Pamela Huerta ©In.Visibles/Sergio Ortiz


Coca leaf cultivation increased by 18 percent between 2021 and 2022 in Peru, mainly around Amazon borderlands. We spoke to journalist Pamela Huerta about the impact this has had on local communities and on the environment.

Text: Josefina Salomón / Ilustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

When journalist Pamela Huerta spoke to Jeremías*, a coca farmer in the province of Mariscal Ramón Castilla in northern Peru, four years after her first visit, many things had changed.

Jeremías had finished building his house and was waiting for the proceeds of the next “campaign” to fit it with doors and windows. He wanted his children to be able to attend school without needing to stay with relatives. Jeremías controls coca crops and laboratories where cocaine paste is produced. He is at the end of the production and distribution chain of the fourth most popular illicit drug on the planet.

His story is illustrative of many of the dynamics taking place in Peru, the second largest global coca producer.

Coca leaf cultivation increased by 18 percent between 2021 and 2022 in Peru, according to the latest report by the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (Devida). The states of Ucayali and Loreto, which share large border areas with Colombia and Brazil, are the regions where the largest increases were documented.

They are among the areas most inhabited by indigenous communities and also part of the Amazon, the most biodiverse jungle in the world which is currently at risk. Illicit markets, including the production of cocaine and illegal gold mining, are among some of the reasons for the environmental degradation, according to a recent investigation by Amazon Underworld.

In recent years, crime groups have shown an increased ability to adapt to new contexts, markets and security strategies. The days of big drug lords controlling every aspect of the business have been replaced by new “entrepreneurial” dynamics where smaller groups work independently and lead specific aspects of the production and distribution process.

We spoke with Huerta about the present, and possible futures, of one of the hottest areas on Latin America’s criminal map.

Una mujer entre arbustos de coca en un campo en la provincia Mariscal Ramón Castilla, en la región peruana de Loreto, donde la producción de coca se ha expandido en los últimos años. Foto: Pamela Huerta
A woman among the coca bushes in a field in the province of Mariscal Ramón Castilla, in the pervivan region of Loreto, where coca production has expanded in recent years. Photo: Pamela Huerta.

In.Visibles (IV): In your recent article, you follow the story of a man you call Jeremías, a coca grower and cocaine producer who involved his whole family in the business, including his daughter. 

Pamela Huerta (PH): Yes, I met Jeremías’ daughter when she was nine years old, now she is about to enter secondary school. I remember she was very attentive, very smart. When we interviewed her father, she told us that she liked to be by his side at work, that she helped him move the product.

I asked him if he wasn’t scared because she was a girl, a woman, and he said no. I said: “Do you know that she is a minor and that you are exposing her to many dangers?” And he said “no, that’s how it is here”. That’s all. That gives away a bit of his psychological profile.

IV: How does the experience of Jeremías’ daughter reflect that of other women in the communities?

PH: There are different ways in which crime dynamics affect women, who often bear the brunt of the violence crime generates.

Most of the population in these areas is indigenous and cultural dynamics determine how relationships are established.

The story of Jeremiah, for example, explains much of this. When he joins his wife, she was a minor. He was already involved in moving cocaine paste, he had already worked in the laboratories, he had worked his way through several of the links in the cocaine production chain and he saw that there were too many risks. What he wanted to do was just to grow coca and sell it.

That was his initial vision, but he is not indigenous so he could not access land. The only way he could do this was by marrying an indigenous woman from that territory, so he did that and then expanded his business.

IV: Do these women take on other roles after being the key to accessing land?

PH: Absolutely. How far they go depends on each case. Jeremías’ wife, for example, had a more passive role. She was not directly involved in the business beyond some domestic tasks.

She showed me how to scrape bushes because I told her that I was curious because I saw how this activity damaged people’s hands. But beyond that, she was more involved in household chores because Jeremías has a vision of a family model where the man is the provider and the woman is the one who stays at home.

IV: In a way, his daughter broke some of the gender norms and expectations there…

PH: Yes. When I asked Jeremías about this, he told me that she showed a lot of interest in the business, unlike his other two children.

IV: It seems that this family illustrates many of the dynamics of this illegal market, including the roles of women.

PH: Yes, there are women who produce, who accompany, who transport, and even some who control everything. This is an interesting example, but I think there is still a lot to be explored about the roles women play within criminal markets.

I think this also has a lot to do with the fact that women are much more reserved than men. There are women who have much more prominent roles that have yet to be explored, but they also tend to be more difficult to access because they are more reserved.

“The question for Jeremías, or a landowner or someone who picks up coca leaves is: if they don't do this, what could they do? It is a complex analysis that defines a complex reality, but which shows that organized crime takes advantage of these scenarios in which the state does not want to act nor be present.”

