By Marco Aquino
LIMA, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Peruvian security forces will start eradicating illegal coca plants for the first time in a lawless jungle region that produces most of the cocaine in the country, the government announced on Thursday.
Authorities want to push back against a rise in cocaine output and take advantage of weakened leftist rebels who support drug-traffickers, Interior minister Carlos Moran said.
A 45-day operation in the Vraem starting November 1 will aim to destroy 750 hectares (1,853 acres) of coca plants, which are used to make cocaine. Next year eradication in the region would continue more intensely, Moran said, without offering details.
The Vraem, a mountainous jungle region the size of Puerto Rico, produced about 70% of estimated cocaine produced in Peru in 2016, the last year for which data was available in a Dec report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Despite a state of emergency that has suspended civil liberties and authorized military control in the region for decades, recent governments have declined to send coca-eradication teams there, wary of a violent backlash from coca farmers and a remnant band of Shining Path rebels.
Moran said rebels have been weakened by captures of key commanders in recent years, and that eradication will start in parts of the Vraem that intelligence reports have identified as less risky.
In 2017, illegal coca crops were grown on an estimated 24,000 hectares in the Vraem, Moran said. That is 20% higher than the 20,000 hectares of coca that UNODC estimated for 2016, itself an 11% rise from 2015.
Peru is the world's second-largest cocaine producer after Colombia, according to Washington. Pure potential cocaine production in Peru rose to a 25-year high in 2017, the White House said last year. (Reporting By Marco Aquino, Writing By Mitra Taj Editing by Alistair Bell)
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