In Bolivia, a setback for US anti-coca drive

President-elect Morales's plans to decriminalize coca may hinder the war on drugs.

It is the day after Evo Morales's victory in Bolivia's elections, and the special forces counternarcotics teams are streaming back into their base in the Chapare jungle. Col. Rosalio Alvarez Claros, commander of the base, watches them from his office window. "We will continue with our work here, as usual, until someone tells us to stop," he says softly, "... and that hasn't happened yet."

But such an order might not be far off.

Mr. Morales campaigned on the promise of decriminalizing coca. This is seen as a slap in the face to the US, which gives Bolivia - the world's third-largest coca producer after Colombia and Peru - $150 million in aid every year, most of which goes toward the eradication of coca, the destruction of cocaine labs, and finding alternative agricultural projects.

Morales's stance on coca may also have regional ramifications. In neighboring Peru - the world's second-biggest coca-leaf provider, with more than 123,000 acres under cultivation - rising political star Ollanta Humala, a populist leader like Morales, has also vowed to decriminalize coca if elected president in April.

"There is as radical a coca movement here as in Bolivia, and the two coordinate," says Jaime Antesana Rivera, a narcotrafficking expert at Lima's Instituto Peruano de Economia y Politica (IPEP). "Morales's victory will certainly have an impact here, favoring the coca growers and further confounding US counternarcotics efforts in the whole region."

Bolivia grows approximately 67,000 acres of coca a year, according to Col. Luis Caballero Tirado, head of Bolivia's counter-narcotics police force (FELCN). Of those, under an agreement with the Bolivian government, 38,000 acres are cultivated legally and used for local consumption.

Revered for centuries by indigenous Bolivians, people use the coca leaf in ceremonies and chew it, saying that it wards off hunger and fights illness. Coca tea, meanwhile, is everywhere, sold in markets and served in tourist hotels.

The remainder of Bolivia's coca is grown illegally and turned into cocaine, says Caballero. The US State Department estimates that Bolivia produces and sends 71 tons of cocaine to the world market a year.

Drug statistics are often conflicting, or vague. Different reports out of the State Department itself estimate that, overall, anywhere between 358 and 744 tons of cocaine came into the US alone last year. A full 90 percent of that amount comes from Colombia, the region's biggest producer by far. Most of the $6 billion the US has spent on fighting drugs since 2000 has also gone to Colombia, a close US ally.

"We are sustained by coca," says Leandro Valencia, a cocalero, or coca grower, who admits his plots are illegal. "I put my three children through school on coca money.... My daughter even learned how to drive [with proceeds].... You talk about drug problems, but whose problem is that? I care about money for my family."

Two-and-a-half acres of coca produces about 750 to 1,000 kilos (1,650 to 2,200 lbs.) of coca leaf a year, explains Caballero. This coca leaf is typically sold to middle men who take it to makeshift outdoor jungle laboratories nearby, where it is mashed and processed into a chunky cocaine paste.

That paste is moved out of the region to more sophisticated labs where it is refined. It is then transported out of Bolivia, hidden in everything from human stomachs to TV sets.

Some of the Bolivian cocaine goes to the US, but most, says Caballero, moves through Brazil to Europe. Local cocaine use has gone up 200 percent in the past decade, says the colonel.

The cocaleros here are paid anywhere between $800 and $1,000 for providing the coca leaves for one kilo of cocaine paste.

Once processed, the price of that kilo of paste cocaine goes up to $2,500, according to Caballero. Out on the streets of the US, that same kilo will have been diluted and become two or three kilos of the drug and be sold for anywhere between $220,000 and $240,000.

Growing coca, says Valencia, he can make "ten times" what he would make by growing pineapples or yucca, a staple crop here - and he does not have to worry about transportation to market, or buyers. It is estimated about 1,500 extended families in Chapare live off the cocaine business.

In 2005, Bolivian military units uprooted and destroyed 19,800 acres of coca fields, while the US Drug Enforcement Administration-trained FELCN destroyed 3,888 jungle cocaine labs, confiscated almost 50 tons of cocaine paste, and arrested 4,208 narcotraffickers, according to official statistics.

"We catch more - they produce more - then we catch more," says Alvarez. "The narcotraffickers have more money and better technology than we do So, who's winning? It is hard to say."

Morales stresses that he does not intend to be soft on narcotrafficking: "Yes to coca, no to cocaine," is his motto. He has repeatedly suggested that the additional coca cultivated would be absorbed by the local, legal market, or alternatively would jump-start a legal coca export industry with coca tea, coca wine, soft drinks, and coca toothpaste. But details on these plans remain sketchy.

The special forces teams have been out since dawn, between them walking hundreds of miles. They return drenched in sweat and with little to show for their efforts. The day's tally: one lab destroyed, and one vehicle carrying 15 kilos of sulfuric acid and 200 kilos of coca leaf stopped on the region's lone two-lane highway.

It's not much, admits agent Dennis Escobar Revollo, but, he explains: "it seems everyone was busy celebrating Evo's victory." The narcotraffickers know, he adds ruefully, "...that they will have plenty of time for cocaine later."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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