IV: You mentioned that, over time, criminal dynamics, particularly in the province of Mariscal Ramón Castilla, changed drastically. What are the main changes?

PH: There are two main changes I’ve seen since I started working in this area nearly four years ago.

The first has to do with transport dynamics. Before, there was a sort of chain, one person producing the drugs and taking them to a central point. During the pandemic, this changed because of the increased control in routes and limits to movability, at least in theory. So, a new actor emerged, someone who went and collected the products from all producers and then took it to one central point, a warehouse. So, what Jeremías did with his daughter in the beginning, which was to move his production to the central point, changed. And although his pay was reduced, he told me that this new dynamic was better for him because they were no longer exposed to as much risk.

The other thing that changed has to do with the nationality of the main players. Four years ago, you saw that the bosses were Peruvians, but now you see more Colombians and Brazilians in those roles. This was the result of a dispute for control between groups in these areas, between the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) and the Familia do Norte, in which the dissidents finally decided to get together and form a new group. There is no loyalty at play there, they are all operating as a part of a business and working for the highest bidder. That makes the business more efficient.

IV: They are turning more professional…

PH: Yes, although we are only just starting to report this, there is a lot of academic evidence available. I see it as a dynamic of outsourcing, but the issue is that states insist on approaching the issue as if the organizations were still operating like large cartels controlled by big bosses, not accepting that things are changing, or not wanting to do their job.

Even the Attorney General’s Office recognizes that it is no longer effective to continue to think that there is one person who controls everything. If that were still the case, it would be much simpler to put an end to drug trafficking, but now it is much more complicated because you when you arrest one person, there are two ready to take over.

IV: How can these communities that depend on illicit economies move to other, licit ones?

PH: I think that’s quite complicated, but I think the state could at least start by giving these people access to basic services such as water, electricity, access to education and health. So that they don’t have to sail for six hours and then travel another hour by land to go to school, for example. The state needs to build up its basic presence and provide proper access to services, mobility and communications.

These people are aware that what they do is illegal, although there are many links in this chain and each doesn’t have the same level of responsibility. Someone who grows coca, for example, does not have the same level of responsibility as a person who controls 50 hectares of crops that later end up in a laboratory where they process this raw material that ends up as “pasta base” and then goes on to be crystallized to make cocaine and then enter the route to supply users. 

The context, to a large extent, defines the way in which these actors end up involved in these crimes. So, the question for Jeremías, or a landowner or someone who picks up coca leaves is: if they don’t do this, what could they do? Jeremías would have not been able to build his house in four years and his daughters would probably not be going to school.

It is a complex analysis that defines a complex reality, but which shows that organized crime takes advantage of these scenarios in which the state does not want to act nor be present, because the persecution and repression of crime is not enough.

IV: All the stories in Amazon Underworld highlight the impact of the lack of state presence in the Amazon…

PH: To speak of a lack of presence suggests that these are areas without any state institutional presence and that is not the case. In all these areas you find, for example, police stations, army checkpoints and even the presence of the navy. You also find a medical post, perhaps not in the best condition but there is one, and a school, although it has a terrible infrastructure, a mayor, and so on.

I think that, to be more precise, we must to talk about the lack of political will on the part of the state to assume its responsibilities, to do what it has to do in these territories, to cover the basic needs of the population, taking into account the local cultural context.

Amazon Underworld found criminal organizations in 70 percent of the Amazon. 

IV: What role does the current political context in Peru play in the presence of the state in the territories?

PH: The national political context affects the ability of the state to be present in the territories. With so many changes of ministers and approaches at the national level, it is very difficult to establish national policies for the long term.

Also, these approaches fail to take some key issues into account, for example, the amount of drugs that move along the rivers, especially in the Amazon, where there are no roads. They also fail to talk about the lack of fuel or boats for the police who must fight drug trafficking in that border area. All that shows is a lack of political will.

IV: What’s the outlook?

PH: I don’t think you have to be a psychic to know that drug trafficking, at least in this area, is going to continue to grow.

I would like to be more optimistic, but I really don’t think that as long as the state doesn’t go or at least try to keep up with the changing dynamics of drug trafficking, its strategies are not going to work.

Drug traffickers will always have the upper hand because they are constantly innovating, improving their production methods, their transport strategies. They are constantly looking for ways to improve crops, to make them more efficient, to bring in new seeds, to improve processes in laboratories, constantly looking for precursors that can be moved without being traced. In other words, drug trafficking as an illicit activity is constantly innovating, constantly looking for ways to make its business more efficient, while the authorities seem to be stuck in the eighties, in the nineties, trying to investigate in ways that are no longer effective.

*Not his real name.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You can access the full investigation by Amazon Underworld here.