Peru's new center-left government says it is temporarily suspending its modest, U.S.-funded coca eradication program to re-evaluate strategy.
Prime Minister Salomon Lerner announced Wednesday night that the government is committed to reducing the illegal crop and will chart a strategy stressing alternative development, "social inclusion and fighting poverty."
U.S. Ambassador Rose Likins told reporters she was surprised by the news.
"It would have been nice to have been informed in advance," she said.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman in Washington, Victoria Nuland, said Thursday in a written response to a question at a briefing: "We do not believe that the temporary suspension of eradication this week represents a permanent shift in the Peruvian government's counternarcotics policy."
Peru is the world's No. 2 producer of cocaine after Colombia. Its area under coca cultivation has grown steadily for four years to reach 150,220 acres (61,200 hectares) last year, according to the U.N.
Washington gave Peru more than $30 million in counternarcotics aid last year.
President Ollanta Humala promised to continue eradication in his July 28 inaugural address. Lerner said the government is pausing Peru's program after eradicating two-fifths of its 2011 goal of 39 square miles (10,000 hectares).
That contrasts with the 363,200 acres (147,000 hectares) that Colombia reported eradicating last year, closer to the 19,800 acres (8,000 hectares) Bolivia said it eradicated. Bolivia's crop is a little more than half the size of Peru's and has also been growing.
Lerner said the pause in eradication "is to refine the instruments necessary for success in the interventions."
A leading Peruvian drug expert, Jaime Antezana, called the announcement bad news for drug-fighters and good news for drug traffickers.
Former Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi noted in a tweet that the coca crop in the Upper Huallaga valley, the only area where eradication is carried out, dropped by 25 percent last year.
"It's not eradication that has failed," he said.
Antezana said Thursday that he'd personally witnessed the success of crop substitution in eradication areas where planting of cacao and coffee had been encouraged with U.S., European Union and German assistance.
The new head of the state counterdrug agency, Ricardo Soberon, has been critical of counternarcotics efforts under previous President Alan Garcia. He says they've been ineffectual across the board. Peru's cocaine seizures under Garcia amounted to less than a tenth of Colombia's.
Soberon did not specify in a TV interview what changes might be made. The suspension came amid reassignments in the police high command, including the DIRANDRO counternarcotics unit.
Coca farmers in the Upper Huallaga have complained of being singled out, blocking roads during a weeklong protest last year, and Humala told them during the presidential campaign that he opposed forcible eradication.
Peru's government does not try to eradicate coca in areas where remnants of the Shining Path rebels operate and where dozens of soldiers have been killed in recent years.
Associated Press writers Carla Salazar and Martin Villena contributed to this report.