‘The only time we eat well is at harvest,” says the young mother as she wades barefoot through an ankle-deep pile of coca leaves – the key ingredient in cocaine and crack – to mix them up and ensure they dry evenly in the harsh, tropical sun. “For the rest of the year it is rice, bananas and cassava, maybe meat or fish once a week.”
Laid out on black plastic sheeting, the leaves cover the entire square (an area roughly the size of two tennis courts) in Pueblo Libre, a hamlet of a dozen or so wooden shacks without running water or sewerage. The hamlet has had electricity for just over a month.
At night, once the leaves are dried and packed into sacks, the families fold up the sheeting and sleep on it.
Someone is getting rich from the drug trade here in the heart of Peru’s isolated Apurimac and Ene Rivers Valley (known as VRAE, its Spanish initials), which, according to the latest United Nations figures, produces more coca than any other place on the planet. But it is not the smallholder farmers of Pueblo Libre who scratch out a living cultivating the controversial crop on the steep flanks of this lush, stunning valley as it winds down from the Andes into the Amazon.
Families here say they make around 300 Peruvian Sols (roughly £70) per coca harvest. Abandoned, they say, by one government after another in Lima, on the other side of the Andes, coca is their only source of cash and everything else they grow is for their own subsistence.
“They call us narco-terrorists but it is not true,” says the woman, who declines to give her name. It is unclear whether she is most afraid of blowback from law enforcement or from the drug cartels as a result of giving me this rare interview. “We are just struggling to get by. Without coca, we would not be able to feed our children.”
The VRAE is, nevertheless, still ravaged by the cornered remnants of the savage Shining Path rebels. Much of the valley has been a no-go zone for Peruvian security forces until recently. The insurgents regularly ambush army and police foot patrols and occasionally shoot down helicopters. The group is also said to charge the cartels protection, at a rate of around £3,000 per ton of drugs that leaves the VRAE.
Meanwhile, clandestine field labs, to process the leaves into cocaine, crack and cocaine paste – a cut-price, highly-addictive compound that is the drug of choice in many of South America’s slums – are scattered in the precipitous forests above us.
An estimated 10 covert airstrips dot the valley floor, from where, under cover of darkness, light aircraft ferry their illegal cargos to Bolivia and Brazil, the first staging posts on the drugs’ global journey. While most Colombian cocaine ends up in the US, most of Peru’s and Bolivia’s is consumed in Europe.
So far in the VRAE, no other crop has come close to providing the regular income that coca does. A native plant, it thrives here, giving four harvests a year. The main alternatives, coffee and cacao, cannot compete. The farmers say they would need five acres of either crop to match the returns from a single acre of coca.
But that may be the least of the challenges in developing alternatives to dependence on the drug traffickers. Given its ferocious reputation, few private coffee or cacao buyers are willing to travel to the VRAE, while the farmers cannot afford to transport their wares out of the valley.
Yet with coca, the buyers visit even the most remote hamlets several times a week. Some are from Enaco, the Peruvian government’s official agency, with whom growers can register agreed amounts of coca plants.
Coca has been an Andean staple for millennia and remains legal and widely used from Bolivia to Colombia. Locals chew its leaves, a mild stimulant with a buzz no stronger than an espresso, and use it to treat ills from altitude sickness to menstrual pains. When times are particularly tough, they use it to ease the pain of hunger.
But Enaco and its legal products, including sweets and infusions, account for just a fraction, possibly as little as 15 per cent, of the coca supply in Peru. The rest is bought by middle-men working for the drug cartels, often at a 10 per cent premium and with no questions asked about quality.
Yet things may be about to change. Under pressure from Washington, President Ollanta Humala has vowed to bring the VRAE under control, sending in paramilitary police to destroy the coca plants by hand.
The government has already had a wave of recent military successes against the Shining Path hold-outs, killing and capturing several leaders. It has also moved to expropriate nearly 1,200 acres of prime farmland on the valley floor to make way for a military airbase. Meanwhile, despite an arson attack by the terrorists on construction equipment last July, workers have finally begun paving the main route into the VRAE.
The police will have their work cut out. According to the UN, Peru recently overtook Colombia as the world’s top producer of coca. And roughly one third of the country’s crop, 19,965 hectares (49,000 acres) to be precise, is grown in the VRAE. To put things in perspective, that is almost as much as all of Bolivia production, and nearly half of Colombia’s national total.
Yet the crackdown has many predicting trouble, as the government moves to destroy the livelihood of an estimated 10,000 families across the valley. “We will die with our plants,” says the mother from Pueblo Libre.
Julian Pérez, a former secretary of FEPAVRAE, the local agricultural federation, says: “No one denies there is drug-trafficking and terrorism here. The question is how do you respond to it? The VRAE will explode if they try to eradicate coca. What are they trying to achieve, more poverty, a bloodbath? We need a solution, not repression.”
He dreams aloud of a Marshall Plan for the VRAE, including decent schools and clinics, when Washington’s “War on Drugs” has run its course, the VRAE might be able to develop its own brand of legal energy drink.
In the village of Otari, which stands to disappear to make way for the military airbase, indigenous Ashaninka activist Kecizate Atahualpa wearily discusses the impending eradication. For him, it will be just the latest outrage perpetrated against his people.
“We have the same opinion of the narcos as the US does,” he says. “We don’t want them here. Coca is a sacred plant for us. It is part of our culture. It was white men, not us, who started making cocaine out of it. Now we grow coca and we sell it. We don’t know where it goes but what are we supposed to do? No one wants to buy other products.”
For decision-makers in Lima, solving that conundrum may remain the only way to truly break the cartels’ grip on this troubled corner of the Andes.
Not to be sniffed at: The story of cocaine
*According to the UN, there were 133,000 hectares (329,000 acres) of coca in the three main producer nations, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, in 2012. Nearly one-sixth of that total was just in the VRAE.
*In the Andes coca’s dried leaves are routinely chewed for a mild buzz and to relieve symptoms of altitude sickness, hunger and a host of ailments. Cocaine is one of more than a dozen active compounds that naturally occur in low concentrations in coca, and contribute to that buzz.
*Cocaine was first isolated in 1855 by German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke. It takes roughly one ton of leaves to make a pound of cocaine.
*Cocaine was in the original 1886 recipe for Coca-Cola, though the company began using leaves with the cocaine removed in 1903.
*Cocaine was widely used as a medicine to reduce appetite and as a local anaesthetic until being prohibited in the US and Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.