Letter From Peru: Drug Crops Grow As Peasants Lack Right To Property

Letter From Peru: Drug Crops Grow As Peasants Lack Right To Property

IQUJTOS; Peru—In late April, I woke up to the news that a missionary couple from a town near my offices in Grand Rapids, Mich., had been shot down in a plane in Peru. Mother Veronica Bowers and her newly adopted young daughter, Charity, were killed as they headed to the very banks of the Amazon River where I was scheduled to deliver some lectures two weeks later.

I came here to talk to the missionaries, pastors and civic leaders about the market economy and its legal and moral framework as a solution to the region’s poverty. Virtually no one was pleased with the prospects for either of the two Peruvian presidential candidates. The joke heard on the streets is that the choice is akin to being offered execution by hanging of’ the electric chair.

The corruption here is palpable, and everyone is invited to participate in it. An evangelical minister told me that bribery is commonplace.

The police stopped him recently for no real reason and asked him a series of irrelevant questions. The police, he said, hit you with an irreversible fine, then suggest that perhaps “We can collaborate.” The bribe for a $42 ticket is about 80 cents.

The minister blames this corruption on pervasive economic desperation. But the ubiquity of power-hungry pols and bureaucrats, as well as onerous regulations, also account for it.

When people have power over other people, it places the former in a position to demand bribes from the latter. Hernando de Soto, perhaps Peru’s most politically informed scholar, knows this well.

In his new book, “The Mystery of Capital,” he argues that the region’s poverty is due not to the rapacious capitalism of the developed world, but to the lack of opportunity and access to capital in the developing world.

Latin American economies tend toward a two-tiered structure, with capital and capitalist incentives offered to the rich and well connected while the poor languish without such access and turn to the informal sector. Regulations and the absence of property right prevent economic mobility.

At a dinner in his home with some business people, de Soto noted that the real entrepreneurial brains behind the drug business in Peru are its Colombian counter parts. The Peruvian peasants in the jungle, he said, are simply trying to survive by growing the coca plant on land they do not own.

He asked those of us at the dinner table why we were not in the drug trade, given its 2,000% profit margin, from the jungles of the Amazon to the streets of Manhattan. He answered his own question by noting that we in the developed world have other opportunities and have too much to lose, two conditions that do not apply to the Peruvian poor. Give these peasants the same opportunities and incentives, he predicted, and they would grow the palmetto tree, which would yield them a higher profit than they are paid for coca.

At my conference in Iquitos, I asked if anyone knew the American missionary couple. Many did. Had their tragedy not happened, the couple probably would have been at the conference.

A local missionary asked if I would like to see their downed plane. “Look across the river,” he said. “Do you see those three tin-roofed sheds on the bank?” “Yes,” I re plied. “The plane is in the first shed,” he said.

I later went across the river with a Christian Reformed minister from the conference. We could see the burned hulk of the blue and white Cessna. The local mechanic who had maintained the plane came out to see who we were. I explained that I was a North American Catholic priest, accompanied by a Protestant colleague. I told him we wanted to pray.

He welcomed us and showed us where the mother and baby were hit by the bullets. He indicated the numerous bullet holes through the body of the plane, the propeller, the fuselage and the landing mechanism.

It was nothing short of a miracle that the pilot, himself wounded in the attack, managed to land his flame-engulfed plane.

Standing there, looking at the bullet holes and the burn marks on the plane, I thanked God for missionaries who would leave the comfort and safety of their homes and come to the horrendously impoverished villages along the Amazon to distribute food, medicine and news of God’s love. And I asked God to show our policy-makers a better, more loving, less violent way of dealing with the drug trade.

We need a policy that appeals to people’s better nature and to their real-life problems. We see the results of the drug war in the continuing poverty of Peru and the lost lives of Veronica and her child. It is time for a new approach that builds on the awareness of the plight of the people here.