from Sandra Weiss
Pichari with its 15,000 inhabitants is the most important city and commercial center of the VRAEM valley.
"Our enemy was the guerrilla, the drug mafia was our ally"
There is no significant industry, and except for some cocoa, fruit, honey and coffee hardly anything is produced. Almost everything in the filled window displays is brought in from Lima, Ayacucho and Cusco, from potatoes to shoes to Bose speakers and Beats headphones. Pharmacies, gas stations and savings cooperatives with fancy names like "House of the People", "Federation of the markets" or "New Horizons" abound.
In the cooperative "John Paul II" you even receive a motorcycle for your cash inpayment of 50,000 soles (the equivalent of 14,600 dollar). The cooperatives emerged in the VRAEM valley in the 90s, when the coca growers no longer knew what to do with all their cash. From the VRAEM, they spread throughout Peru, a parallel banking system without supervision. Only in recent years did prosecutors start to investigate some of them for money laundering. The pharmacies and shops for agricultural needs still sell tons of ammonia, acetone, and other substances that are needed for cocaine production.
The townhall of Pichari has arcades and large, mirrored windows, shimmering in orange. A very typical Andean architecture, that looks strange in the middle of the humid rain forest. On the square in front of the townhall, a location where in most villages bronze statues of national heroes can be found, in Pichari there is a pintoresque row of man-sized, green concrete coca leaves. A monument to the source of wealth in this remote jungle area. They date from the time when the drug was transported in the pickups of the city administration, hidden underneath a layer of brick or cement. Until recently, there was also an annual "Coca Festival”, where beer was abundant and the party was animated by popular music groups flown in from the capital. The new mayor Edilberto Gómez decided, for image reasons, to change the name into "Festival of the Rainforest". At the entrance to his office, a very young secretary in a very short miniskirt hacks an official letter in stilted, bureacratical language into the computer. Even the air conditioning working at refrigerator temperatures is not able to prevent the mold from attacking the yellow wall.
Gómez is a jovial professional politician, trying to win his visitors over with his openness: "During the civil war, we all survived thanks to the coca business. There was no market for legal products”, he admits. "Our enemy was the guerrilla, the drug mafia was our ally", the 50-year-old adds. Gómez, known as "Loco Edy", the crazy Edy, is part of an extended family which owns one of the "companies" that control the drug trade. Gómez ' cousin Oscar called "Turbo" is in jail; the mayor himself was caught with a pickup from his cousin’s drug fleet in 2009 and got away without a charge. Officially, he earns his money with gas stations.
"If the military is really going to start uprooting coca plants, the people will insurge,"
The mayor knows his numbers when it comes to the drug business: "There is no product as profitable as the coca leaf. For cocoa, you need irrigation and can harvest only once a year. The coca leaf can be harvested three times, and you get a six times higher price for it." 30 years of laisser-faire cannot be reversed quickly, he judges, and puts the blame on the central government which doesn’t want to spend money on infrastructure and alternative products. "If the military is really going to start uprooting coca plants, the people will insurge," he warns. Among his favorite projects are the construction of an airport and a prison, a “gift to the families who have to travel so far to visit their imprisoned family members". Another one is the reactivation of the processing plant the UN built in 2008. "That would create alternatives and infrastructure”, he explains and adds “the mafia hate me for this”. The peasant cooperative which operates the plant has a slightly different view. They suspect, that the man with the golden watch on his wrist, just wants to get a grip on yet another promising business.