Category Archives: AIN Posts

Bolivia’s Historic Drop in Coca Cultivation Holds Steady

Authors: Kathryn Ledebur (AIN) and Coletta A. Youngers (WOLA).

Commentary.- For the fifth year in a row, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reported a decline in the area under coca cultivation in the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Between 2010 and 2014, the country achieved a remarkable 34 percent net reduction in the area under coca cultivation. UNODC estimated 20,400 hectares of coca in Bolivia in 2014.

To read this paper please click here: Commentary Bolivia’s Historic Drop in Coca Cultivation Holds Steady

Invitación Habeas Coca – La Paz


El Centro de Investigaciones Sociales (CIS) de la Vicepresidencia tiene el agrado de invitar a usted a la presentación oficial del libro “Habeas  Coca – Control  Social de la  Coca en  Bolivia”, de  las investigadoras Kathryn Ledebur y Linda Farthing. Comentan Marisabel Villagomez y Loreta Tellería.

El evento tendrá lugar en la sala de Videoconferencias “Juana Azurduy” de la Vicepresidencia del Estado. C. Ayacucho y Mercado # 308, este jueves 3 de marzo a las 19.00 Hrs.

Rogamos confirmar su asistencia.

Centro de Investigaciones Sociales
Telf:  2120720
La Paz – Bolivia

‘Bolivia’s Smarter Approach’ – Open Society Foundations’ Diego Garcia-Devis comments on ‘Habeas Coca’

Diego Garcia-Devis’ comments on Linda Farthing and Kathryn Ledebur’s recent article ‘Habeas Coca‘ are republished here under a Creative Commons license authorising non-commercial reproduction. The original can be found here.


Bolivia’s Smarter Approach to Controlling Coca Production

Forced crop eradication using harmful pesticides and without viable livelihood alternatives has put the health and economies of local communities at risk and caused forced displacement.

On May 14, 2015, the government of Colombia announced that it would stop using glyphosate in the aerial fumigation of coca crops. The herbicide was being used as part of a 20-year-old supply-reduction tactic backed technically and financially by the United States. Colombia’s decision followed on the heels of a report published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and issued by the World Health Organization that labeled glyphosate as a potential carcinogenic herbicide.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a champion of drug policy reform in the international arena, has announced a moratorium until October 1, 2015, to identify alternatives to the aerial eradication method of controlling the production of cocaine at its source. While advocates of forced eradication are demanding Colombia resume this practice, critics of this model are calling for policies that prioritize human developmentand human rights.

Over the last 30 years, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, the world’s largest coca-cocaine producers, have experienced the worst of the War on Drugs, and their poor and marginalized communities have shouldered this burden disproportionately. Forced crop eradication using harmful pesticides and without viable livelihood alternatives has put the health and economies of local communities at risk and caused forced displacement. Increased militarization of the War on Drugs coupled with expanded police authority and corruption has led to social destabilization, the erosion of public safety, and the death of citizens, activists, and journalists.

New evidence of the potential benefits of a more progressive approach offers Colombia the opportunity to distance itself from traditional supply-side coca control mechanisms by placing farmers’ rights at the center of drug policy reform.

Habeas Coca: Bolivia’s Community Coca Control by Kathryn Ledebur and Linda Farthing, is timely in offering alternatives to forced eradication. The most recent contribution to the Lessons for Drug Policy series draws from a process initiated in Bolivia in 2004 when the Cato policy was put into effect allowing farmers to grow 1,600 square meters of subsistence coca per household. Later, in 2009, under the administration of Evo Morales, implementation of the community control model began. Under this scheme, farmers are subjected to monitoring by their peers and where excess coca production is identified, it is voluntarily eradicated, taking forced eradication out of the equation. This model is not necessarily limited to controlling excess coca production. As reported by Ledebur and Farthing, it is a multidimensional and participatory model that promotes the industrialization of coca and improves farmers’ livelihoods.

The Bolivian community control model can be seen as a sequence of replicable public policy actions: decriminalization of coca leaves and coca growers; creation of a coca grower’s participatory mechanism; and support for integral and sustainable socio-economic development projects with respect to the coca plant. As pointed out by Ledebur and Farthing, the community control model “has proven more effective and cost-efficient than forced eradication in controlling coca production and represents a local proposal appropriate to its context.”

The Colombian experience offers evidence of the harmful effects of mechanisms focused exclusively on reducing supply and demonstrates their limitations given that the Andean country remains the main cocaine exporter to the U.S. Habeas Coca offers lessons that other Andean countries can adapt to their own realities. The report shows that is it possible to reduce coca cultivation in a manner that is peaceful and increases the legitimacy of the state. All of these factors are relevant to the current Colombian context.

According to Habeas Coca, coca production in Bolivia has dropped by around 24 percent since 2008 when forced eradication ended and was replaced by a model focused on community control. Since the implementation of this new policy, violent confrontations between police and farmers have almost disappeared. Furthermore, of the almost 12,000 hectares of coca eradicated, less than 2,000 hectares were eradicated by force, whereas almost 10,000 hectares were voluntarily removed.

The potential benefits for Colombia are even greater given the context of the peace process between the government and the insurgent group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The partial agreement between the two parties on the drug problem has established participatory mechanisms for the coca growing communities to define their own integral development model, avoiding ineffective alternative development projects.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) most recent report on Colombia indicates that coca cultivation increased by 44 percent between 2013 and 2014 and cocaine production rose from 290 to 420 tons. Clearly the policies that maintain the status quo approach to coca control have failed.

Bolivia’s community control model offers many insights into limiting coca production that can be adapted to the Colombian context. Such approaches, combined with state-building policies in historically marginalized territories, can also reduce violence, augment livelihoods, and place human interests at the center of an effective supply-side drug policy.

Later this month, Pope Francis will visit Bolivia and has reportedly requested that coca leaves be available during his visit. Ideally, this event will increase awareness in the international arena of supply-side policies that have been harmful to the human rights and cultures of indigenous communities.

