Colombia surpassed Peru last year in land under coca cultivation, resuming its number one position for the first time since 2012. The latest annual report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) finds that territory under coca cultivation dropped 14% in Peru, from 49,800 hectares in 2013 to 42,900 in 2014—the smallest area under cultivation since 1998. Colombia meanwhile experienced a 44% jump from 48,000 hectares to 69,000. Peru made gains against coca in the Upper Huallaga Valley, while coca fields expanded in Colombia's Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta and Guaviare regions—all on the frontier lands of plains and rainforest east of the Andes. The findings do not necessarily mean that Colombia is now the world's top cocaine producer, as much of Peru's crop is more mature and higher yielding, having never been subjected to eradication. While Peru eradicates in the Upper Huallaga, it resists US pressure to do so in a second coca cultivation zone, the Apurímac-Ene Valley, for fear of inflaming peasant unrest. (AP, UNODC, July 15; UNODC, July 2)
Since Colombia's FARC guerillas called off their unilateral ceasefire following a military air-strike last month, peace talks with the government have resumed in Havana. As the new phase of talks opened May 25, FARC leaders appealed to the government to instate a bilateral ceasefire. (EFE, May 25) But the very next day, government forces carried out a mixed land and air assault on a camp of the FARC's 18th Front along the Río Chimirindó, in Riosucio municipality, in the Pacific coastal region of Chocó—leaving 41 guerillas dead. Among the dead was the 18th Front's commander, Román Ruiz, authorities said. (El Teimpo, May 26) The next day, Colombia's air force carried out new strikes, targeting the 4th Front of the FARC's Magdalena Medio Bloc at Alto la Cruz hamlet, Segovia municipality, Antioquia. Ten guerillas were killed in the strikes—which came as the climax of a three-day operation in the area that authorities said left 36 guerillas dead. (El Tiempo, May 27)
At least 18 FARC fighters were killed May 22 in an air-strike on a camp near the coastal village of Guapi in Colombia's southwest region of Cauca. The strike came little more than a month after President Juan Manuel Santos ended a suspension of aerial bombing in response to a guerilla attack that killed 11 soldiers. The army said the aim of the air-strike was intended to kill "Javier el Chugo," second-in-command of the FARC’s 29th front, although it wasn't immediately clear if he was among the dead. (Colombia Reports, May 22) The FARC responded to the bombardment by announcing its own suspension of a unilateral ceasefire the guerillas had declared in December. A statement from the FARC command said: "We did not seek the suspension of the unilateral and indefinite ceasefire proclaimed on Dec. 20, 2014 as a humanitarian gesture to de-escalate the conflict, but the incoherence of the Santos government has done it, through 5 months of ground and air offensives against our structures throughout the country." (Colombia Reports, May 20)
Peru's authorities can't seem to put out the last flicker of the Sendero Luminoso insurgency. A generation ago, the Maoist guerillas seemed capable of toppling the government but are now largely confined to a remote pocket of jungle known as the Apurímac-Ene-Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM). But that happens to be a top coca cultivation zone, affording the insurgency access to funds. Now, authorities claim to have uncovered evidence that the neo-Senderistas are in league with one of the re-organized Colombian cocaine cartels, ironically known as the "Cafeteros" (coffee-producers). "For the first time in an objective and concrete manner, the state can corroborate the link between drug trafficking and terrorism in the VRAEM," Ayacucho regional anti-drug prosecutor Mery Zuzunaga told Cuarto Poder TV.
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos on May 9 called upon his National Drug Council to halt the spraying of glyphosate on suspected coca fields following its recent reclassification as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The decision to put an end to 20 years of the US-backed aerial spraying was applauded by leaders of the FARC guerillas. The spraying has long been opposed by the FARC as well as by Colombia's peasant communities. Santos' announcement came one week after government representatives and FARC leaders met in Havana for the 35th round of peace talks—this time to focus on justice and restitution for victims of Colombia's long civil war. (Colombia Reports, May 10; Prensa Latina, May 3)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), on March 24 officially reclassified the herbicide glyphosate as a cancer threat—citing what it called convincing evidence the chemical produces cancer in lab animals and more limited findings that it may cause a form of lymphoma in humans. Monsanto markets glyphosate as Roundup for use in agriculture worldwide, but the reclassification is especially big news in Colombia—where the government has sprayed more than 4 million acres of land in the past two decades to eradicate coca plantations.
It has been making practically no headlines outside Peru, and hardly any within, but a force of US Marines has apparently been mobilized to the Andean country—specifically to the conflicted coca-growing jungle region known as the VRAE, or Valley of the Apurímac and Ene Rivers. Peru's Congress quietly approved the deployment in a resolution Jan. 29. The first contingent of 58 soldiers arrived on Feb. 1, and a second of 67 troops on Feb. 15. They are to stay for a year on what is being called a "training" mission. A much larger contingent is to arrive in September, a total to 3,200 Marines, for a six-day joint exercise with Peruvian forces. (Defensa.com, Feb. 19)
Authorities in Peru Feb. 4 announced the declaration of a no-fly zone over the conflicted coca-producing region known as the VRAEM, for the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers, in the country's southeast jungles. The head of Peru's anti-drug agency DEVIDA, Alberto Otarola (a former defense minister), spoke in blunt terms at a Lima press conference: "Any flight that is not reported to the aviation authority will be considered hostile and illegal. Peru must exercise the full sovereignty and jurisdiction of its airspace."