By Caroline Stauffer
LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's leftist government has scored some early victories in its bid to overhaul anti-drugs policy in the world's top coca grower while keeping the United States as a key partner, the country's new drug czar said.
Ricardo Soberon, a lawyer who previously worked for a legislator with close links to coca growers, was seen as a risky choice to lead anti-drug efforts in a country that may surpass Colombia as the world's top cocaine producer.
He once criticized coca eradication programs funded by the United States as short-sighted, and still says more energy should be spent helping farmers raise alternative crops like coffee and seizing chemicals used to refine cocaine.
Peru gets about half its anti-drugs money from the United States and Soberon is in a delicate dance with U.S. envoys as he tries to change drugs policy without alienating them.
Shortly after leftist President Ollanta Humala took office in August, Peru surprised Washington by suspending all coca eradication for a week to evaluate anti-drug programs that are still being reworked.
That made for a rocky start in relations but eradication has resumed and Soberon said he has had some success winning over U.S. officials to accommodate Humala's emphasis on alternative development for farmers who now cultivate coca.
He wants programs giving land titles and market access to poor farmers to help bring them into the formal economy.
"We've reached a basic understanding with the United States about Peru's new policy, which implies a bit less funding from them for eradication and interdiction, and a bit more funding for alternative development," he told Reuters.
Funding for alternative development is expected to rise to $25 million next year from $22.39 million, while eradication financing may fall to $27.5 million from $38 million, though Soberon's office said negotiations were ongoing.
Soberon called the United States, the world's top consumer, "a responsible and cooperative partner" in drug control efforts although he and others have long been irked that Peru only gets a slice of the billions in U.S. aid that has gone to Colombia to fight drug-trafficking rebels and other armed groups.
As stipulated by its pact with the United States, Soberon said Peru was on track to eradicate 10,000 hectares of coca this year, out of 61,200 hectares planted. Coca plantations have ballooned in recent years despite eradication efforts.
CONTROLLING CHEMICALS, TACKLING THE VRAE
Soberon insists Humala's commitment to fighting drugs is already showing results. Peru seized 955 kilos of cocaine last week and blocked some $25 million worth of the drug from entering Europe.
The government has also closed 18 unlicensed gas stations in the world's most densely planted coca region, the Apurimac-Ene River Valley, or VRAE.
It says the raids show its determination to control the chemicals used to refine cocaine -- mainly kerosene and gasoline -- instead of just pulling up coca farms. Former President Alan Garcia was criticized for not doing more to target chemicals.
The new tactic will also benefit from a $20 million investment in long-delayed software to monitor chemicals at 220 points countrywide, Soberon said.
One thorny issue still to unresolved with the United States is how to tackle the VRAE, where remnants of the Shining Path rebel group that wreaked havoc in the 1990s still pose a threat and have killed 50 soldiers in the last two years.
Soberon said the United States would rather focus on safer coca growing areas outside the VRAE, whereas Humala, a former military officer, regards the valleys as a top priority.
"We'd like to see some percentage of this money go to the VRAE, with the best security possible so that every U.S. dollar in the budget is well spent, with visible results," he said.
The difficulty of working in remote, almost lawless regions like the VRAE has the government entertaining new approaches.
Prime Minister Salomon Lerner tals of paying growers not to plant coca and Soberon says markets need to be found for coca grown for tea, cultural and medicinal use. He said a Russian firm plans to buy $1.2 million of legal coca this year.
Some say the emphasis on development in coca growing areas has been mostly talk and farmers have not yet felt a change.
"The idea is positive but it will work when they sit down for dialogue with coffee and cacao organizations, which we haven't seen yet," said Lorenzo Castillo, head of Peru's coffee council. "Coca is winning the war over coffee."
Although Humala's teams says he is more determined than any other leader in the last 20 years to tackle drugs, Soberon is unsure if Peru has the resources to prevent it from becoming the world's top cocaine producer.
"Due to the demand in the world it is possible that Peru could become the first," he said. "But it's not our fault. We are not guilty, it's a problem of the international community continuing to demand cocaine."
(Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Terry Wade and Kieran Murray)
Kerry Calls Netanyahu, Promises White House Doesn't Really Think He's Chickensh*t or a Coward | Katie Pavlich