LA Times Misfires in Attempt to Shoot Down Bolivian Drug Control Efforts

AIN comments on “Peru may resume shooting down suspected coke -smuggling planes” in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

On April 26th, the Los Angeles Times published an article criticizing Bolivia’s role as an ‘air bridge’ facilitating the passage of cocaine between producers in Peru and consumers in Brazil and beyond. The article included extended commentary from Peruvian and Chilean sources and a number of accusations leveled at the Bolivian authorities, without giving them any opportunity to respond.

It is rather surprising that the article did not feature any information from or specifically about Bolivia, nor any evaluation of what Peru is or isn’t doing to address the issue.  The air bridge is nothing new.  Trafficking routes shift on a dime in response to even the best interdiction efforts with an almost unlimited budget from illegal profits. If control tightens significantly, traffickers just switch to another strategy and switch back when controls lighten.

How is it somehow Bolivia’s fault alone that around 500 flights leave Peruvian territory with cocaine paste?  This seems like a lot of oversimplification and casting of blame by Peruvian authorities, mired in their own narco-corruption morass, such as the messy Oropeza case.

It’s clear, as the story notes, that the Peruvian government has no control in the Apurimac Ene Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM). This is not at all surprising with the high levels of security force corruption and remnants of Sendero Luminoso. This isn’t a consequence of lax Bolivian law enforcement. Although Bolivian drug control is not perfect, there is no lack of political will behind it, as the unattributed quotes in the article suggest.

It’s important to look at the big picture about shifting cocaine markets and the driving role of demand. According to the DEA, Colombian traffickers and Colombian cocaine have cornered the North American markets (95% of all cocaine in the US comes from Colombia). As a result, remaining markets for Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine are to the southeast (Brazil, Argentina Paraguay, Europe and West Africa). Brazil is now the world’s second largest cocaine consuming country, after the US, and a great deal of cocaine paste stays there. The demand drives the drug trade, not lax Bolivian enforcement.

A great deal is going on in Bolivia. Coca production is down to 23,000 hectares (according to UNODC stats, and cited by the US in the last INCSR), and prices for the coca leaf have almost doubled, and are far above the price of Peruvian coca. At the same time, Peruvian coca production is more than double coca production in Bolivia (48,900 hectares according to the most recent UNODC stats), and cocaine paste production remains strong, and is at least 200 dollars cheaper per kilo than Bolivian paste. So the market rules. According to the UN, Peru is now the top cocaine producing country in the world.

With no outlet to North America and a strong market pull from Brazil, Argentina and beyond, abundant and less expensive Peruvian paste goes through Bolivia to these countries.  Bolivian counter drug authorities have been using laboratory equipment funded by the CAN and have been trained by Colombian authorities to identify the origin of cocaine paste seized.  They report that 50-60% of seizures are Peruvian in origin.  Cheaper Peruvian cocaine floods Bolivian markets, and Bolivian intermediaries make several hundred dollars per kilo transporting it through the country, by land, or by river.  The Bolivian authorities are trying to stem the flow, but it is impossible to compete economically with traffickers.

As the article notes, Bolivia’s position in the middle of this route means that it is most often a stopover for these flights to refuel.  Some shipments are converted into crystalized cocaine here, but not the majority.  A lot of it is consumed as crack or paco in Brazil and Argentina. Air transport facilitates processing outside Bolivia where key precursor materials, such as sulfuric acid, are more readily available.  Nor is there significant cocaine or crack consumption in Bolivia.  CICAD studies show annual prevalence of cocaine use in the general population has remained steady between 0.4 and 0.38% (the most recent figure is from 2013).  Most of the cocaine paste is just passing through.

Nor is Santa Cruz a major drug trafficking hub. This was true in the early eighties. Now there is capital from trafficking invested there and economic transactions take place, but trafficking and small paste production sites are dispersed throughout the country. Rural areas of the Beni department, largely inaccessible by road, especially during rainy season, are in vogue for refueling of drug flights because of its location between the VRAEM and Brazil. Some pilots and planes are Bolivian, others are Paraguayan, Peruvian, Colombian or Argentine. When there is a lot of money involved, no nationality corners the illicit market.

It seems clear that US drug control reports such as the Memorandum of Justification cited in the article, and the INCSR (which came out on March 18, 2015) are far from objective.  Looking at the statistics that the US quotes, one can see that Bolivia has performed well according to US yardsticks of coca reduction, seizures, detentions, destruction of production sites. That is not to say that these yardsticks are accurate, but the cool reception with which the US greets Bolivia’s performance compares oddly to their glowing praise for Peru.  The most recent decertification caused discontent among international authorities here. In response EU ambassador, Timothy Torlot stated, “For me, the work we’ve done has been successful; you can see the results in the successful and sustained reduction in coca production in the country. Interdiction has also been successful.  There’s always more to do, but as I said, the European Union’s experience has been very positive. My experience working with the Bolivians is that the government is takes it seriously and gotten results.”

Bolivian drug control is far from perfect, but they are working to address the issue, and that deserved some mention in the article. The Bolivian government just announced the purchase of 20 additional fighter planes to complement the K-8’s they purchased in 2012. Their main purpose will air interdiction, as well as other trafficking issues. They take the fight against drug trafficking extremely seriously.

