Bolivia's Surprising Anti-Drug Success

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Dado Galdieri / AP

A man walks past political propaganda endorsing Bolivia's President Evo Morales in Warisata.

Evo Morales spent most of his adult life growing coca in central Bolivia, and resisting U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate the traditional crop that also produces the base ingredient for cocaine. So, when he became president of the Andean nation in 2006, many feared he would abandon the war on drugs and allow coca to proliferate, turning Bolivia into a de-facto narco-state. But after two years in office, Morales has proven to be a skilled switch- hitter: Coca cultivation is under control and drug trafficking interdiction is up. The U.S. acknowledges the achievements, even as it remains skeptical of Morales' policies on the industrialization of non-narcotic coca products. Still, Morales has managed to meet at least some of the goals of the U.S. on his own terms, without turning into an enemy of his own people.

"We have been doing very well," says Colonel Stanley Tintaya, National Director of the Coca Control Unit of Bolivia's Anti- Narcotics Special Forces (FELCN), whose group is responsible for intercepting large amounts of coca headed to cocaine labs. "Our numbers are up 30% from last year."

That's not the only good news. In the last six months alone, the FELCN cut off 11 tons of what is referred to in Spanish as "pasta base" (pre-powder paste made from the leaves) before it could get Brazil or Colombia to be turned into cocaine. That's more than what had been confiscated in all of 2005, the year before Morales came into office. And since Morales' became Bolivia's first indigenous (and coca-growing) president, the FELCN reports having destroyed 2,886 pasta base labs and jailing over 2,000 people involved in illegal coca activity.

The current government's anti-drug trafficking methods are largely carry-overs from previous administrations; Morales credits the improved performance to a policy of devoting more resources to going after those who make the drugs, rather than those who grow the plant, under the slogan "Coca Yes, Cocaine No." According to the U.N., over 68,000 acres of coca are grown here, in South America's poorest country. Because the leaf has been a part of Andean culture and diet for thousands of years, Bolivian law allows for 30,000 acres of coca, a figure established by a 1971 study measuring the market size for the plant's use in tea, in rituals, or in chewing it to stave off exhaustion and hunger or to alleviate altitude sickness. The rest was always believed to end up as cocaine, primarily on the streets of Europe.

Starting in the 1980s, under Washington's lead, Bolivia tried to eradicate all coca by sending soldiers to rip up plants and intimidate growers. It was Morales' leading role in the fight against those drug policies that first propelled him to national prominence, and the coca leaf has become a symbol of his Presidency. A portrait of Cuba's revolutionary icon Che Guevara made entirely from coca leaves hangs in the Presidential palace, and he talks of "industrialization," mass production and export of legit coca-based products such as tea, liquor, shampoo and cookies — although his export plans have never left the drawing board.

Morales' coca policy is based on the belief that Bolivia's "traditional" market today absorbs more than 30,000 acres worth of the plant. But Morales has to contend with the reality that a lot of Bolivian coca ends up as cocaine. Still, despite gloomy predictions for his presidency in respect of combating the drug trade, his tenure has hardly produced coca growing free-for-all. One reason that cultivation is under control is due to the growers themselves.

"We're in charge of our own area," says Elmerjildo Chávez a coca grower in the Yungas region of Bolivia, explaining what's known as "social control." The project, which is financed primarily by the European Union and gets an unenthusiastic nod from the U.S., has coca grower unions monitoring crop tallies and buyers' licenses. "We make sure no one is growing too much, and that our coca is being sold to people who sell it for traditional uses and not for cocaine."

The program has been relatively successful. Bolivia's coca cultivation increased 5% in 2007, but that's minimal compared to Colombia's 26% increase over the same period — and total acreage devoted to coca here is still far lass than during the early and mid-1990s. Steady rises, however, could be problematic in the long run, so the government has been asking Yungas growers to willingly reduce their fields, and warns that it will use to eradicate if necessary.

In the Chapare region, the government is encouraging crop diversification. In July, the coca grower union there mandated that its 35,000 members plant at least 2.5 acres of rice, and is offering $500 agricultural loans and housing grants to those who limit their coca to one-third of an acre. The idea is a timely spin-off of "alternative development," a USAID program that tried for years to get farmers to replace coca with other crops. But drug policy watchdog groups note that because USAID often required that farmers give up coca entirely and since there were few markets for Chapare- grown food, the program never made any real dent in coca crop totals. Resentment also grew, and the coca growers ousted USAID personnel in June, refusing any future assistance.

In contrast, farmers have responded positively to Morales' proposal, partly because today's global food shortage will bring higher prices and better markets, and because they get to keep farming the crop that gives them the most money per acre — coca.

Under Morales, coca policy has become fused with strident nationalism. "Viva Coca! Death to the Yankees!," chanted the president during a visit to the Chapare last month. After years of U.S.-directed drug war campaigns that left coca growers bruised and battered by soldiers, the common refrain always receives hearty cheers. Now, government officials are even talking drug war "nationalization": that is, the creation of the first-ever nationally funded anti-narcotics unit and requiring all foreign aid to adhere to Bolivian-designed programs.

Morales is pragmatic when it comes to business. He was all smiles exiting last month's meeting in La Paz with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon. During the meeting the two reaffirmed their governments' continued desire to work hand- in-hand against narco-trafficking— an effort the U.S. underwrites with more than $20 million annually. And despite USAID's exile from the Chapare, Bolivia remains one of its top recipient nations worldwide.

It may actually be the very coca-proud irreverence of Morales' that has enabled him to contain coca and cocaine production, while still maintaining the adoration of coca growers. In July, Morales completed his 20th year as president of the Chapare coca growers' union — and on the night of the anniversary celebration, the president who has curbed production was unanimously re-elected to another term as the union's head honcho.