Coca addiction hits home - among rural children of drug-producing Bolivia

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Clutching a puzzle under his arm and a wadded plastic bag of coca paste in his fist, a 10-year-old boy pads swiftly toward visitors across the midnight darkness of the Plaza Col'on. ``Yo tengo,'' he calls out. ``I have'' - the sales pitch of Bolivian children who sell coca paste to support their own drug habit.

This youngster in Cochabamba, at the gateway to the Chapare coca-producing region, is evidence of the fact that the region's drug-producing countries are increasingly becoming drug-abusing countries.

The coca paste (the base for cocaine) that the boy's peasant father produces out in the countryside hits not only the streets of the United States, but also those of quiet provincial towns like Cochabamba.

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Child addicts are not an unusual sight in most of urban Latin America. Economic woes have drawn millions of peasants from the mountains and rural villages into urban shantytowns, where family ties have broken down under the pressures of hunger and unemployment.

But it is a sign of how deeply the social fiber is being cut when grade-school-aged addicts ply the streets of an Andean town like Cochabamba, which has more of the flavor of a colonial village than a Latin metropolis.

``For the first time, drug abuse is way up here [in the coca-producing regions], and it's being felt,'' says a US diplomat in Peru. He adds that the noticeable increase in domestic drug consumption and its attendant social ills has helped soften the traditional Latin American view that the drug problem is a US problem.

Indeed, a 1987 poll in Lima by the Center of Information and Education for the Prevention of Drug Abuse showed that Peruvians identify drug abuse as more threatening to the national welfare than drug trafficking or production.

In Bolivia and Peru - the top two coca producers - the use of coca paste has increased rapidly in the past three years because of its cheap availability after a coca cultivation boom, observers say.

International interdiction programs are suspected of causing traffickers to unload their drugs on the local market.

``When the American troops cut off and closed the exit [for drug traffickers in a 1986 interdiction project between the US and Bolivia], there was still a lot of production, and so the oversupply was used to pay workers and was sold here,'' says the Rev. Patrick Rearden, a US Roman Catholic priest who runs a drug rehabilitation project here. He dates the visible increase in drug abuse in Cochabamba to that military program.

These countries lack the resources to adequately study or treat the problem. But authorities involved in drug abuse programs gauge the growth and magnitude of the problem as dangerous.

``Cocaine as a social problem has been present in waves in Peru for long time,'' says Fernando Cabiese, a Lima neurosurgeon active in drug prevention. ``It was the drug of the rich. But only since the use of basic [coca] paste, which is much less expensive and much more available, has [drug abuse] become a real statistical problem.''

Dr. Cabiese and other experts say the drug abuse problem does not come close to matching that in the US. But the potential for causing more destabilizing social problems is greater. Because of the lack of education about drug abuse, most Latin Americans do not see it as a health problem and thus are less disposed to spend public funds to counter it.

The poor economic and social conditions that have made alcoholism the largest addiction problem also encourage the growing use of coca paste. And coca paste poses a more urgent threat, because it is cheaper than alcohol and more addictive.

Because using coca paste is illegal, the government leaves it up to the police - rather than health agencies - to deal with the abuse problem.

``So many in the Army, police, and Congress are involved in the drug business,'' says Stephanie Murray, an American Catholic nun who runs the 140-bed Amanecer (Dawn) youth shelter in Cochabamba. ``So when you see drugs sold openly in the street, if you were going to risk reporting it, who would you tell? You can't turn to anybody.''

While there are no official numbers, the increase in coca paste use has been visible. In Peru, slum families report that they've begun to lock themselves in their shacks early in the evening before drug dealing and that drug use erupts into nightly shooting, robbery, and brawls.

Here in Bolivia, on the Plaza Col'on, a shopkeeper says he has seen drug use start only in the past three years. Based on the numbers being treated and helped by shelters for children, there are as many as 800 to 1,000 drug-using children in Cochabamba, estimates Mario Argandona, director of mental health for Cochabamba Province.

The young Bolivian addict, interviewed over a fast-food chicken dinner on the Plaza Colon, tears a handful of meat off a half-chicken order and pockets the rest in his oversize pants, while explaining that drugs leave him with little appetite. Although he says he doesn't know what the word ``addict'' means, he says that he believes that ``I can never stop smoking'' coca paste.

At 10 cents to 25 cents per pipeful, the boy sells half of his coca paste - which is a powdery substance mixed with tobacco or marijuana - and uses the rest that he gets from an older youth who hangs back in the shadows of the park.

Dr. Argandona explains that ultimately the boy - like so many others - will begin to steal to support his habit. Many of the youthful drug abusers, like this 10-year-old, are the first generation of indigenous Indian families to live in the city. In a throwback to their ancestral mysticism, says Argandona, the young drug users have developed a local folklore to justify their thievery. ``They are convinced that they bring good luck to their victims,'' he says.

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