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Controlling Coca Cultivation Bolivian Style


Controlling Coca Cultivation Bolivian Style

by Linda Farthing*    
Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1

alt‘Social control’ is a phrase tossed around constantly by Bolivia’s government these days. Touted as an indigenous approach to solving problems large and small, it privileges collective over individual rights, drawing its inspiration from pre-Hispanic indigenous organization. Without a doubt, its most ambitious application is in the thorny area of limiting coca leaf production, where it has emerged as a cornerstone of indigenous President Evo Morales’ “coca yes, cocaine no” policy.

“This is really different – not just for the communities, but for us as a government as well as for the international community,” program head Marcelo Terrazas, a former coca grower explains. “Not only is the importance of the coca leaf to Andean culture fully recognized, but gone is the violence associated with controlling coca.” To date the program boasts modest but noteworthy success: reduction targets have been exceeded since mid-2008 and more coca channelled legally than in previous years.

Despite initial delays, coca growing communities are quickly joining in. Twenty-two year old grower Grover Vallejos explains how social control over coca production works, “Every three months the union goes farm by farm and if they find coca over the limit, they eradicate it”. Where growers refuse to comply, the union can lose their growing rights, and in the worst cases, the government can seize community land.

Latest UN figures put Bolivian coca production at 30,500 hectares, with 2/3 of this in the Yungas, the lush semitropical mountains east of La Paz where coca has reigned for over a thousand years. But differing growing conditions and a local preference for Yungas coca in medicine, chewing and tea, mean that just over two thirds of the coca destined for cocaine comes from the Chapare lowlands east of Cochabamba. In 2009 this translated into approximately 113 tons of cocaine, the world’s third largest production behind Colombia and Peru.

Drug control is astoundingly difficult in the Chapare’s vast territory – the size of New Hampshire – much of which is accessible only by paths hacked by machetes. Local anti-drug police forces comprise just 180 officers. Given this context, social control’s promoters argue the government’s new approach presents the only realistic solution.

Key to current government policy is legalizing the leaf internationally after a ban of almost 100 years. A major block is the UN International Narcotics Control Board, although in November 2009, the Board agreed to review current policy, the first such review since 1961.

The demand for the leaf is certainly there. “Every week a flood of international internet requests come in asking for coca tea”, reports Ricardo Hegedus, manager of the country’s largest tea producer, Windsor Tea. “Our longstanding dream is to expand the legal market. In its natural state the leaf is a marvellous gift of nature – providing a moderate stimulant – like coffee without the jitters – that also packs a generous dose of vitamins and minerals.”

altAlthough the United States initially reluctantly supported the social control policy, Washington’s response after Bolivia’s September 2008 expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg (pictured) and the Drug Enforcement Agency turned predictably negative. US officials – many holdovers from the Bush era – insist the Morales government’s policy encourages growing more leaf. “More coca means more cocaine,” is a constant mantra.

In September 2010, the Obama administration maintained the Bush decertification of Bolivia for a second year running, arguing that Bolivia had failed to meet US-set eradication criteria and that social control has failed. The 2009 decertification blocked Bolivia’s participation in the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), costing an estimated 12,000 jobs, precisely among the urban poor most likely to be drawn into the illegal drug trade. But despite the frequently strident rhetoric, the United States and Bolivia continue to cooperate in drug control with $26 million in US funding committed in 2010.

Over the long term Marcelo Terrazas is convinced that decriminalization of coca leaf is the only real solution. “Legalizing coca won’t happen if we have extra production that is going to drugs,” he acknowledges. “We want to industrialize the leaf. To do this we have to eliminate drug trafficking.”

This is not now, nor has it ever been, a small ambition. Coca production in the Andes has been steadily increasing in response to a spike in European demand, particularly in Spain, England and Denmark. While the US appetite for cocaine has stabilized, Europeans’ increasing fascination with the white powder has fueled the rapid-fire spread of Bolivia’s mobile paste labs. Every week the local news reports the discovery of what appears to be the biggest lab to-date along Bolivia’s porous and largely unpopulated eastern border with Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

Commander of the Chapare’s anti-drug police, Colonel Pereyra shrugs and gives a weary smile when asked how much coca paste his unit is intercepting. “It’s an impossible question because we just don’t know how much is coming through”, he explains. “Each time we figure out how traffickers are hiding drugs, they invent something else. We are dealing with an incredibly flexible and creative industry.”

That creativity is much in evidence. Once confined to relatively unpopulated areas of eastern lowland Bolivia, new simplified production technologies have allowed mobile paste labs to proliferate everywhere – from rural communities to city neighborhoods. In August 2009, police discovered the first refined cocaine laboratory in El Alto, the sprawling city perched above La Paz.



