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 said on Wednesday.
News of the suspension in eradication work surprised and worried the US, which has tried for years to limit coca production in Peru as part of a broader war on drugs. The UN 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,” Peruvian 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.
However, 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 the Peruvian Congress. “It would have been better to have received information about this beforehand.”
The suspension of the eradication program coincided with Peruvian 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 US to fight cocaine production. He has also said he expects countries that buy illegal cocaine to contribute to the effort.
However, 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 percent 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-Peru free trade pact.
He has reinvented himself as a moderate who favors foreign investment, though he won the June 5 election with strong support from the rural poor, including many in the jungle valleys where coca is grown.