Here are some other important points:

  1. Bolivia passed its own shoot-down law a year ago in response to concerns about the air bridge. Like the Peruvian bill, full implementation of this policy could lead to errors, human rights violations, and bilateral friction. They are in the process of purchasing and installing radar at key border areas from a French company.
  2. In response to research on the Bolivian-Peruvian border, suggesting Peruvian authorities were doing little to control trafficking in the region, Bolivia and Peru signed a series of agreements for stronger bilateral counterdrug cooperation, including intelligence exchange and joint patrols on Lake Titicaca.
  3. As a result, DINANDRO has been sharing information with the Bolivian FELCN on flights departing Peru to or through Bolivia for the past four months. During that time, the Bolivian anti-drug police have seized approximately 30 planes. Peruvians have seized at least six.
  4. International organizations recognize this effort. Last month, the UNODC Director in Bolivia, Antonino de Leo, told the press“The UNODC congratulates Bolivia for its achievements in drug control and for intelligence exchange with Peru that has made eliminating the air bridge used by international trafficking organizations possible.
  5. Bolivian authorities are in the process of converting small seized planes for state use. For example, last week, the administration presented five reconditioned planes to be used as air ambulances in the Beni region.
  6. The information on Bolivian pilot schools is speculative, inaccurate, and easily refuted. Of course, more importantly, pilots flying small drug laden planes don’t actually need licenses; they aren’t going through airports and formal controls. They just need to know how to fly the plane from one rural area to another.  That said, the requirements for a pilot’s license are easy to find, and course and flight hour requirements are monitored.  You need 160 hours of instruction and 115 flight-training hours. You also need a background check from the anti drug police.  Not possible in a week.  (Requirements here.) Courses for a private pilot’s license have gone up in price from about $5,000 to $6,000 in the last five years, about on par with the increase of the cost of living in Bolivia.  There are ten schools in Santa Cruz, four in Cochabamba and one in Trinidad.  The suggestion that expensive flight courses are evidence of drug trafficking could go either way–cheap classes could also be considered as facilitating drug flights.  In the end, the argument cites inaccurate information and only one potential interpretation.
  7. Bolivian containers are subject to multiple Chilean inspections—at the border, by customs authorities, and agricultural control officers from SAG, Servicio Agricola y Ganadero. They also check trucks in response to any denunciations.  The treaty with Bolivia doesn’t exempt them from that. The article shows that Chilean officials are inspecting containers from Bolivia, suggesting the Bolivian government supports this.

Bolivian Political and Social Landscape: Primer for Pending Presidential Elections

As the presidential campaigns gain momentum, AIN outlines the political and social landscape in Bolivia to provide background to understand upcoming electoral debates.

President Evo Morales is running for a third term in the October 12, 2014 elections.  Critics argue he is not eligible to run for another consecutive term, but the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal ruled in his favor, and the opposition across the political spectrum lacks a strong, unifying candidate.  Four candidates have formally registered to run against Morales.

Bolivian Government Achievements

  • Macroeconomic success:
    • From 2009 to 2013, Bolivia’s economy experienced steady growth.

1 GDP growth

The population living in extreme poverty fell from 38% in 2005 to 24% in 2011.

2 poverty

  • Bolivia has accrued a significant “rainy day fund.”  According to the New York Times,  “Bolivia has the highest ratio in the world of international reserves to the size of its economy, having recently surpassed China.”
  • Employment rates and wages have both steadily increased under Morales. The minimum wage increased in 2013 from about $145 USD (1,000Bs) to about $174 USD (1,200Bs) a month.
  • Double holiday bonus: In November 2013, President Evo Morales decreed that all employers must pay a double holiday bonus to all employees.  Previously, the bonus was one month’s salary paid in December.  The double holiday bonushad a mixed reception, celebrated by workers, but criticized by many employers and small business owners.
  • Social programs: The Morales administration started several popular cash transfer programs, including benefits to school children and pregnant mothers, which have promoted significant decreases in maternal and infant mortality as well as increases in school attendance and high school graduation.
  • Gas income: The Bolivian government has strengthened the economy by increasing state hydrocarbons revenues as a result of the 2004 hydocarbons law, the 2006 Nationalization Decree, and high gas prices.  This income has permitted significant investment in infrastructure and social programs.

Coca Leaf and Drug Control

  • In 2013, Bolivia successfully petitioned the United Nations to recognize legal coca cultivation and uses within its borders.
  • The Morales administration has achieved sustained reductions in the cultivation of illicit coca leaf using a system of community coca control. (26% reduction from 2010-2013).
  • Unlike previous military forced eradication, this innovative model relies on coca grower participation.  This model guarantees subsistence and enables coca growers to diversify their income, leading to greatly reduced human rights violations.  For more information see this WOLA-AIN memo.

3 eradication
Source: Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Social Defense

  • Bolivia currently has less than half as much coca as Colombia and Peru.  Yet inexpensive and abundant Peruvian cocaine paste base floods through Bolivia to Brazil and other consumer countries, offsetting national control efforts.
  • The Morales’ administration has diligently pursued drug interdiction after the 2009 expulsion of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, reporting significantly increased seizures. However, the great bulk of cocaine sales and profits trafficking occur outside Bolivia’s border, limiting the impact of these initiatives.
  • In spite of tensions, US-Bolivian on-the-ground collaboration on coca reduction continued productively until September 2013, including a trilateral agreement, including Brazil, to improve monitoring technology.

Challenges facing the Morales Administration 

  • TIPNIS issue: In spite of much rhetoric about protecting the rights of Mother Earth, the Morales administration has gone ahead with plans to build a highway through the Amazon, including the TIPNIS, a national park and indigenous territory.
    • This is an enduring point of contention in the country, most notably among lowland indigenous peoples who led two marches to La Paz to protest the lack of prior consultation of TIPNIS resident about the project, which is guaranteed by the 2009 Bolivian constitution.  Both marches, in 2011 and 2012, were met with police repression from the government. The segment of the construction project within the territory is on hold, but may be resumed.  Critics highlighted contradictions with the administration’s pro-indigenous and environmental discourse and its handling of the incident.
  • The lowland indigenous umbrella organization, CIDOB, and its highland counterpart CONAMAQ are both split between factions that support the MAS ruling party and its vocal opponents.
  • Policies of extraction vs. environment: One of the most significant challenges for the MAS administration has been balancing multi-sector demands for basic services financed primarily by extractive industries with its rhetoric of protecting and living in harmony with nature.
    • Bolivia’s economy has always been heavily reliant on extractive industries such as mining and hydrocarbons that have a substantial environmental impact.  Conflicts often arise in mining communities over the benefits of mining income versus the damage to the environment.  In addition, continuing contamination, such as the recent bursting of a damn holding toxic mining tailings in the Chuquisaca department, exacerbates the Morales administration’s inherited legacy of environmental degradations from centuries of mineral exploitation.
  • Violence Against Women: Violence against women and children has always been startlingly prevalent in Bolivia.  In March 2013, the Bolivian Congress passed a comprehensive a law to address these issues, which contained progressive ideas and preventative measures.  However, the government lacks the resources and political will to fully implement the law.  See this AIN update for more information.

