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Drug meeting spotlight on Peru's cocaine problem

Peru's struggle with a resurgent cocaine trade is in the spotlight as it hosts nearly 60 nations in conference on illicit drugs beginning Monday.

The Andean country's cocaine production likely now exceeds Colombia's, making it the world's No. 1 source of the illicit drug, the United States and United Nations say.

President Ollanta Humala said when he took office a year ago that he'd make the drug war a priority, and his government announced an ambitious antinarcotics plan in March.

So far, though, the corrupting influence of drug money has badly weakened Peru's law enforcement agencies and judiciary, consistently frustrating money-laundering and drug prosecutions, says the counter-narcotics chief in the attorney general's office, Sonia Medina.

"There is a paralysis at the moment" she said last week, with honest, committed judges and prosecutors scant.

There is no shortage, meanwhile, of cocaine, which Peru supplies to neighbors including Brazil, the world's No. 2 consumer after the United States, as well as a growing European market.

Under the previous administration of President Alan Garcia, eradication of Peru's coca crop, the raw material of cocaine, did not keep pace with new plantings.

In October, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence chief Rodney Benson said Peru surpassed Colombia in 2010 "in potential pure cocaine production" and was at about 325 metric tons a year compared to 270 metric tons from Colombia.

From 2006 to 2010, the area under coca cultivation in Peru jumped 35 percent to 236 square miles (61,200 hectares), the U.N. says. That's s double the size of the crop in Bolivia, the No. 3 cocaine-producing nation.

Colombia's coca crop encompasses nearly twice as much area as Peru's by U.S. measure but gets thinned regularly by herbicides sprayed by planes flown by U.S. contractors. Peru's coca fields, by contrast, yield more because their mature plants are mostly untouched by eradication. And unlike in Colombia, the only eradication done in Peru is by hand.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's representative for Peru, Flavio Mirella, told The Associated Press this year that "drug trafficking is in full growth" in the country and "could get out of hand."

Peru aims to counter that by reducing the area under coca cultivation by 30 percent by 2016. Peru's drug czar, Carmen Masias, told the AP when the plan was released that there are no "liberated zones" in the country exempt from eradication.

Yet areas that produce some of Peru's best-quality coca remain untouched by eradicators. Many are protected by armed gangs, including those in the Monzon region of the Upper Huallaga Valley of central Peru, experts say.

About 55 percent of Peru's coca crop is in the Ene and Apurimac Valley to the south, where the presence of leftist Shining Path rebels is so strong that the government hasn't yet dared try to eradicate. The rebels have killed more than 70 government troops in the region since 2008.

The United States has firmly backed the Humala government's counterdrug efforts and shares Peru's opposition to drug decriminalization, which is not on the official agenda for this week's conference.

That omission has upset drug production and transit nations promoting a debate on legalization, arguing that they are paying too heavy a price trying to fight traffickers.

"We've had 40 years of the fight against drugs and that's time enough to evaluate whether a strategy is successful or not," said Guatemala's ambassador to Peru, Gabriel Aguilera.

"In those 40 years neither demand nor supply has been substantially reduced. Nor has the violence diminished."

Proponents of legalization were heartened when Uruguay announced plans last week to legalize and sell marijuana and use the revenues to strengthen the fight harder drugs.

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Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno contributed to this report.