Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Bolivia, a Setback for US Anti-Coca Drive ; President-Elect Morales's Plans to Decriminalize Coca May Hinder the War on Drugs

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Bolivia, a Setback for US Anti-Coca Drive ; President-Elect Morales's Plans to Decriminalize Coca May Hinder the War on Drugs

Article excerpt

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. …

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