Peru has temporarily halted the eradication of coca plants used to make cocaine as it works to redesign its anti-drug programs, the country's interior ministry announced this week.
News of the suspension in eradication work surprised the United States, which has tried for years to limit coca production in Peru as part of a broader war on drugs. The United Nations says Peru is now the world's leading coca grower and could surpass Colombia as the top cocaine producer.
We are working on how to redirect efforts, Interior Minister Oscar Valdes said.
He said eradication would resume very soon but added that the government wanted to focus more on catching major traffickers and cutting off access to supplies like kerosene used to refine coca into cocaine.
The public must understand that the reduction of illicit crops will continue as the president has said and there will be a frontal fight against drug trafficking, Valdes said.
Still, the US ambassador to Peru, Rose Likins, appeared taken aback by the decision.
I still haven't received a complete explanation of what happened, she said after visiting with the head of Peru's Congress. It would have been better to have received information about this beforehand.
The suspension of the eradication program coincided with populist President Ollanta Humala's reshuffling of the country's drug policy team.
Humala, a former army officer, has said he would work closely with the United States to fight cocaine production. He has also said he expected countries that buy illegal cocaine to contribute to the effort.
But Humala drew criticism earlier this month for appointing Ricardo Soberon to head Peru's anti-drug agency. Soberon, a lawyer, worked for a legislator from the president's political party who has close links to coca growers.
Many of them say they plant coca for traditional uses in food and religious ceremonies, though drug experts say 90% of coca winds up in the cocaine trade.
Humala narrowly lost the 2006 presidential election running as a radical leftist on a platform that opposed the US-Peruvian free trade pact. At that time Humala picked Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as his inspiration.
On this occasion he reinvented himself as a moderate who favours foreign investment, a strong private sector and his inspiration is Brazil’s Lula da Silva. However he won the June 5 election strongly supported by the rural poor, including many in the jungle valleys where coca is grown.