|Peru's interior minister said 12 years of eradication efforts had had little effect on coca production [EPA]
Peru's new government has temporarily suspended the eradication of coca plants, the base ingredient of cocaine, as it works to re-design its anti-drug programmes, the country's interior ministry said.
News of the suspension in eradication work prompted surprise and concern from US officials, whose country has tried for years to limit coca production in Peru as part of a broader "war on drugs" in the region.
The United Nations says Peru is now the world's leading coca grower and could surpass Colombia as the top cocaine producer.
Coca has been commonly used in Peru and other Andean nations for centuries and plays an important role in traditional indigenous culture. Many chew coca leaves or consume the plant in other ways, such as coca tea.
It is considered effective as a treatment for altitude sickness and is often used in medicine and in traditional religious ceremonies.
But supporters of eradication say most of the coca crop is cultivated for the cocaine industry.
"We are working on how to re-direct efforts," said Oscar Valdes, the Peruvian interior minister.
Valdes said eradication would resume "very soon" but added that the government wanted to focus more on catching major traffickers and cutting off access to supplies, such as kerosene used to refine coca into cocaine.
'Frontal fight' on trafficking
"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.
Richard Soberon, head of the anti-drugs programme for Peruvian President Ollanta Humala's government, said there was an indefinite "pause" in the eradication programme in the Alto Huallaga region northeast of Lima to evaluate the effort.
"In every country, in Afghanistan, in Colombia, in Bolivia, in Mexico, it is normal to have these pauses to do the necessary evaluation of what has happened, to correct mistakes," he said.
He added that 12 years of eradication efforts had had little impact on the production of coca in Peru.
Still, Rose Likins, the US ambassador to Peru, appeared surprised by the decision.
|Drugs Central Spotlight
"I still haven't received a complete explanation of what happened," she said. "It would have been better to have received information about this beforehand."
According to a United Nations report, Peru in 2010 became the world's largest coca producer, overtaking Colombia, where production has seen a steady decline.
The 2011 UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report says Peru had 61,200 hectares (150,000 acres) of coca under cultivation in 2010, two percent more than in the previous year.
Peruvian officials estimated that the amount of cocaine produced in the country in 2010 was 330 tons, close to the estimated 350 tons produced by Colombia.
The suspension of the eradication programme coincides with Humala's re-shuffling of the country's drug policy team following his election in June.
Criticism of new government
Humala, a former army officer elected on a leftist agenda, has said he would work closely with the US to fight cocaine production. He has also said he expected countries that buy illegal cocaine to contribute to the effort.
He drew criticism earlier this month for appointing Soberon to head Peru's anti-drug agency.
Soberon, a lawyer, worked for a legislator from the president's political party who has close links to coca growers.
Fernando Rospigliosi, the former minister of interior, said the indefinite suspension sent a bad signal.
"It says to the coca producers and guerrillas, 'Go ahead, plant your coca, nothing will happen,'" he said.