Scenes from Peru’s Cocaine Capital

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For thousands of years in parts of South America–Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru–coca has been involved in daily life. It is part of the religious tradition of Andean people; it has been used as medicine to treat altitude sickness; and to this day, thousands of people pull coca leaves from small pouches, stuff a small bolear between their mouth and gums and go about their day. A mild stimulant, coca is often treated no differently than one would drinking coffee.

But coca is the raw material for manufacturing cocaine, and countries far north of the Andes go to great lengths to stop its trade. Armed with $55 million in U.S. counter drug aid, the Peruvian government is cracking down, promising to eradicate its growth. In the Pichari valley, where more than half of Peru’s coca grows, they dry coca on soccer fields and children frolic in the leaves. Groups like the Shining Path rebels, who depend on the drug trade, have clashed with government forces, killing nearly 100 soldiers in the past 5 years. As the government steps up its presence, they will wade into an area where coca, despite its harmful uses elsewhere, is a part of daily life.—Nate Rawlings

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