The Chapare operational anti-drug police chief Major Velasquez explains that his patrols discover 8-10 paste labs a day, six days a week. Bending over a mound of chopped up leaf at a hastily constructed lab only a mile from the Chapare’s main highway, he describes how processing has changed from the days when several people would stomp on leaves mixed with kerosene in a maceration pit. Pointing to a square blue metal box, he says “We call this chipping machine the Colombian method. Less people are needed, it takes less time and more alkaloid is extracted from the leaf.” But, just like before, paste production pollutes streams and creeks, poisoning animals and people downstream.


Those who run the labs are usually unemployed landless people without much education or money. “The money goes as quickly as it comes” Velasquez explains. “We’re basically fighting an

unwinnable battle. As long as there is money to be made, there will be drug trafficking.”

Each lab makes a few kilos a month – usually the people running the operation don’t have the capital to manufacture more. The semi-refined paste is sold to traffickers who smuggle it to remote heavily-armed cocaine processing labs. Controlling these areas is almost impossible.

”Drug traffickers may have felt emboldened along border areas when the DEA left and their intelligence dried up,” explains Kathryn Ledebur of the watchdog Andean Information Network, “But the new drug control agreements with neighboring countries show government commitment and success in addressing this.” Seizures have risen sharply – by 27 percent – since the DEA departure.

But more drugs confiscated can simply mean that more cocaine is being manufactured. This reality propels social control which combines lofty ideals about the coca leaf, national pride and responsibility with self-interest. “From the unions’ perspective, social control prevents flooding the market with coca and keeps the price for their affiliates high,” says Tomás Inturias Rejas, ex-union leader and coordinator of the EU-funded Social Control project in the Chapare. “This gives them a vested economic interest in social control.”

Even the UMOPAR, the once feared anti-drug police still funded by the United States, is committed. In a comfortable upper middle class La Paz neighborhood, far from the muddy lowland jungles, National Commander Oscar Nina, is firm, “The social control program encourages campesinos to inform on traffickers. We’re setting up toll free phone lines so people can call in tips. This is our hope: that more and more Bolivians will understand that drug trafficking only leads us over a precipice we can’t climb back from.”

The disastrous local effects of drug production also strengthen social control´s pull. Nina points to a recent example. “In a community where a mobile factory created a small scale environmental disaster, concern about water contamination overrode villagers’ fears of drug traffickers. Villagers led us to the factory so we could destroy it.”

Local trust in the UMOPAR is very new. After all, when the United States was in charge of anti-drug policy, the failure to differentiate between coca growers and drug traffickers translated into UMOPAR police committing well-documented human rights abuses. Eleven years ago when the UMOPAR and the military were eradicating coca by force, Grover Vallejos’s dad was hauled off to jail. He was eleven. “I was terrified every time I saw those men,” he remembers with a shudder.

Where the unions are strong, social control has had most success. Vallejos belongs to the same union Federation as President Evo Morales. “We have to show the union receipts for all the coca we sell. Social control works here because we fear both drug traffickers and social sanctions. But,” he admits, “there is strong pressure to increase the amount we are permitted to grow. We just can’t support our families on this.”

Could Bolivia’s social control initiative serve as a model elsewhere? Former Drug Observatory coordinator Godofredo Reinicke thinks so. “While both Peru and Colombia currently focus on traditional interdiction”, he says. “and haven’t shown much interest in Bolivia’s innovations, we are convinced the social control approach could be expanded into other settings.”

Nonetheless the pulls of illegal coca endure, especially as most growers remain poor. It’s not even that the drug traffickers pay farmers much of a premium but that they pick coca up roadside. In areas where the unions don’t exert real control, many desperate farmers just sell their crop to the first buyer. Even though growers unions insist otherwise, the government admits that much work remains to ensure that local coca ends up in the market and not paste laboratories.

Despite the challenges, exacerbated by the country’s poverty and historically weak government, the Morales administration exudes optimism. Social control program head Marcelo Terrazas expresses their determination: “My hope, and I think that of all coca growers, is that we can clean up the negative image the world has of our sacred coca leaf. Our greatest desire is to achieve zero drug trafficking.”

*Linda Farthing is a writer and film field producer on Latin America. She is author with Ben Kohl of “Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance” (Zed 2006) and with Ben Kohl and Felix Murichi of the forthcoming “From the Mines to the Streets: a Bolivian activist life” (Texas 2011). 

This article was published in Upside Down World

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