4 violence stat

  • Unsafe abortions: This is another concern for women in Bolivia.  Abortions are illegal except in the case of incest, rape, or if the mother’s life is in danger. Pro-choice advocates had a partial victory in a February 2014 constitutional tribunal ruling that upheld the illegality of abortion, but threw out the rule that requires women to get a judge’s consent in the three permitted exceptions.  (See Emily Achtenberg’s article in NACLA for more information on this ruling.)  Lack of access to and information about sexual and reproductive health combined with cultural taboos and widespread sexual violence put women’s health at risk and severely limit their choices.  Although they are illegal, an estimated 60,000 abortions are performed in Bolivia each year, and only 46% of them are performed without complication.  See this AIN update for more information.

5 abortions
Source: La Razón

  • Judicial delay and prison overcrowding: The Bolivian justice system suffers from tremendous judicial delay, resulting in lengthy pretrial detention, as well as severe prison overcrowding.  Only 17% of prisoners in Bolivia are actually serving their sentence, while the other 83% are merely awaiting trial, which could take years.  After prison riot and fire that killed 35 people, Morales a pardon and amnesty decree in September 2013.  However, to date the pardon has benefitted only about 800 people. More comprehensive reforms, including the reduction of disproportionately high drug sentences (drug war prisoners make up almost half of all inmates) need to be enacted.

6 prisoners
Source: La Opinión

  • Legacy of dictatorships: Unlike neighboring Chile and Argentina, which initiated some legal action against those involved, impunity for authors of human rights violations continues in Bolivia.   A group of survivors of the dictatorship have maintained a vigil for more than two years outside the Ministry of Justice, demanding acknowledgment for the crimes of the dictatorship and the declassification of military files from the dictatorship era.  In 2004, the Bolivian government passed a law guaranteeing compensation to victims, but modifications have reduced the initial promised aid to 20%, and only 1,714 of the 8,000 who applied were approved to receive benefits.  See this AIN update for more information, as well as this Amnesty International report and BBC article.


7 dictatorship march
Photo: Gonzalo Ordoñez for AIN

Bolivian-US Bilateral Relations

  • A mutual lack of trust is the single largest impediment to improved bilateral relations.  This lack of confidence should be addressed as a prerequisite for reinstatement of ambassadors. In spite of a lack of ambassadors, bilateral relations have varied, depending on the skill of the Chargés and other officials from both nations.
  • A lack of transparency on the part of USAID and credible allegations that the agency was inappropriately aiding lowland opposition led Morales to expel Ambassador Goldberg in 2008.  USAID in Bolivia did not follow international agreements on development. See AIN background.
  • The Morales administration responds positively to genuine diplomatic gestures.  For example, November 2008 meetings with US congressional leaders permitted the sort of frank exchanges that can create rapport and lay the basis for more regular dialogue and better mutual understanding. See WOLA and AIN analysis on bilateral relations.
  • US decisions to “decertify” Bolivian drug control efforts since 2008 are increasingly disconnected from reality. Governments in the region continue to see the US determinations as offensive and politically motivated. More information here.
  • US funding steadily decreased since 2008.  Although the Narcotics Affairs Section, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and USAID are now gone, Bolivia has compensated with funds from its own treasury and increased support from the European Union.
  • Request for extradition of ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada: Widespread resentment continues for the US refusal to extradite the ex-president for the death of 69 protestors in October 2003. Although US officials claim the charges are politically motivated, two-thirds of the Bolivian congress, where Sánchez de Lozada’s own coalition had a majority, voted to indict him. The Bolivian government submitted a new extradition request on July 10th, 2014 and the US has promised to respond within sixty days. The US is expected to reject this initiative.
  • US citizen Jacob Ostreicher accused of money laundering:  Although US representatives and Sean Penn have argued for Ostreicher’s innocence, charges against Ostreicher appear credible. He was subject to protracted pre-trial detention in violation of his due process rights, as is every Bolivian arrested on drug charges under drug legislation imposed by the US in 1988.  There was also a great deal of corruption around his case on the part of some Bolivian government officials.  He escaped from Bolivia at the end of 2013 and is considered a fugitive by Interpol.


Recurring protests and strikes from diverse sectors, including transportation workers, university students, and milk and meat producers have characterized the political and social landscape in the past few months.  However, this does not necessarily equate to discontent with the Morales administration.  Rather, many sectors are strategically taking advantage of election momentum to leverage to get demands met.  As one indigenous protester explained, “We’re not the opposition.  We just want the respect of our people and our rights and a solution.”

Although the administration’s performance has been mixed, Morales still enjoys widespread support and his party will most likely retain a majority in both houses of congress.  Furthermore, the opposition on both the left and the right lack a strong, representative, unifying candidate.  It is likely that Bolivian voters will opt for continuing the status quo.

Al ritmo de otro tambor: El control social comunitario del cultivo de la coca en Bolivia

Tenemos el agrado de anunciar el más reciente número de NACLA (Congreso Norteamericano sobre Latino América) en el que Linda Farthing, una inveterada colaboradora de Red Andina de Información (RAI), hizo de editora invitada.   El número se llama Reimaginando la Política de Lucha Contra las Drogas  en las Américas e incluye artículos acerca de la actual política de la coca en Bolivia, escritos por la directora de RAI, Kathryn Ledebur, y Linda Farthing, así como por Tom Grisaffi, colaborador de la RAI.

