Coca Battles Heat Up in Peru: Strikes, Street Battles, March to Lima Underway

Things are starting to look mighty Bolivian in Peru's coca growing regions these days. In mobilizations over the last year and a half, Bolivian coca growers fought with police, won substantial political power, and blocked a government coca eradication program. Now, the coca growers' movement in Peru appears to be headed down the same path of confrontation with the authorities. The Peruvian government of President Alejandro Toledo has so far responded with a mix of repression and promises of dialogue.

On Tuesday, coca growers outside the Andean city of Ayacucho blocked roads, stoned buses, and fought police as they demanded the release of imprisoned leader Nelson Palomino and deep reforms in the government's US-sponsored coca eradication and alternative development programs. The Lima newspaper Expreso reported that 15 people were wounded as stone-throwing, stick-wielding protesters battled police lobbing tear gas. The two main highways out of Ayacucho -- to Cuzco and Huancayo -- were reported blocked, and some 20 buses were reportedly attacked by stone-throwers. And although Expreso reported that local businesses closed down because of the violence, many of them closed in support of a strike called by the cocaleros.

The following day, coca growers from various regions of the country began a "march of sacrifice" to the capital, Lima. Marchers are expected to reach the capital around April 25. They are demanding an end to forced eradication of the coca crop -- grown in Peru for thousands of years -- the release of Palomino, and the paving of the main highway to Lima so that their farm goods can get to market.

"We want to deal directly with the government in an authentic negotiation that has the power of decision and is not a piece of paper with promises that are then forgotten. We want real achievements," said cocalero leader Nancy Obregon. In hiding immediately following the arrest of Palomino, head of the National Coca Growers Confederation, Obregon, subsecretary general of the group, since reemerged to become a leading spokesperson. Obregon told the Lima newspaper El Comercio that while the government has spoken with local political and law enforcement officials about problems in the coca zones, it has not talked to those "who are on strike or those who grow the coca leaves."

Coca growers want to speak directly with President Toledo, said Obregon, adding they want to discuss reforms of alternative development programs that have so far been a "resounding failure." (Obregon was one of several Peruvian delegates to the February "Out from the Shadows" conference in Mérida, Mexico, all of whom harshly criticized alternative development programs as corrupt and only benefiting foreigners. Palomino also agreed to attend, but cancelled as the conflict that resulted in his arrest developed. Still, Obregon said, alternative development could have good results, but only if the government changed its policies and its methods to create a market for alternative goods at just prices.

While local authorities in Ayacucho are calling for police reinforcements to quell the disturbances, the national government is tiptoeing between threats of repression and promises of reconciliation. Agriculture Minister Alvaro Quijandria told Expreso that the protests must cease for talks to continue. "When violence appears, it interrupts the path of dialogue," he said. "Then everybody loses. One cannot think that the solution lies in violence."

Quijandria showed no sign of movement to free Palomino, a key demand of the cocaleros. Palomino was arrested in March and charged with "apology for terrorism," as part of a sinister campaign to link him and his organization with the still-extant guerrillas of the Shining Path. That is a judicial matter "in which we cannot intervene," Quijandria claimed. The connection was disputed, however, in an open letter to President Toledo in late February from Hugo Cabieses, Peruvian economist and DEVIDA consultant, who wrote that Palomino was "a fighter against the Shining Path in the Apurimac-Ene region."

Nils Ericsson, director of the national anti-drug agency DEVIDA, warned that the protests could transform "what is a labor problem into a political problem." What is worse, he hinted darkly, is that combative resistance to the eradication program "is more complex than just talking to the government because there are all sorts of interests who will take advantage of an authentic and justified unhappiness that worries us all and against which we are working." Ericsson went on to warn that the only group to benefit from such protests was the drug traffickers, adding "we have to be careful that we are not all subtly manipulated by this mafia."

Despite the none-too-subtle attempts of Peruvian authorities to tie the cocaleros to leftist guerrillas or drug mafias, the coca growers are undeterred. They declared a temporary truce with the government after a similar outbreak of strife in February, but have pronounced themselves frustrated with the lack of a meaningful response. Now, they march on Lima by the thousands.

Visit www.stopthedrugwar.org/shadows/ for video and audio footage of Obregon's speech, in Spanish and English translation.

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