Keeping Coca a Cash Crop; Bolivian Peasants Fight U.S. Campaign to End Cultivation of Their ‘Sacred

Originally published in The Washington Post: Sep 29, 1995. pg. A.18.

The circle of coca growers in this small town drew closer when one of the leaders, a man who was sitting on a pink plastic sack filled with coca leaves, dropped the lofty arguments and delivered a more direct pitch.

"These are not mafiosos!" he declared. "We are talking, whether you believe it or not, about a vegetable product. Where do you see a chalet here? Do narco-traffickers dress like this?"

The little girl he pointed to was wearing an old T-shirt and old pants, a common uniform here in southern Bolivia's illegal coca belt, the Chapare. Some of the peasants, laconic coca growers waiting for middlemen to pick up their harvest, nodded as the man finished delivering the mantra of towns like this: Coca is not cocaine; peasants are not criminals.

Rooted in the coca-chewing tradition revered in Bolivia, the populist argument is now powerfully reinforced by factors that have nothing to do with what people here call "the sacred leaf." Whether in small towns or in the capital, La Paz, the exhortations from coca pulpits inevitably draw on the deep anti-U.S. sentiment that runs through Bolivia, a carefully orchestrated tactic that, ironically, derives part of its strength from Washington.

Seven years after the United States pressed Bolivia to enact one of the most rigorous anti-drug laws anywhere, the war on coca production has yielded, at best, mixed results. Bolivia remains one of the world's principal suppliers of coca leaf and cocaine, second only to Peru and Colombia. It now boasts its own drug organization, the La Paz Cartel, which officials say is sophisticated enough to send plane loads of cocaine north to Mexico. Despite receiving about $1 billion in U.S. anti-narcotics aid, more than any other Andean country, Bolivia is now producing more coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, than it did a decade ago.

Although the joint U.S.-Bolivian anti-drug strategy has proven beneficial in some regards — notably in strengthening this country's institutions — the punitive measures imposed in 1988 have made so many enemies that the critical public relations war has been lost. In coca markets, in university forums and even in the offices of the senior government officials responsible for enforcing Bolivia's strict anti-drug laws, there is the recognition that the coca growers' movement has attained widespread, vital support.

Coca Growers Gain Prominence

Empowered by their promise to "spill their own blood" for the cause — as the Rev. Gregorio de Marchi, a Franciscan priest in the Chapare, described it — coca leaders such as Evo Morales have reached national prominence and wield considerable influence. Now aligned with the Bolivian workers' federation, historically an anti-American movement, the coca growers' federation is no longer a grass-roots effort of peasants. Aided by the critical reports of the Andean Information Network and the Center of Documentation and Information of Bolivia, two watchdog organizations opposed to U.S. policies in Bolivia, the movement has used the anti-drug strategy and its recognized shortcomings to its advantage.

The focus of the criticism is Law 1008, the key instrument in Bolivia's drug strategy, which gave broad powers to law enforcement and created a separate legal system to try drug offenders. But provisions that require mandatory pretrial detention and automatic appeals of acquittals have also violated human rights, delayed justice and, in some celebrated cases, resulted in wrongful imprisonment.

A critical report on the anti-drug strategy in Bolivia, issued by Human Rights Watch/Americas in July, placed some of the blame for the law's shortcomings on the United States, the principal sponsor of the measure. The result is that a law intended to eradicate illegal coca plantations has armed the coca growers' movement and buttressed arguments for reform in La Paz.

"We need a strict law, but we do not need an unjust law or an irrational law," said Justice Minister Rene Blattman, whose proposal to eliminate post-acquittal detention and other punitive measures in Law 1008 has been endorsed by the United States but has stalled in La Paz. "When a law is not just, an enmity against it is developed, which is what has happened here," he said.

"You cannot combat crime with crime. The risk is reinstating state terrorism," said Congressman Juan Del Granado, president of the congressional human rights commission and a staunch opponent of U.S. policies. "How much has the law contributed to combating narco-trafficking? How much has the production of coca diminished in the country? It is all very simple, and the answer is absolutely negative."

