Drug trade grows in Bolivia, Peru - U.N.

Cocaine production is growing fastest in Bolivia while Peru is on its way to matching output from Colombia, the top global producer of the drug, U.N. officials said on Friday, Reuters reported.

Coca plant cultivation in Bolivia, which expelled U.S. anti-drug agents last year after accusing them of meddling in domestic affairs, grew 6 percent in 2008, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's annual study of Andean nations.

Estimated cocaine production rose 9 percent to 113 metric tons in the impoverished South American nation.

"What concerns us is the trend, which keeps growing," Hugo Fernandez, Bolivia's Deputy Foreign Minister, said in response to the study.

Bolivia has pledged to step up efforts to eradicate plants used in the cocaine trade. But President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer, has defended the chewing of coca leaves as well as their use for brewing tea and in religious ceremonies.

The leaves when consumed in this way provide a light stimulant, nowhere near the power of a cocaine rush.

Peru's leading coca growing area, in the Apurimac and Ene valleys, has become "the largest production zone in the country ... and the biggest producer in terms of density per hectare in all of the Andes," U.N. official Flavio Mirella said.

The region is controlled by remnant members of the radical leftist Shinning Path rebels, who have launched a series of deadly assaults this year on Peruvian soldiers trying to eradicate farms.

Peruvian coca cultivation grew 4.5 percent and estimated cocaine production rose 4.1 percent to 302 metric tons in 2008, according to the study.

"If Peru continues to grow at these rates, it may match production in Colombia," Mirella told reporters in Lima.

Colombian cocaine production fell 28 percent to 430 metric tons in 2008, its lowest level in a decade, due to coca plant eradication programs, including chemical spraying of coca fields.

Cultivation was cut by 18 percent to 81,000 hectares.

Colombia is the largest grower of coca, with 48 percent of total acreage, followed by Peru with 34 percent and Bolivia with 18 percent.

Andean countries have tried to encourage farmers to switch to specialty food crops and stop growing coca, most of which is grown for the drug trade. They have met some resistance in these efforts because coca prices are often far higher.

In Peru, 93 percent of coca is processed into cocaine, while the rest is grown for traditional uses.

Although seizures of cocaine are up in most countries, demand has also grown in international markets beyond the traditional destinations in Europe and the United States.

Cocaine was used at least once by between 15.5 million and 20.5 million people in 2007, according to U.N. estimates.

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