Michael Massing
Michael Massing

Fellowship Title:

Coca, Campesinos, and a Controversial General

Michael Massing
August 20, 1990

Fellowship Year

Until recently, Tarapoto was a sleepy agricultural town located deep in Peru’s tropical midlands. The lush fields surrounding the town were worked by industrious small farmers cultivating rice, corn, and other staples. Nighttime entertainment consisted mostly of casual strolls around the central plaza. Then, two or three years ago, coca began to appear. Today, the crop is everywhere. Farmers, eager to cash in on the boom, are heading deeper and deeper into the countryside, carving rectangular plots into the rugged, tree-covered hills. Dollars, once scarce in Tarapoto, now circulate widely, and the town is experiencing a modest construction boom, with several hotels going up at once. Prices have risen sharply, as has the crime rate.

The arrival of coca in Tarapoto is not good news for the United States. It shows that the crop is spreading into areas outside its traditional zone of cultivation in the Upper Huallaga Valley. The valley, which extends for 200 miles along the muddy Huallaga River, is the largest coca-growing region in the world. An estimated 65 percent of the cocaine entering the United States is made with coca from Peru–more than half of it grown in the Upper Huallaga.

Seeking to disrupt the flow of cocaine at its source, the U.S. has mounted an ambitious campaign aimed at drug trafficking in the region. Heavily armed Drug Enforcement Administration agents, operating out of a military base in the heart of the valley, fly over the region in Vietnam-era helicopters, looking for processing labs and clandestine airstrips. Since operations began last fall, the DEA has destroyed scores of labs and seized many tons of coca paste.

Such measures, though, have done little to inhibit the spread of coca. In the Upper Huallaga, coca today covers at least 250,000 acres, and the amount is expanding at a rate of 10 to 20 percent a year. Like a runaway malignancy, the plant is suddenly appearing in towns like Tarapoto, which is located about 70 miles north of the central trafficking area. How coca has come to Tarapoto says a lot about the dynamics of the South American drug trade and the obstacles that the U.S. faces in combating it.

Tarapoto’s Banco Agrario is located in a modest two-story building just off the town’s main square. Operated by the state, the bank controls the flow of credit to the area’s farmers. One recent morning, the place was jammed with worried rice and corn growers seeking to postpone the deadlines for repaying their loans. Months earlier, these campesinos had turned over their produce to the state’s marketing agencies, only to find that the government lacked the funds to pay them. Instead of cash, the farmers received vouchers reimbursable at a later date. Months had passed, though, and still the money had not arrived. Now the farmers’ loans were coming due.

This was not the first time that the government had reneged on its obligations, and the farmers, seeking a more secure source of income, were turning to coca. The crop was ideally suited to the region. Highly resistant to disease, it required no insecticides and little fertilizer. Coca produces three or four harvests a year, compared to only two for rice and corn. Most important of all, coca is extremely profitable. A Peruvian peasant can earn up to $ 1,000 per acre of coca–several times the return on other crops.

Despite such advantages, Tarapoto’s growers had taken up the crop only reluctantly. “Coca brings a lot of money, but it also brings a lot of danger and suffering,” said Julio Garcia Pineda, a plainspoken 68year-old peasant leader who serves as a sort of patriarch for the region’s farmers. Garcia spoke on the ground floor of the Banco Agrario, his soft voice barely audible above the hubbub caused by the worried farmers. Coca growers, he said, “live in constant terror and fear–fear of the police, who steal money and farm animals; fear of the traffickers, who force the peasants into debt and kill those who can’t repay. Most campesinos, says Garcia, turn to coca “only because they are hungry.”

Along with coca had come increased political militancy. Scribbled on the walls around Tarapoto were graffiti like “Che Lives” and “Justice Begins for the Rich.” They were put there by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Cuban-style guerrilla group, which, though much smaller than the Maoist Shining Path, was fast gaining recruits in the area. In the center of town, about 100 farmers had taken over the offices of the government’s rice marketing board, vowing not to leave until receiving money for their produce. In addition, local peasant leaders had proposed a 20-day strike in which they would block all traffic on the region’s main highway.

Such an act would surely provoke violence, and, to weigh the merits, the growers had called a meeting at the Casa Campesina, an airy, warehouse-like building located on an unpaved Tarapoto side street. As dozens of campesinos milled about in front of the hall, a green army jeep pulled up. Out stepped General Alberto Arciniega, the political-military commander of the region. Having heard about the proposed strike, Arciniega–charismatic, headstrong, and voluble–had come to offer his views. A man of medium height, the 48-year-old Arciniega gains added presence from an erect military carriage and a gold-plated walking stick clutched in his left hand. Moving toward the entrance, he stopped to banter with a few peasants, then strode inside and took a seat at the raised table in front.

