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Peru becomes top cocaine producer

It has long been one of the world's main sources of cocaine, but Peru is now thought to have overtaken Colombia as the leading producer of the drug.

The South American country is believed to have surpassed Colombia as the biggest global producer of the drug after the latter reduced its cultivation of coca bush, which provides the raw material for cocaine, by 25% last year.

Figures collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the area under coca crop cultivation in Colombia fell from 64,000 hectares in 2011 to 48,000 by the end of 2012.

The 2012 figures for Peru are yet to be released by the UNODC, but last year's statistics put Peru's crop at around 62,500 - an increase of around 5.2% on the previous year.

UNODC has also recently revealed that the cultivation of coca in Bolivia, another major producer of the drug, had dropped for the second year running - falling by about 7% in 2012. The previous year saw a drop of 12% in cultivation.

But an expert on the international drugs trade said it was extremely difficult to pin measurements on illegal drug production that is so often hidden in the jungle.

Dr Jennifer Fleetwood, from the University of Leicester, who has carried out research into women in the international drugs trade, said: "It is massively difficult trying to quantify and measure this hidden illegal activity, especially when a lot of things go on in the jungle and the measurements are really politicised.

"Peru has played a role in the drugs trade for a very long time now. Peru, Bolivia and Colombia have been the three main producer countries for a very long time.

"I know they have had prisoners filled with drug offenders for a long time and in the women's prisons most women are there for drugs offences."

But she said apparent fluctuations in numbers between the Latin American countries could be the effect of governments wanting to look like they are taking a hard line in the worldwide war against drugs.

"Researchers call it the bubble effect - you squeeze one area and it expands into another, " she said.

According to Dr Fleetwood, clamping down on certain areas of drug production often meant drugs bosses would invest more heavily in new areas to grow coca and new, more sophisticated methods to manufacture cocaine.

Once you start removing crops that are on the mountain top, people start growing them elsewhere. The business just adapts," she said.

"It may look like the crop is reducing, but manufacturing methods are improving and getting more efficient. This is the problem with trying to measure what is going on."

She added: "Across the Latin American region there has been immense pressure put on governments to look like they are fighting the war on drugs.

"Rather than trying to catch people who are behind this, which is massively expensive, they pick people up in airports. They catch people who are at the sharp end of this, the people who are taking the most risks."

And judges are often forced to take a hard line on those accused of drug trafficking, she said, for fear of showing leniency.

"When I was in Ecuador, judges were pressured to convict because if they had someone turn up who said they were made to do it, or they were being threatened, and they let them off, they would look like they were being soft. They basically had their hands tied.

"It's very difficult when you have a whole criminal justice system which is massively overstretched.

"People have called it 'headcount criminal justice', where countries want to say they are fighting the war on drugs."

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