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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 22:18 GMT
Peru set to be drug leader
Peruvian launches
US money has bought navy new armed launches
By Claire Marshall in Lima

Fears are growing in Peru that the country could soon regain its title of being the world's number one cocaine supplier.

It is because of the huge US-financed anti-drugs operation in neighbouring Colombia.

According to a report being prepared by the United Nations Drug Control Project (UNDCP), the implementation of the $1.3bn Plan Colombia is already increasing the price of the raw material used to make cocaine.

Workers in a coca field, Colombia
The price of coca leaf has doubled in Peru
And that is encouraging Peruvian farmers to return to the industry.

There are around 77,000 hectares of abandoned coca fields in Peru, which need only three to six months to become active again. New fields have already been sighted in the south-east of the country.

The UNDCP representative in Peru, Patricio Vandenberghe, says that given the eradication of crops in Colombia, the "logical move" for the narco traffickers is to go across the border.

Jungle base

In an effort to control the flow of drugs through Peru, the United States has invested $77.5m to set up a secret base in the Amazon jungle.

Here, members of the Peruvian navy train to become part of an elite squad designed to capture traffickers operating in the rain forest.

The base has just received six new armed launches, at a cost of $700,000 each, paid for by the US.

Officials say since the centre was established two years ago, it has captured around a ton of coca paste, an unrefined form of cocaine, in boats bound for Colombia and Brazil.

While this is a small dent in Peru's estimated coca production of 250 tons a year, the worry is that the amounts traveling along these rivers could soon dramatically increase.

Bigger profits

The BBC accompanied a UN fact-finding mission to Iquitos, the principal city of Peru's Amazon region.

A customs officer inspecting ships in the main port says that drugs are "regularly" found, either strapped to people's bodies, or hidden in the cargo.

Peruvian navy exercise
The Peruvian navy captures a "smuggler" during an exercise - but can they control the real drugs trade?
The UN investigator, Humberto Chirrinos, says it is clear that Peru's cocaine industry is taking off once again.

His fear is that farmers who gave up growing the coca leaf, the raw material used to make cocaine, are being lured back to the industry by the rising prices.

The price of coca leaf in Peru has doubled over the last six to eight months, from $2 to $4 a kilogram.

On the streets of western cities, a kilogram of refined cocaine can fetch between $1,100 and $1,300.

Officials at the counter-narcotics river training base say they are "ready" for the expected increase in trafficking in Peru.

But with far more US funds being channeled into Plan Colombia, Peru is set to become the more attractive option for the cocaine producers.

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See also:

16 Feb 01 | Americas
Colombian coca fields 'destroyed'
15 Feb 01 | Americas
Thousands flee Colombian violence
10 Feb 01 | Americas
Colombia peace talks to resume
26 Jan 01 | World
The truth behind the Traffic
22 Jan 01 | Americas
Fight against drugs makes headway
14 Jan 01 | Americas
Eyewitness: Inside a cocaine factory
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