También contiene artículos acerca de los cambios dentro de las políticas de lucha contra el narcotráfico en las Américas, desde Vancouver hasta Montevideo, así como las dimensiones actuales de la situación a lo largo de las Américas.   Se halla disponible en inglés a


Foto: Productores de coca en Cochabamba, Bolivia, en una protesta para reformar la Convención Única de las Naciones Unidas (Red Andina de Información)


“Tengo un cato, como permite la ley”, explica Juan Mamani, un cocalero de la región semi-tropical de Los Yungas, al este de La Paz.“Tenemos un acuerdo con nuestro presidente, Evo, así que controlamos nuestra coca mejor que nadie en Bolivia.Trabajamos estrechamente como vecinos y miembros del sindicato para asegurarnos que nadie cultive de más.”

Mamani se refiere a un singular modelo de control del cultivo de coca que ha puesto de cabeza muchos de los preceptos básicos de la antigua y fracasada guerra contra el narcotráfico, financiada durante décadas por los EEUU. A fines de 2004, el entonces presidente Carlos Mesa, cansado de las constantes protestas y la represión policial violenta, cedió ante una demanda presentada desde hace años por los cocaleros, y les permitió cultivar una cantidad de hoja de coca que les dejara subsistir, una parcela denominada un cato cuyo tamaño varía entre 1,600 a 2,500 metros cuadrados según la región.  El conflicto se redujo casi de inmediato.  “Es muy sencillo,” afirma la cocalera, Celestina Ticona.“El cato nos permite alimentar a nuestras familias.”“Compramos nuestro lote y construimos nuestra casita  gracias al cato,” agrega Alieta Ortiz, quien trabajó en una radio comunitaria en el Chapare, al este de Cochabamba.

Cuando el cocalero Evo Morales se convirtió en el presidente de Bolivia a principios de 2006, él prometió reafirmar la soberanía nacional, y formalizó el programa del cato de coca, fortaleciendo así su énfasis en la negociación y facilitando la subsistencia de los cocaleros.  Alguna vez considerada la nación sudamericana que más dependía de los Estados Unidos, bajo Morales, Bolivia ha rechazado la erradicación forzosa impuesta por los EEUU a favor de una estrategia más humana y, finalmente, más efectiva.

Este nuevo enfoque en la política de lucha contra el narcotráfico, denominado “Coca sí, cocaína no”, reconoce que Bolivia, que se halla en tercer lugar, luego de Perú y Colombia en la producción de la hoja de coca, puede controlar la producción de la droga resultado de la hoja pero nunca la erradicará por completo.  Con su énfasis en la participación comunal y el respeto por los derechos humanos, este enfoque sobresale como la primera iniciativa de reducción de daños ejecutado desde el lado de la oferta.  El Viceministro de Defensa Social, Felipe Cáceres, explica la lógica detrás de la medida:“Hemos decidido dejar de lado las metralletas, las balas y las bombas.Optamos por incluir a las comunidades cocaleras dentro del debate e incluirles en el análisis que crearon nuestras políticas.”

Una nueva constitución adoptada en 2009 reconoce por primera vez los usos tradicionales de la hoja de coca.Poco después, Bolivia presentó una solicitud ante las Naciones Unidas para que ésta emita una reserva que permitiese el cultivo legal de la coca y sus usos lícitos dentro de sus límites territoriales.  “Seguimos los lineamientos de las Naciones Unidas para retirarnos de la Convención Única en 2012,” continúa Felipe Cáceres.  “En 2013, solicitamos volver a ingresar a ésta pero con respeto por nuestros derechos sociales y culturales.Deseo agradecer a varios gobiernos amigos por dar una oportunidad a Bolivia.No eludimos nuestras obligaciones internacionales.  Por el contrario, propusimos una política coherente basada en nuestra constitución nueva que fundamentalmente respete los derechos humanos indígenas.”

El control social del cultivo de la coca es tal vez el elemento más impresionante y exitoso de la nueva serie de políticas.  La iniciativa alienta a los cocaleros a ejercer controles internos a través de sus organizaciones sociales para que el cultivo de coca se limite a un cato por familia.  “Fue crítico idear un modelo que involucrase los sindicatos campesinos, que son poderosos y muy unidos,” explica el jefe de programa Pedro Ferrano, “uno que redujera la violencia y el conflicto que los campesinos habían sufrido.”La cocalera chapareña Rosena Rodríguez recuerda demasiado bien aquellos tiempos, “Antes, no teníamos derecho y había muchos enfrentamientos, muerte y masacres.Plantábamos coca y ellos la arrancaban.Volvíamos a plantar; ellos volvían a arrancarla.”

El Programa de Apoyo al Control Social de la Coca (PACS), diseñado y lanzado principalmente con financiamiento de la Unión Europea, pone énfasis en los valores culturales, tales como la participación democrática sindical; también privilegia los derechos colectivos por encima de los individuales.  Luego de que el programa se iniciara  en enero de 2009, durando hasta marzo de 2013, gastó aproximadamente 13 millones de dólares en una campaña de concientización para limitar la producción de la hoja de coca de manera cooperativa, fortaleciendo así la coordinación estado/sindicato y la coordinación entre sindicatos, y entrenando a los secretarios del control de la coca como parte del liderazgo sindical.

El agregado de la Cooperación de la Unión Europea, Nicolaus Hansmann, ha trabajado en la gestión de programas relacionados a la coca desde fines de la década de los noventa.  “Gran parte del impacto positivo se debe a tres elementos técnicos,” dice él. “El registro biométrico de los cocaleros (50,000 hasta la fecha), la titulación de tierras (un poco menos de 30,000 hectáreas) y el monitoreo satelital financiado por las Naciones Unidas combinado con el monitoreo de referencias cruzadas del cultivo de la coca.  El Censo Agrícola de 2013 y los esfuerzos iniciales para ingresar a los comerciantes de coca con licencia al registro electrónico fortalecen este emprendimiento.”