U.S. and Bolivian officials say the answer is not simple at all. More than $130 million in development aid has flowed to the Chapare since 1983, funding alternative programs, roads and other improvements. Despite the increase in coca leaf production, other statistics are more encouraging. In 1993, coca and cocaine accounted for 2.9 percent of Bolivia's gross national product — down from 8.5 percent in 1988. In 1984, coca accounted for 60 percent of agricultural products. In 1993, in part because of a boost in alternative crops, it accounted for 8 percent.

But opponents such as Del Granado argue that the law failed its central mission: eliminating the illegal coca crop. U.S. officials blame a lack of political will on the part of Bolivian leaders.

Law Falls Short of Its Goals

Cabinet minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain, who is responsible for enforcing Law 1008, acknowledged that the government's goals have not been met. But he said a new eradication timetable and a recent agreement with coca growers is promising, provided it is supported by ample U.S. funding — unlikely given the significant cuts in anti-narcotics assistance under consideration in Congress.

"If you don't stop the replanting and the spread of new coca, then it is a vicious circle," Sanchez said, describing what has occurred in Bolivia year after year. "We have to apply the law with one hand and a socio-economic program with the other, and that is where the United States has to give us more aid."

It is an argument that finds ample support among Sanchez's staunchest foes, the coca growers at the market here. German Felipez, the secretary of the local coca growers' chapter and a grower himself, said money for development programs seldom reaches their level. When it does, it doesn't last. Coca growers said the two factories in the area — to produce animal feed and flour — are inefficient and constantly short of money. The government never built a promised road. No program has been able to exploit the area's rich harvest of tropical fruits.

Most of their anger, however, is directed at Law 1008 and the United States. The other leader in the group, the man who had broached the "mafia" subject, said the law has not fulfilled the promise of an "integral" program to substitute for coca production and instead has made their livelihood a criminal enterprise.

"Here the peasants, all of them, have been turned into narco-traffickers," said the man, who identified himself only as an adviser but had the well-polished arguments of a coca leader from Cochabamba, where the headquarters for the federation is. "It is as if drugs were sold here. As if this were a drug," he added, pointing to a sack of coca leaves.

While plantings are allowed elsewhere in Bolivia, U.S. and Bolivian officials say the production of coca leaf in the Chapare is tantamount to producing cocaine. Estimates are that almost all of the harvest, which amounted to 82,000 tons in 1994, will enter the cocaine pipeline. Elsewhere in the country it is used to make tea, or medicinally, to counter altitude sickness.

Skepticism Over U.S. Role

But the role of the United States as the sponsor, if not author, of Law 1008, has raised skepticism about the anti-drug campaign. Even the much-sought development aid is now seen as suspect and coming at too high a price. "Unfortunately, if the {U.S.} government is involved in this, immediately there is a lack of confidence on the part of the people," said Cathy Breen, a lay worker for the Roman Catholic Maryknoll order who works for the Andean Information Network, founded and led by Americans.

That suspicion is fed by many other reports that are now part of the coca growers public relations platform. Despite denials by U.S. and Bolivian officials, there is a belief that Drug Enforcement Administration agents lead, take part in, or approve torture by the anti-narcotics police.

Del Granado said a report due out shortly by the human rights commission, while lacking proof, will conclude that the DEA has had a broader role than acknowledged. Several inmates interviewed at St. Sebastian Jail in Cochabamba said they had been tortured. "Completely false," said Bolivia's chief drug prosecutor, Milton J. Andrade.

While unproven, the public effect of these allegations is profound. At a concert in Cochabamba celebrating the coca leaf, attended by coca leader Morales, the crowd erupted into cheers when a speaker called for "death to the gringos." Even cautious observers such as de Marchi — the Franciscan priest, who, though a native of Italy, has spent 20 yearsin the Chapare — said abuses by the narcotics police must be blamed on sponsors in the United States "because they protect them so much."

U.S. officials, while saying most of these allegations are unfounded or often exaggerated, acknowledge that abuses occur and that police are not always keen on investigating. "That's the hard part — to get action taken against somebody," said an official at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. "That's something we are still working on."

While growers insist violence is a last resort, the report of abuse fosters a confrontational attitude. Faced with what is viewed as an unyielding law sponsored and enforced by common enemies, the result often is violence.

The government recently agreed not to forcibly eradicate coca in the Chapare, but growers at the market here predicted the new policy will not last. If the government sends the troops in again, "the only road left is for them to kill us," Felipez said, wielding the peasants' ultimate threat: to spill their own blood.