollar trade that kills thousands of people every year. “We just want to sell our product,” he said.
Not all farmers and field labourers are happy to simply grow the crop. Many are tempted into processing the leaves into coca base or cocaine, which can fetch $25 for 12 hours of work without breaks. Mules have also proliferated. Residents told me many locals walk for days carrying cocaine for delivery to drug traffickers who then take it to Bolivia. According to the Devida report, around four thousand young people from the VRAEM are currently in prison for trafficking.
Many of them are in Peru’s largest prison, the Lurigancho, a half-hour drive from Lima. Behind its grey walls, inmates are grouped into different pavilions—the drug addicts in one, the murderers in another; those prisoners with money held separately from those without. The entire complex holds 7,400 prisoners—more than four times its intended capacity—and there is only a single guard for every hundred inmates. Pavilion number seven is reserved for convicts with drug-related crimes. Here, Italian Mafiosos live beside envoys from Colombian drug cartels, and Spanish mules besides Peruvian coca processors.
In Lurigancho in early November, I met a prisoner in his forties who had lived there for over a decade. He said talking openly about the drug business was risky, and asked me not to reveal his name. He told me he had trafficked drugs for Colombian cartels in Alto Huallaga, a valley in the north-west of Peru, and then in the VRAEM. He had also processed coca in makeshift laboratories. “I didn’t want to seed so I started processing to earn more money,” he said, checking carefully that none of the guards was listening. He worked with forty people in a remote area, living on canned food. Under the watch of twenty armed Colombians, they would first gather and macerate coca leaves, and three days later, in a big pit in the ground, they would mix them with sulfuric acid, ammonia and potassium permanganate. The mix, he recalled, smelled foul. Then they made big balls of coca base, weighing up to four hundred grams each, and placed them into barrels. “If someone were to see how coca base was made, they would never use cocaine,” he said, with a laugh that revealed his big teeth.
But of course they still do, and farmers such as Pérez keep growing their crop. Pérez did not seem particularly troubled by the government’s efforts to curb cocaine production. As a teenager, he remembered, when the Shining Path insurgency was still strong, he saw frequent firefights between the rebels, the army, drug traffickers, and civilians who organised themselves into self-defence groups. Today, he said, the battle for control of the cocaine trade in the VRAEM involves the Palomino clan and the army. “Things have changed,” he said, strolling around with laptop in hand after a visit to his fields. “At least now they leave the civilians alone.” There are still skirmishes—an official helicopter was brought down just a few months ago—and authorities imposed a curfew to keep people indoors after 10 pm. But, Pérez said, nowadays he only hears the burst of gunfire once in a while.