Entre los campesinos, la motivación para participar en el control social se arraiga en su lealtad hacia Morales – particularmente en el Chapare – y en un respeto profundo por la hoja que ellos consideran sagrada entrelazado estrechamente con la necesidad práctica de contar con un ingreso de subsistencia que resulta del cato.  Los productores de coca, ya sea como agentes agrícolas de extensión o inspectores, vice ministros o incluso el mismo presidente, constituyen la gran parte de quienes implementan este programa, lo cual fortalece enormemente un profundo sentido entres los cocaleros de que el programa es bajo control suyo .

El control social comunitario del cultivo de coca comienza cuando el gobierno comparte sus datos de monitoreo con los líderes sindicales locales mediante las oficinas regionales.  El secretario del control del cultivo de la hoja de coca u otro líder sindical organiza una comisión para realizar inspecciones in situ de las parcelas de los miembros.  Estos comisionados vienen del sindicato  mismo, así como de comunidades vecinas.  La mayoría de estos cargos son ocupados por hombres, lo que llevó a que PACS financie una delegada mujer en cada federación sindical.Sin embargo, hasta la fecha, la asignación de otros deberes sindicales impidió que las mujeres tengan un rol pleno y activo.

El control cruzado alienta a los sindicatos a presionarse mutuamente y frecuentemente los miembros de las comunidades eliminan rápidamente la coca que excede el cato permitido apenas oyen la llegada de los inspectores sindicales.  El cumplimiento es el tema central del debate en la mayoría de las reuniones mensuales de cada federación sindical, donde se llevan a cabo frecuentes reuniones acaloradas acerca del cumplimiento con las disposiciones del cato.Las comunidades que violan el acuerdo frecuentemente se hallan amonestadas incómodamente a través de la estación radial de las federaciones.  “Es un golpe en el rostro de tu sindicato,” reconoce un cocalero.  El incumplimiento también puede implicar un verdadero precio material, como ser dificultades en el acceso a beneficios municipales así como otros beneficios estatales que pueden ir desde mejoras camineras hasta nuevas escuelas.

Otro nivel de control proviene de La Unidad de Desarrollo Económico y Social del Trópico (UDESTRO), dirigida por campesinos, que programa visitas de rutina a las parcelas (con personal limitado; a menudo, esto se lleva a cabo una vez cada dos años) y, si encuentran más de un cato, hacen arreglos para que la Fuerza Especial de Tarea Conjunta, una unidad policial-militar combinada, erradique  toda la coca de la familia.  Puesto que es prohibido volver a sembrar durante un año, los campesinos se quedan efectivamente sin un ingreso relacionado a la coca por dos años debido al tiempo que los arbustos requieren para madurar.

Desde la elección de Morales en 2006, 88% de toda la coca destruida se efectúa a través de este sistema cooperativo negociado, que la Oficina de las Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito (UNODC) reconoce como la fuerza impulsora detrás de la tasa en constante descenso de cifras de cultivo de hoja de coca.  Simultáneamente, la violencia se redujo dramáticamente en el Chapare, región que más sufrió debido a las anteriores políticas financiadas por EEUU.

La erradicación forzosa persiste en parques nacionales y regiones que nunca formaron parte del acuerdo del cato.Las federaciones cooperan activamente para mantener que se reduzca la producción y que ésta se mantenga fuera de las áreas prohibidas, ya que les interesa mantener elevado el precio de la hoja para que el cato pueda generar un ingreso razonable para la subsistencia de sus miembros.

La política actual ofrece a los campesinos participantes una vida libre de violencia estatal, y la inclusión social y los derechos ciudadanos por primera vez. A cambio, los cocaleros se comprometen a seguir un arriesgado sendero económico: un futuro en el que ya no dependan de la coca.  En este cambio, la confianza es fundamental, y se basa sobre el respeto mutuo entre los cocaleros y el gobierno, combinándose con componentes prácticos como la titulación de tierras (un proceso que sigue sin concluir), mejorías en la educación, la salud y la infraestructura caminera, así como en la diversificación de los cultivos y su comercialización.Los ingresos derivados del cato alentaron a los campesinos a asumir riesgos con actividades que pueden ir desde el cultivo de la piña hasta la piscicultura.  “El cato es como tener una cuenta de ahorros en caso de que algo salga mal,”, dice Eddy Godoy, tesorero de la Federación del Trópico.  “Ahora tenemos una verdadera oportunidad para diversificar nuestra producción con ayuda del gobierno.”

Los esfuerzos por incentivar el mercado legal para productos derivados de la coca comenzaron con dificultad y continuaron enfrentando desafíos, pero en 2011, se inauguró una fábrica que realizaba artículos que iban desde panetones navideños hasta licor de coca.  En Los Yungas, dos fábricas revitalizadas que datan de 1980 fabrican mate de coca embolsado y harina de hornear.  Pero la demanda local se halla limitada y el experto Karl Hoffman se preocupa:“Sin legalización internacional de la hoja de coca, el mercado es simplemente demasiado pequeño.”Si bien la victoria de 2012 sobre la convención de las Naciones Unidas incentivó la promoción de coca cultivada orgánicamente en Los Yungas y el Chapare, hasta la fecha, no existe un acuerdo internacional para exportar la hoja de la coca como otra cosa que no sea agente saborizante.

En noviembre de 2013, el gobierno emitió un estudio muy esperado, financiado por la Unión Europea, acerca de la demanda doméstica lícita.  El informe identificó que se precisan 14,700 hectáreas de coca para satisfacer la demanda local de un poco más de 3 millones de consumidores.  “El gobierno comprará la diferencia entre esta cantidad destinada al consumo local y las 20,000 hectáreas que reconocimos en 2007 como necesarias para mantener la paz social en las regiones dedicadas al cultivo de la coca,” explica Director Administrativo del Viceministro de Defensa Social, Humberto Fuentes.  “Utilizaremos la diferencia de 5,300 hectáreas para productos alternativos a la coca.Cualquier excedente será destruido.”

