The repressive “gift” behind the US counter-drug aid in Peru

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

By Ferggy Nathaly Salvador Cruz -


There is much historical evidence of heavy US interventionism that aims to eradicate drug production in the Andean region of countries such as Peru, Colombia and Bolivia– areas responsible for approximately 98% of the world’s total coca leaf production. Peru for instance currently has the world’s second-largest landmass with coca plants. But how can an area responsible for holding an almost monopoly on one of the most lucrative businesses– i.e. drug trafficking – remain one of the world’s poorest areas? How can we explain that, despite an increasing quantity of illicit crops being eradicated by projects funded with billions of dollars of US aid for almost 4 decades, the world’s total cocaine production has increased dramatically? Moreover, how ethical is it to dispossess poor people from their main source of income by forcing them to engage in alternative production–most of which have been proved to be loss-making– in the name of “development”? This article analyses the effectiveness of the ‘Control and Reduction of Coca Crops in the Upper Huallaga’ project (CORAH, for its Spanish initials)– one of the oldest and most active Peruvian counter-drugs projects financially supported by the US – and its social and economic impact.

The history of US interventionism in Peru is long. In 1961, Peru signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs meaning it not only agreed to destroy coca leaves if illegally cultivated and to abolish coca leaf chewing within twenty-five years, but Peru also indirectly established a basis for legal US intervention in the country. The fact that the US is the world’s third-largest consumer of cocaine may explain its interest in such intervention. In this context, under the excuse of drugs representing a threat to US national security, both governments signed the CORAH cooperative project agreement which initially aimed to reduce coca production in the Upper Huallaga Peruvian Valley. However, since 1994 it operates at a national level and since 2003 it calls for the eradication of all coca crops considered “illicit”. That is to say, “all those crops which are not registered in the state company ENACO S.A” (Spanish initials for National Company for Coca Commercialisation).

Coca cultivation in Peru is concentrated in marginal areas with minimal civilian state presence, limited infrastructure, and high rates of poverty. It is difficult to make sense of the fact that a zone which is able to produce so much “harm” to the US economy with its coca production remains a zone of social abandonment. The answer may lie in the fact that most of these farmers are seen as part of the “informal” economy and have no rights protecting them. On the one hand, unfortunately, it is true that most of such production from coca farming goes to the illegal drug-trafficking market and that some coca growers have allied themselves with illicit armed groups as a way to protect their crops from being eradicated. However, on the other hand, it is also true that these farmers are usually the ones who benefit the least from the drug trade. Although it could be argued that coca cultivation has helped farmers to provide their families with at least some basic cash income, risks are very high and being involved in coca growing often leads to death as police are likely to confuse farmers with drug-traffickers or terrorist groups.

Since the beginning, this “war on drugs” has focused almost entirely on eliminating supply. The idea was that reducing the supply in its place of origin would reduce availability, and this scarcity would raise prices which in turn would discourage buyers. However, more than three decades later, levels of global production have remained almost the same and, in fact, since 2013 the production of both coca leaf and cocaine has been steadily increasing. Consequently, one can question US expertise in its imposed narrative of forced eradication as the best way to fight this “war” in Peru. Firstly, inefficiency is reflected in the fact that the project merely generates incentives to replant elsewhere as coca prices become higher after prohibition. For example, records show that eradication in Peru and Bolivia in the 1990s only served to push production north to Colombia. This “balloon effect” explains how such projects only seem to transport coca cultivation and civil conflict to new areas but do not actually eliminate production. Secondly, another overlooked fact is that reports show how farmers and cocaine paste manufactures are becoming more productive. For example, farmers have found new ways to protect their crops from herbicides and to increase the density of coca plants to generate higher yields of coca leaves per hectare. Moreover, cocaine paste manufacturers are employing new technology and processes to extract more cocaine alkaloid from lower volumes of coca leaf. These improved “economies of scale” could keep prices down making the product even more attractive to buyers.

CORAH has also had severe economic impacts. The project implies forcing local people to engage in alternative farming activities, which is easier said than done and the ideas are unrealistic. For example, the business of growing bananas and palm hearts, as suggested, requires a large initial investment, a sizable workforce and large tracts of land. The volatility of primary commodities’ prices is also a high risk. Although some programmes offer loans to engage in this alternative development, without realistic options it is only to be expected that coca farmers reject the risk of sinking into debt and therefore not being able to feed their family. Moreover, although coca leaves have been used since ancient times in the Andes and today by local people and foreigners to chew or as tea, the efforts to industrialise it for such legal uses have been stuck. Arguably this is in part because of the continuous misconception that coca leaves are the same as cocaine and partly because of prohibitionist policies to export it, as coca leaves remain on the United Nations list of restricted substances. Thus, the question is how ethical it is to use a privileged position as an international lawmaker to criminalise the production and international commercialisation of a national product and hence condition the growth of its industry, despite the fact that the coca leaf is not cocaine? Moreover, how ethical is it to take advantage of the position of knowledge maker to take away the historical and cultural value of using coca leaves in the Peruvian Andes in the name of “development”?

Furthermore, the social impacts of CORAH have also been profound. For instance, there has been increasing violence in which “eradication teams have killed, abused, seriously wounded scores of coca farmers, torched homesteads and incarcerated and tortured hundreds of people”. Likewise, an increase in political instability has caused a rising sense of resentment among local people towards security forces and the government who are now seen as internal enemies. Some coca farmers have allied with terrorist groups as a way to resist which in turn has increased the stigmatisation of farmers as criminals. Due to the fact that “free gifts” from the US create a moral obligation of reciprocity, it could be argued that the Peruvian government gets trapped into perpetual obligation and indebtedness with the US government and does so by supporting its high fanaticism for forced coca eradication. Arguably, what can be found behind this US billion-dollar counter-drug aid is a repressive gift that is also wiping out the Peruvian government’s autonomy to develop its own set of policies.

Historical records show how long periods of US aid in Peru have shaped the way counter-drug policy has developed and been executed in the country. Although it is true that, since its establishment, the CORAH project has been meeting its target goal of removing an increasing number of illegal crops, reports also indicate that the initial goal of reducing global demand and achieving ‘a drug free world’ is still far from being achieved. On the contrary, it could be said that this development gift has been doing more harm in its pursuit to do “good”. Despite the fact that the coca leaf is itself not cocaine, this project has generated different types of repression. The project has deprived poor families of their main source of income, the government of some autonomy, the country of a historical and cultural symbol, the people of their freedom to keep their ancestral habits, and finally, the country’s economy of its possibility to create a new industry. CORAH is contributing to the stigmatisation of coca farmers as criminals and hence worsens political instability in the country. This project of merely reducing supply is not only inefficient and repressive but forced eradication without first giving farmers realistic and attractive alternatives only aggravates the situation of the poor– and hence of the country too.



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