How Latin America is reinventing the war on drugs
Frustrated with US dictates, countries across the region are floating new ideas to curb drug trafficking, from 'soft' enforcement to legalization.
Mexico City; and Cochabamba, Bolivia
Like thousands of other Bolivians, Marcela Lopez Vasquez's parents migrated to the Chapare region, in the Andean tropics, desperate to make a living after waves of economic and environmental upheaval hit farming and mining communities in the 1970s and '80s.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Latin America's fight against drugs and violence
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The new migrants, who spread across the undulating green hills here, planted bananas. They planted yucca and orange trees. But it was in the coca leaf that thrives in this climate that they found the salvation of a steady cash crop – and themselves at the nexus of the American "war on drugs."
The coca leaf has been sacred in Andean society for 4,000 years and is a mainstay of Bolivian culture. It is chewed by farmers and miners, enlisted in religious ceremonies, and used for medicinal purposes. "The only resource for maintaining our families is the coca leaf," says Ms. Lopez Vasquez. "With coca we maintain our families: We dress ourselves, take care of our health, and educate our kids."
IN PICTURES: The Latin American Drug War
Coca is also used to make cocaine. To American society, from White House officials to worried parents, the nation's drug problems start in places like the back fields of the Chapare, where neat rows of coca's spindly bushes, bursting with bright green leaves, stand head high. Bolivia is the world's third largest grower of coca, behind Colombia and Peru.
For decades the coca growers here, Lopez Vasquez among them, resisted US-backed forced eradication in a long simmering protest that defined US-Bolivian relations and often turned violent. Growers in the Chapare scored a victory in 2004 when they were granted the right to grow a small plot of coca per family. But a turning point came with the 2006 election of Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower from the Chapare and still the head of its unions, who promised an end to the old US-Bolivian paradigm. Within three years of his presidency, Mr. Morales kicked out the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as well as the US ambassador, accusing both of fomenting opposition. Last year Bolivia became the first country ever to withdraw from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs for the charter's failure to recognize the traditional use of the coca leaf.
Now the Chapare is once again a nexus – but this time for a new government experiment markedly different from former US drug policy. Today, farmers unions partner with government agencies to control coca production, reducing the amount of the leaf cultivated across Bolivia, as well as the quantities destined for illegal uses. This cooperation is new, and the very acceptance of coca crops in the Chapare defies US wishes.
The US, in fact, has voiced deep skepticism about Bolivia's commitment to the international fight against narcotics, condemning La Paz in a 2012 report for "failing demonstrably" in its antinarcotic obligations.