LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — COLOMBIA'S war against its cocaine barons and improved interdiction by Bolivia's antidrug police have forced coca prices here to unprecedentedly low levels. Record amounts of coca are being voluntarily eradicated in the subtropical region of the Chapare, where 80 percent of the country's coca is produced. And hundreds of peasants and migrant workers are abandoning the area through economic necessity.
In December and January, 1,266 hectares (3,100 acres) were eradicated in the Chapare, compared with 2,504 hectares for the whole of last year. By Feb. 16, another 474 hectares had been eradicated. At the present rate, the government could reach the 1970 eradication target of 6,000 hectares established by law in 1988 with strong United States backing.
Over the last few weeks, scores of peasants have been lining up outside the local offices of DIRECO, the state eradication agency, to register to receive $2,000 for each hectare eradicated. Previously, DIRECO employees had difficulty getting peasants to give up their coca.
The reason for the change of heart is the slump in the cost of a 100-pound bag of coca from $60 in January last year to as little as $5 now. Thirty dollars is considered the break-even price to make it economically worthwhile for a farmer to grow coca.
``So much pressure is being applied in Colombia,'' says Bruce Wharton, press officer at the US Embassy in La Paz, ``that there is much less demand for [Bolivian] coca leaf [there].'' Bolivia is the world's largest producer of coca after Peru, growing more than 100,000 metric tons a year. Although in the last two years Bolivia has switched to producing more of the final product, cocaine hydrochloride, 60 to 70 percent of its coca output still leaves the country as coca paste or base to be processed in Colombia on its way to the US.
Government hopes that the coca-price slump may be permanent are bolstered by the second factor said to be behind the fall - more-efficient interdiction by UMOPAR (oo-mo-par), the Bolivian antidrug police. According to US Embassy sources, more than 50 buyers of coca paste have been arrested in the last six months.
``The fact that the voluntary eradication program has begun to show signs of progress in the last two months,'' says Robert Gelbard, the US ambassador to Bolivia, ``proves that interdiction, eradication, and alternative development programs are three interdependent parts of an integrated strategy.''
Gen. Lucio Anez, head of the 1,000-strong UMOPAR forces, says that other effects of the Colombian crackdown are that the process by which Bolivians are refining more of their own cocaine has been accelerated and that less coca paste is going to Colombia. Instead, Bolivian traffickers are reaching US and European markets through Brazil and Argentina.
General Anez also claims the Bolivians are trying to reduce their dependence on the Colombian cartels for payment and transport. ``We have some indications that they are trying to form their own cartel. They have robbed a lot of small planes from Brazil, which have been exchanged for Bolivian cocaine - they want a better capacity to transport [cocaine] abroad.''
Historically, one factor preventing the formation of a Bolivian cartel has been Bolivia's landlocked position in the heart of South America. Improved communications and air transport would solve the problem, claims Anez.
According to US Drug Enforcement Agency sources, about 30 cocaine-trafficking organizations control the buying of cocaine paste in Bolivia, 25 of which process it into the final product. Experienced observers say these groups would find it difficult to break with Colombian cartels, because the Colombians still control most processing and marketing of Bolivian coca production.
For coca growers, the fall in the price has deepened their poverty. ``Before, at least, we had something to buy and sell; now we just have something to eat,'' says Eva Morales, executive secretary of the Special Federation of Peasants of the Chapare. ``The fall in the price of coca makes it all the more urgent for the government to implement real substitution, and not just eradication.''