El control social del cultivo de la coca no está diseñado para detener el  narcotráfico, ya que los precios, la demanda y disponibilidad de la cocaína son determinadas por fuerzas que se hallan más allá de las fronteras de Bolivia.  Casi la mitad de la pasta base de cocaína y la cocaína refinada en polvo decomisada en Bolivia se infiltra desde el Perú, atravesando 1000 kilómetros  de territorio escasamente poblado y monitoreado.  La administración de Morales ha perseguido agresivamente el tráfico de pasta base y cocaína refinada, obteniendo cifras récord de confiscaciones a lo largo de los últimos años.  Hasta la fecha, se opone firmemente a la descriminalización o legalización de las drogas.

El Perú todavía sigue con la erradicación forzada financiada por EEUU y la divergencia de la orientación actual de Bolivia no podría ser más notoria.  “La erradicación forzada puede ser el catalizador que impulsa la violencia y el conflicto social entre los pueblos quechua y mestizos, quienes siguen sufriendo el trauma de los conflictos armados de los años ochenta y noventa.Los grupos criminales podrían sacar provecho de esta situación para provocar conflictos entre la población rural, el gobierno y las fuerzas armadas,” dice el ex zar peruano de lucha contra el narcotráfico, Ricardo Soberón.   Colombia también continúa dependiendo de la erradicación forzosa, lo cual incluye fumigaciones aéreas perjudiciales que resultan en elevados daños a los seres humanos, conflictos continuados y un impacto medioambiental negativo.  Si bien Colombia erradica forzosamente un promedio superior a 100,000 hectáreas al año, sus cultivos de coca siguen siendo el doble que los de Bolivia.

Un incremento en los derechos ciudadanos de los cocaleros de Bolivia incentivó una aceptación sin precedentes de la fuerza policial de lucha contra las drogas (UMOPAR), que antes era odiada.  “Ahora, los militares, UMOPAR, y el gobierno trabajan junto con los sindicatos y tenemos buena coordinación.Las masacres y la tortura llegaron a su fin,” dice Marcela López, perteneciente a la Federación de Mujeres del Chapare.

Se ha hecho cada vez más difícil hallar lugares para procesar pasta base de cocaína, porque los cocaleros temen perder sus catos si se descubren operaciones de fabricación de pasta en sus terrenos.  El control social comunitario “ha sido malo para el negocio de la cocaína,” dice el ex director de la fuerza policial de lucha contra el narcotráfico, Gonzalo Quezada.  “Los mismos cocaleros denuncian a los traficantes, algo que nunca antes hacían.”

Brasil, ahora el segundo consumidor más grande de pasta base y cocaína en el mundo, compra casi 80% de la producción de Bolivia.La frontera de 3,200 kilómetros, que cruza la jungla tropical y páramos aislados hacen que sea casi imposible de controlar.  Sin embargo, en noviembre de 2012, los gobiernos de Bolivia, Brasil y Perú formaron un grupo de trabajo para sistematizar los esfuerzos de control y encarar el problema del transporte aéreo de drogas entre sus países.

El gobierno de Bolivia y los cocaleros participantes consideran que es cuestión de orgullo nacional ser partícipes internacionales responsables en los esfuerzos de la lucha contra el narcotráfico.  “Este gobierno ayudó a hacernos dar cuenta de que ya no podías cultivar más coca, no sólo porque es ilegal, sino porque daría a nuestro país una mala imagen internacional,” declara Juan Mamani, cocalero de Los Yungas.

Dada la historia de debilidades burocráticas en Bolivia, los resultados del control social son impresionantes.  Enfrentados a un importante vació de financiamiento en 2013 y 2014, la persistencia del concepto refleja la fortaleza organizacional, la confianza y lealtad de los cocaleros.  El líder sindical de Los Yungas, Elías Cruz, insiste que incluso un año luego de que el financiamiento se detuviera, “el control social sigue vigente, no como una institución sino dentro de la consciencia de los productores.”

El control social del cultivo de la coca, a pesar de todas sus inevitables limitaciones, ha demostrado ser más efectivo y eficiente en términos de costo que la erradicación forzada y representa una iniciativa local soberana apropiada para su contexto.  Al permitir que los campesinos cultiven una pequeña cantidad del producto del que dependen económicamente para sobrevivir, en combinación con el monitoreo participativo, una mejora en los servicios gubernamentales, iniciativas de desarrollo económico y una reducción en la represión violenta, los campesinos se hallan en una mejor posición para diversificar su base productiva y limitar su dependencia de un cultivo ilícito.  “Los resultados de una política tan innovadora como ésta no serán inmediatos,” argumenta el ex Defensor de los Derechos Humanos del Chapare, Godofredo Reinicke.“Habrá éxitos y fracasos, altos y bajos, pero el control social del cultivo de la hoja de coca requiere que se le dé el tiempo suficiente para ver si tiene sentido como un enfoque sostenible para la reducción de la violencia relacionada al narcotráfico.”


Linda Farthing es co- autora con Ben Kohl de tres libros acerca de Bolivia, el más reciente de los cuales es Evo’s Bolivia  Continuity and Change (Texas 2014), y una fundadora de Red Andina de Información.Kathryn Ledebur es la directora de Red Andina de Información


Nota:  Este artículo forma parte del actual número de NACLA (Reimaginando la Política de Lucha contra el Narcotráfico en las Américas).  Si usted desea reproducir este artículo de alguna forma, deberá obtener los permisos apropiados de NACLA.   Por favor, visite

To the Beat of a Different Drum: Bolivia’s Community Coca Control

We are pleased to announce the latest issue of NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) that AIN long-time collaborator Linda Farthing guest edited. The issue is called Reimagining Drug Policy in the Americas and includes articles about current coca policy in Bolvia written by AIN director Kathryn Ledebur and Linda Farthing, and by AIN collaborator Tom Grisaffi.