Until December, when his tour came to an end, Arciniega was the top authority in the Upper Huallaga Valley. He was also a figure of some controversy. The general’s headquarters was located in the town of Uchiza, which also happened to serve as the capital of Peru’s drug trade. In September, Melvyn Levitsky, the assistant secretary of State for international narcotics matters, told a Senate subcommittee about “reports” that Arciniega was “taking payoffs from traffickers” and protecting them and coca growers in return for help in fighting guerrillas. Levitsky further criticized Arciniega for not protecting coca eradication workers and for not allowing the DEA to enter areas under his control. In Lima, U.S. Embassy officials lobbied vigorously to have Arciniega moved out of the valley.

Now, in the Casa Campesina, the general sat silently as Segundo Centurion, a peasant organizer, made an emotional plea in favor of the strike. “The government has made many promises and not complied with them,” said Centurion, his anger barely under control. Unable to provide for their families, peasants were taking the one path left open to them. “Ninety percent of the peasants in the region are growing coca,” he observed. “This may be a ‘crime,’ but the government’s agrarian policy has forced them into it.” It was now time for action, he went on, adding, “Nothing is going to keep us quiet in the search for social justice.” There was loud applause.

Rising to speak, Arciniega looked sternly at the 75 or so peasants seated in front of him. “I’m the son of a campesino,” he declared in a booming voice. “I know what it means to work in the countryside.” As a result, he said, he sympathized with the campesinos’ problems. Nonetheless, he would not permit a strike. Local elections were about to be held, and Sendero Luminoso guerrillas were trying to disrupt them. A strike, he said, would only help their cause. “We must remain united to prevent this destruction of the country,” Arciniega said.

Arciniega spoke in quick, excitable bursts. By the time he turned to the subject of coca, he was shouting. “Officials of the U.S. government call the coca growers drug traffickers,” he bellowed. “They even say that I, General Arciniega, am a drug trafficker. They say this because I think of the real needs of my people–because I support the campesino.” The general spoke with pride of his efforts to encourage farmers in the Upper Huallaga to shift from coca to yucca, cocoa, and other food crops. Such an approach, he said, was much more effective than simply treating coca growers like criminals and eradicating their fields, a course of action favored by many U.S. officials. “To be a drug trafficker and a coca grower are two different things,” Arciniega declared. “I want to attack the coca problem-but not by attacking the campesino.”

Arciniega did not wait to hear the growers’ response. Instead, he assigned an officer to stay behind, then walked briskly out of the hall. He got into his jeep and drove to his barracks on the edge of town. In his quarters–a spare bungalow with a worn vinyl floor and naked overhead light–Arciniega talked about his problems with the U.S. government. “These U.S. officials fly to [the valley] for a four-hour tour and think they know everything about Peru,” Arciniega said, his contempt showing. “The coca problem is so great, the Americans need someone like me to serve as a scapegoat. It’s easier to destroy General Arciniega than to change the situation.”

He called to an aide and told him to fetch the fax of a recent article about him in the Miami Herald. “I was sent here by the president to be the head of the emergency zone, and here I end up in the Miami Herald,” Arciniega said, sounding not at all displeased. The general, a graduate of the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, became absorbed in the article, which chronicled the feud between him and the State Department.

Looking up, Arciniega launched into a tirade against the department. Denouncing the corruption charges as “madness,” the general pointed out that U.S. officials had produced no evidence. It is common knowledge, though, that drug traffickers operate openly in Uchiza, the seat of the general’s headquarters. Small planes from Colombia regularly touch down at the town’s airport, take on coca paste, and fly out again–all under the watchful gaze of military officers. The “fee” for using the airport reportedly ranges up to $15,000 a flight, with the money divided between the officers and the local town council. Whether the general himself had benefited from all this is not known. It seems clear, though, that the men under his command had reached some sort of accommodation with the traffickers.

Asked about this, Arciniega becomes testy. “The Americans think that all I have to worry about is fighting the drug traffickers,” he said. “As political -military commander of the zone, I have 20,000 different problems, only one of which is drug trafficking.” By far the greatest of those problems, he added, was Sendero Luminoso. The guerrillas were very active in the valley, their operations financed with war “taxes” extracted from both the drug traffickers and the coca growers. Eliminating coca could thus help in the fight against Sendero. Eradication, though, was not the answer, Arciniega said. “There are 150,000 coca-growing peasants in the zone,” he explained. “Each of them is a potential subversive. Eradicate his field and the next day he’ll be one.”

