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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. 

(Page 5 of 7)

"They brought my brother here and beat him," Ms. Cornejo says. "Now that doesn't happen.... It's calmer now. The kids don't see those beatings that I've seen; and the abuse, it isn't here anymore."

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  • Bolivia

    Graphic Bolivia
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Under the current system, the responsibility for inspecting the size of the coca crops lies with the coca-growing unions and a government-monitoring body. It includes satellite surveillance. The Bolivians are backed in the program, called "social control," with funding from the European Union.

Farmers who consistently grow more than the allotted amount of coca, or who produce it outside designated areas, are subject to forced eradication. Bolivia's anti-narcotics forces also still search out cocaine labs and confiscate illegal drug shipments.

"[Bolivia] challenged the United States, and it turned out the United States was not the omnipotent force in drug war policy that it seemed to be," says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based advocacy group. "And it was important to establish that for everyone in Latin America."

The US isn't completely divorced from the process. It continues to fund the antinarcotics effort in Bolivia through the US embassy, but the aid has dropped from about $40 million in 2006 to $10 million in 2012, according to US State Department figures.

Instead, Bolivia has increasingly been partnering with both the EU and Brazil, with whom it shares a long, porous border. Brazil, which is now the second-largest consumer of cocaine in the world, plans to use drones and other technology to help patrol the Amazonian area that the two countries share.

Brazil's ambassador to Bolivia, Marcel Biato, says the countries have been cooperating more closely since 2010, at the request of La Paz. "I think this link has to do with various internal elements, but also a clear distancing from the US and perhaps greater confidence that Brazil can develop an alternative to all of the historic problems," he says.

As part of the social control program, the coca unions educate local growers about the importance of keeping cultivation at legally accepted limits, which markedly increased during the early years of the Morales administration. When the US government was heavily involved in the eradication effort, before 2004, Bolivia was allowed to plant 46 square miles of coca a year for traditional uses. Since then, the Bolivian government has boosted that amount to 77 square miles.

To further aid growers, Morales is trying to find more legal international markets for the leaf, something the UN charter on narcotics prohibits. In Bolivia, coca is widely used in teas and chewed (bags of leaves are sold on street corners) as well as incorporated into consumer items such as candy, cookies, granola bars, and toothpaste.

The leaf acts as a mild stimulant – it produces no major high like purified cocaine – but can help overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst. For these reasons, it has long been used as a medicine – something Bolivians have turned to for everything from nosebleeds to indigestion to dealing with childbirth.


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