Peru: Beyond the Anti-Drug Shootout

Shortly after taking office last year, Peru's President Alberto Fujimori got his new government's relations with the United States off to a poor start by rejecting U.S. military aid that was supposed to help stem the flow of Peru's most notorious export: cocaine. Fujimori wants to fight the dirty trade, but disagrees with U.S. strategy in the drug war. Now he and some respected advisers have an alternative anti-cocaine plan that deserves Washington's support.

Fujimori had valid reasons for turning back $36 million in aid for Peru's military, who are hard pressed not just by drug traffickers but by fiendishly effective guerrillas. Like many anti-drug experts in this country, Fujimori believes it will take more than police pressure to get poor farmers not to grow the one crop that makes them money--the coca leaves cocaine is made from.

But by turning down the help Washington offered in the drug war, Fujimori also put in jeopardy another $100 million in both military and economic aid that Peru cannot receive under U.S. law unless it cooperates with U.S. anti-drug efforts. That is money a poor nation deeply in debt can scant afford to lose, which is why Fujimori and one of Peru's most respected economists, Hernando de Soto, came up with an alternative anti-drug plan. It was offered to the Bush Administration last month, in anticipation of the March 1 deadline for cutting off all U.S. aid.

The Peruvian plan includes the military aid that Washington wants to provide. But it also includes several free-market mechanisms that are designed to make it easy, and profitable, for Peru's farmers to grow something besides coca. Among other things, the Peruvian proposal includes funding for crop substitution, for rural development programs and even the possibility of a free trade pact between the United States and Peru.

Such esoteric strategies sound far removed from get-tough approaches like simply shooting it out with drug smugglers. But they should not surprise anyone who is familiar with De Soto's reputation as an economist who's willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of both leftist and rightist ideologues to create development, and fight poverty, in Latin America.

While there are not many people in this country who've heard of De Soto, plenty of folks in the State Department have. Those specialists must pull out all the stops to convince President Bush to sign off on Peru's drug war proposal before the March 1 deadline. It sounds innovative enough to be worth a gamble. Or look at it another way: Given the notable lack of success so many other anti-drug strategies have had in recent years, Fujimori and De Soto's proposal can hardly do much worse. So why not give it a try?

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