LIMA, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Peru is going slow on uprooting coca plantations as part of a revived government plan to restore the thumb-shaped green leaf its historical role in Inca times, even if that opens the country to risks of uncontrolled cocaine production.
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is the second regional leader to embrace the coca plant as a symbol of national pride and a continuation of Inca cultural values, after Bolivian President Evo Morales gave coca cultivation full backing, until rising cocaine production and smuggling triggered an international uproar.
U.S. law-enforcement officials say Peru is becoming a hub for armed drug cartels from Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia and other countries in the region.
Before Humala came to power July 28, succeeding Alan Garcia, various incentives had begun a process of gradual reduction of coca plantation. But, like Morales, Humala is taking the view that coca production doesn't translate into cocaine production.
U.N. and U.S. experts say an increase in the number of coca plantations has led to soaring cocaine production and export. Humala aides say cocaine consumer countries, most of them in the industrialized West, are to blame and want governments to contribute cash to his country's effort to keep a balance between coca production and no cocaine output.
Morales, a former coca farmer, backed Bolivian farmers' right to produce coca and vowed to fight narcotics in a policy of "zero cocaine but not zero coca."
The strategy hasn't worked in Bolivia and is equally likely to fail in Peru, U.N. experts said. Both governments' officials privately acknowledge the fight against cocaine isn't working but popular support for coca production remains strong.
Peruvian officials said they wouldn't backtrack on the government's anti-narcotics program but would let farmers grow coca while they set about redesigning their program for fighting use of coca to produce lucrative cocaine for domestic and international trafficking.
U.S. officials in Lima said they weren't told of a halt to coca eradication. U.S. Ambassador to Peru Rose Likins said she still hadn't an explanation of what happened. Humala recently reshuffled his Cabinet, including his anti-drug team.
Latest data cited by U.N. experts indicate Peru is the world's leading coca grower and could surpass Colombia as the top cocaine producer.
Peruvian Interior Minister Oscar Valdes responded to criticism, saying, "We are working on how to redirect efforts."
He said coca eradication efforts would resume "very soon" but added the government in the meantime would concentrate on identifying and eliminating the drug trade and monitoring supplies of materials such as kerosene, used to turn coca into cocaine.
"The public must understand that the reduction of illicit crops will continue as the president has said and there will be a frontal fight against drug trafficking," Valdes said.