Bolivians pay dearly for U.S. war on drugs

Originally published in the Miami Herald, Op-Ed section on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2002.
 

Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada meets today with President
Bush in Washington, D.C. The perennial U.S. determination to fight drugs
by ripping up coca plants will certainly drive the meeting. As
representatives of NGOs who monitor drug policy in Bolivia, we hope that
the presidents face up to some uncomfortable facts.

U.S. international drug-control policy is ineffective. Over the last
decade, despite spending more than $25 billion on drug-control programs
overseas, more illicit drugs are available in the United States, and at
cheaper prices, than ever before. Plan Colombia was so profoundly
unsuccessful that coca cultivation in the Andean region increased 21
percent during the plan's first year.

PLENTY OF COCAINE HERE

Yet U.S. officials seem to hold out hope for the supply-side strategy of
combating drugs despite the admonitions of market economics and studies
commissioned by their very own agencies. Searching for a model of success,
the U.S. officials cling to the Bolivian experience. True enough,
Bolivians eradicated 70 percent of their coca over the last few years. Yet
that coca was quickly replaced by new crops in Colombia and Peru and
replanted crops in Bolivia, leading to an overall increase in production.
Unfortunately, the eradication in Bolivia, achieved at high cost to
Bolivians, has not prevented cocaine from falling into the hands of
Americans. And unfortunately, the alternative development programs, well
intentioned as they may be, have not provided former coca farmers with
sufficient family income for food and other necessities.

The collateral damage of the U.S.-backed war on drugs in Bolivia is
painfully evident. Thousands of Bolivians accused of drug offenses
languish in overcrowded jails, many spending years incarcerated before
even being granted a trial. In confrontations between September 2001 and
this February, 10 coca growers and four members of the security forces
were killed, and at least 350 protesters were injured or detained.
Bolivian security forces funded by the United States shot and killed coca
federation leader Casimiro Huanca as he led a peaceful protest against the
lack of markets for alternative development produce.

While the United States continues to fund the security forces in Chapare,
Bolivia's coca-growing region, neither the United States nor Bolivia has
shown sufficient desire to prevent abuses. For example, the officer in
charge of the troops that killed Huanca was given the puny sentence of 76
hours of house arrest. In a stunning acceptance of these abuses, the U.S.
Embassy official in charge of narcotics affairs stated in a BBC interview
that these types of abuses will occur and that he was unsure whether the
recent abuses constituted ''gross'' human-rights violations.  Sánchez de
Lozada has suggested a willingness to demilitarize Chapare and return law
enforcement to the police.

Although there are many obstacles, the damage of the drug war can be
mitigated by taking these steps:

• Establish a dialogue between Chapare residents and the government.
• Demilitarize the region.
• Improve alternative development programs via sound planning,
consultation with Bolivian communities and adequate marketing for products.
• Shift U.S. resources away from ineffective source-country eradication to
the proven, cost-effective method: treating drug addiction at home.

Tina Hodges is a program assistant at the Washington Office on Latin
America in Washington, D.C., and Kathryn Ledebur is director of the Andean
Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

The Miami Herald, Opinions
Thu, Nov. 14, 2002