Bolivia shifts tactics in its war on cocaine, President focuses on eradicating means of making drug, and not on coca farming
Puerto Villarroel, Bolivia - As Bolivian soldiers torch a pit filled with chemicals and coca leaves used to make cocaine, a fireball shoots toward a jungle canopy. The anti-narcotic task force destroys seven such holes daily in a region known as the Chapare.
Since Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales, assumed power in January, he has continued his nation's war on drugs in the Chapare near Bolivia's third-largest city, Cochabamba. But he also has antagonized the United States by shifting the focus away from the subsistence farmers who grow coca leaf -- the raw ingredient of cocaine -- to destroying pits and laboratories and confiscating chemicals needed to manufacture cocaine. Coca has been the lifeline for many Chapare farmers, many of whom had been tin miners until the collapse of metal prices in the 1980s.
On the campaign trail, Morales -- who has long represented coca farmers as their union president -- pledged to abandon the "zero coca" policy of previous Bolivian governments and to campaign to end the international ban on the export of coca-based products. The 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics outlaws the production, manufacture and trade in coca leaf.
Coca leaf has been chewed for centuries in Bolivia, but even taking a packet of coca tea out of the country is illegal.
"Why is coca legal for Coca-Cola but not for native peoples and peasants?" Morales asked members of the European Parliament in a speech last month. Some non-narcotic chemicals extracted from coca are used to flavor the soft drink.
Even though Morales appears to have support from some European Union members to end the ban, he faces a herculean task in convincing the United States. Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, says Washington will veto any attempt to amend international law. "The U.S. is not going to support the idea," she said last month on a visit to La Paz, Bolivia.
The Bush administration says that forced eradication must continue, pointing out U.S. State Department figures that the zero coca program caused total acreage of coca production to plunge from 87,228 acres in 1990 to 14,322 acres in 2005. Cocaine production has decreased from 255 metric tons to 70 metric tons, according to the 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, a U.S. State Department agency.
U.S. officials also point out that Bolivia's anti-drug law permits only 29,652 acres of coca to be grown in the Yungas region north of La Paz for traditional use such as tea and mastication. But Washington says 65,482 acres are currently in production, with the excess crop destined for the cocaine trade.
Like his predecessor, Carlos Mesa, Morales believes forced eradication is a formula for social conflict and human rights abuses, and he has ordered the military to focus on drug traffickers. In the past, violent confrontations between farmers and soldiers have often resulted in death and injury.
The Chapare region had been under military occupation, with more than 2,000 troops stationed at nine camps. "We eradicated more before, but we do not have deaths now. ... There is no violence," said Lt. Col. Jose Soliz, who heads the anti-narcotics task force. "If a farmer denies us permission, we cannot enter his land."
Last year, Soliz's force seized 11.5 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base, 540,774 liters of chemicals such as acetone and diesel, and 298,815 metric tons of sulfuric acid and bicarbonate of soda. The soldiers also destroyed 2,619 cocaine laboratories. So far this year, 1,082 chemical pits in the Chapare have been destroyed, and 2,683 acres of coca have been eradicated.
Despite claims by the cocalero union that self-regulation has caused no rise in coca production, the International Narcotics Control Strategy report says cultivation increased by 8 percent in 2005 -- the fourth consecutive year of increases -- even though the government eradicated 14,826 acres last year. Some observers say coca acreage is likely to increase under Morales, who has agreed to permit limited production within the Chapare. The region's estimated 40,000 families can now legally grow 1 cato, or 131 square feet.
"People can subsist with 1 cato. In some areas, it is their only income," said Edwin Castillo, an administrative official in the remote Chapare village of Puerto Villarroel.
Since coca grows easily in unfertile soil, provides up to four harvests a year, is more lucrative and is easier to transport, the leaf is the region's preferred crop. "With their 1 cato, they can earn between $80 and $120 per month per family," said Kathryn Ledebur, director of Andean Information Network, a nongovernmental organization based in Cochabamba.
But Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center, a nongovernmental advocacy group in Cochabamba, says the 1-cato policy has placed Morales "between a rock and a hard place." He is under "enormous pressure from cocaleros to increase coca production because this increases their members' income."
Even farmers who have switched to such alternative crops as bananas, palm hearts and oranges have set aside a cato for coca leaf, many residents say. Legal crops have increased from 88,957 acres in 1983 to 370,658 acres in 2005 in the Chapare.
"Bananas are more work than coca," said Nueva Canaan, a father of four who earns $124 per month.
Since Morales became president, Caban, the regional banana growers association, has accused him of ignoring the alternative-crop program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Union officials say their success would undermine his pro-coca message.
"President Morales intends to damage the export (of bananas) to Europe to defend his thesis that people can only survive by growing coca in the Chapare. If we open the European market, his thesis falls apart," said Caban leader Miguel Zambrana.
Meanwhile, the Bush and Morales administrations are working to find common ground in the battle to stamp out cocaine.
"There are strong differences of opinion, so it could fall apart, but they are sitting down and talking to each other," said Ledebur. "Both sides are really trying."
By Paul Harris