A self-styled populist, Arciniega spent much of his time flying around the valley in his private helicopter, dropping in on towns located in his zone of command. Two days after the meeting at the Casa Campesina, the general headed for Rioja, located about 60 miles from Tarapoto. Having failed to notify the local officials of his arrival, Arciniega had his helicopter circle the town in a wide arc–a calling card of sorts. By the third rotation, a small caravan was visible on the ground, snaking its way to the airport, and Arciniega gave the signal to land.

After a warm greeting from the town elders, the general was handed a leaflet that had been distributed in Rioja the night before. It was a political manifesto from the Tupac Amaru guerrillas–the group’s first appearance in town. Somewhat shaken, the officials invited Arciniega to a thatched restaurant, where, over endless rounds of beer and some cold salted fish, they poured out their woes. There had quite a few. The town’s electric generator was near collapse. The roads were in terrible shape. The state-run freight company was charging outlandish rates for its services.

When the officials had finished, Arciniega feebly protested that there was little he could do to help. Clearly distracted, he finally let on as to what was bothering him: the State Department’s corruption charges. The mayor, a rotund, self-assured man named Alfonso Alva Gonzales, stood up and offered a toast: “If someone has smeared the image of the general, it is my responsibility as the mayor of Rioja to affirm the friendship that our citizens feel for you. We all are happy because of the concern you, as military commander, have shown for us The mayor went on in this vein for several minutes. At the end, everyone applauded, and the general was back to his normal cocky self.

Rioja’s officials were not alone in toasting Arciniega. Throughout the valley, the general is seen as a sort of Robin Hood, willing to risk his career to help the region’s campesinos. Arciniega has appeared on the cover of national news magazines, portrayed as a Peruvian patriot willing to stand up to the Americans. President Alan Garcia himself has praised Arciniega at a highly publicized press conference. To U.S. officials, this is all deeply dismaying. Here is a general accused of involvement in the drug trade, yet, far from being reprimanded, he’s saluted by his own president.

For an explanation of all this, one need look no further than the state of the Peruvian economy. Since 1988, Peru has been mired in a deep depression. Guerrilla sabotage, combined with gross government mismanagement, has sent the gross national product plunging by 20 percent. Unemployment has reached 70 percent and the inflation rate almost 3,000 percent. In Lima these days there are lines for sugar, rice, and cooking oil. The government is so short of funds that sometimes it cannot pay its own employees.

In this desperate tableau, coca is one of the few bright spots. As many as one million of Peru’s 21 million people are involved in the trade. Coca is the country’s largest export, earning more than $1 billion a year. Those dollars flow directly onto the streets of Lima, where hundreds of informal moneychangers waving stacks of bills offer to change dollars for Peruvian intis. This is Peru’s real banking system, and it’s sustained almost entirely by coca dollars. For Peruvians, then, fighting the drug trade is tantamount to economic suicide.

Clearly, the obstacles America faces in fighting the Peruvian drug trade extend far beyond one general. Alberto Arciniega represents a broad current of thought that has permeated Peru’s government, its military, the public at large. Burdened by debt, wracked by insurgency, afflicted by mismanagement, corruption, and tax flight, Peru seems to be traveling headlong toward national catastrophe. Into this abyss steps the United States, demanding that Peru mobilize against its one vital sector. That Peruvians lack enthusiasm for this mission should come as no surprise.

Washington might overcome Peru’s reluctance by offering it a generous aid package. A major infusion of funds could help recharge the economy and generate jobs for farmers in towns like Tarapoto who are dependent on coca for their survival. Everywhere in Peru today, one hears hopeful talk of a “Marshall Plan” for the area. But such a program would require billions of dollars just for Peru, let alone Bolivia, Colombia, and other countries with flourishing drug industries. Given the mood in Washington, such largesse seems out of the question.

Today, General Arciniega, in a scheduled transfer, is working at a high-level job in the Defense Ministry in Lima, far from the Upper Huallaga Valley. Yet, as the United States steps up its drug-control program in the region, it’s certain to encounter many other Peruvians just like him.

©1990 Michael Massing

Michael Massing, a freelance writer, is investigating U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, as well as the international drug trade.