It also has articles about changes in drug policy in the Americas from Vancouver to Montevideo, as well as the current dimensions of the situation throughout the Americas. It’s available at

Cocaleros in Cochabamba, Bolivia at a protest to reform the UN Single Convention (Andean Information Network)

“I have a cato as allowed by law,” explains Juan Mamani, a coca farmer in the semi-tropical Yungas east of La Paz. “We have an understanding with our president, Evo, so we control our coca better than anyone else in Bolivia. We work closely together as neighbors and union members to make sure no one grows any extra.”

Mamani is referring to a unique coca control model that has turned many of the basic precepts of the failed decades-old U.S.-financed drug war on their head. His words, and those of the other coca farmers in this article, come from research funded by the Open Society Foundation from 2013-2014. In late 2004 President Carlos Mesa, weary of constant protest and violent police repression, acquiesced to a long-standing grower demand, and permitted growers to cultivate a subsistence amount of coca leaf—a plot known as a cato, ranging in size from 1,600 to 2,500 square meters. Conflict abated almost immediately. “It’s very simple,” says grower Celestina Ticona. “The cato lets us feed our families.” “We bought our lot and built our little house thanks to the cato,” adds Alieta Ortiz, who has worked in community radio in the Chapare, east of Cochabamba.

When coca grower Evo Morales became Bolivia’s president in early 2006, he vowed to reassert national sovereignty, formalizing the cato program by strengthening its emphasis on negotiation, and enabling grower subsistence. Once considered the South American nation most dependent on the United States, under Morales, Bolivia has rejected U.S.-imposed forced eradication in favor of a more humane and ultimately, more effective strategy.

The novel policy approach, called “coca yes, cocaine no,” recognizes that Bolivia, which ranks third behind Peru and Colombia in leaf production, may be able to contain drug production, but will never entirely eradicate it. With its emphasis on community participation and respect for human rights, the approach stands out as the world’s first supply-side harm reduction initiative. Vice Minister of Social Defense Felipe Cáceres explains the logic behind the choice: “We decided to leave the machine guns, the bullets, and the bombs behind. We opted to include coca growing communities in the debate and analysis that created our policies.”

A new constitution adopted in 2009 recognizes traditional uses of coca leaf for the first time. Bolivia then successfully petitioned the United Nations for a reservation that legally permits coca growing and its licit uses within its borders. “We followed the UN’s guidelines in order to withdraw from the Single Convention in 2012,” continues Felipe Cáceres. “In 2013 we requested re-entry, but with respect for our social and cultural rights. I want to thank many friendly governments for giving Bolivia a chance. We don’t shirk our international obligations. Instead, we proposed a coherent policy, based on our new constitution that fundamentally respects indigenous human rights.”

Community coca control is the most striking, and most successful element of the new set of policies. The initiative encourages growers to exercise internal controls through their social organizations so that coca cultivation is limited to one cato per family. “It was critical to come up with a model that involved farmers’ tightly knit and powerful unions,” explains program head Pedro Ferrano, “one that reduced the violence and conflict growers had suffered.” Chapare grower Rosena Rodríguez remembers that earlier time all too well, “We had no rights before and there was a lot of confrontation, death, and bloodshed. We planted coca, they ripped it out. We replanted; they tore it out again.”

The Program to Support Community Coca Leaf Control (PACS), designed and launched primarily with European Union funding, emphasizes cultural values such as democratic union participation; it also privileges collective over individual rights. After its doors opened in January 2009 up until March 2013, the program spent some $13 million on a consciousness-raising campaign to cooperatively limit coca production, strengthening state/union and inter-union coordination, and training coca control secretaries as part of union leadership.

EU Cooperation Attaché Nicolaus Hansmann has worked in Bolivia’s coca-related programming since the late 1990s. “Much of the positive impact is due to three technical elements,” he says, “the biometric registration of growers (50,000 to date), land titling (just under 1.2 million acres), and UN-financed satellite surveillance and cross-referenced coca monitoring. The 2013 Agrarian Census and initial efforts to bring licensed coca merchants into the electronic registry strengthen the effort.”

Grower motivation to participate in community control is tied to deep-seated loyalty to Morales—particularly in the Chapare—and profound respect for the leaf they consider sacred, closely entwined with the practical need for the subsistence income the cato brings. Coca growers, whether as agricultural extension agents or inspectors, vice-ministers or the President himself, are largely the program’s implementers, greatly enhancing a profound sense of ownership.

Community coca control begins when the government shares its monitoring data with local-level union leaders through the regional offices. The coca control secretary or another union leader then organizes a commission to conduct onsite inspections of member plots. These commissioners come from the union itself, as well as from neighboring communities. Men hold almost all these positions, which has led PACS to fund a woman delegate in each union federation. However, the assignment of other union duties has to date impeded a full and active role for women.

The cross-control encourages unions to pressure each other, and often, community members to quickly eliminate coca beyond the permitted cato as soon as they hear union inspectors are coming. Compliance is the central topic of debate at most local and monthly union federation meetings where hours-long, often heated discussions about enforcing the cato are the norm. Communities that violate the accord frequently find themselves uncomfortably reprimanded on the federations’ radio station. “It’s a slap in the face for your union,” acknowledges a grower. Noncompliance can bring a real material price too, such as difficulties in accessing municipal and other state benefits from improved road to new schools.

Another layer of control comes from the farmer-run Organization for Tropical Economic and Social Development (UDESTRO), which schedules routine visits to farms (with limited staff, this is often once every two years), and if they find more than a cato, arrange the elimination of all the family’s coca by the Joint Task Force, a combined military-police unit. As re-planting is forbidden for a year, farmers are effectively left without any coca-related income for two years because of how long it takes new bushes to mature.

Since Morales’s 2006 election, 88% of all coca destroyed is through this negotiated, cooperative system, which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognizes as the driving force behind Bolivia’s steadily declining coca figures. Violence has plummeted at the same time in the Chapare, the region that suffered most from previous U.S.-financed policies.

Forced eradication persists in national parks and regions that were never part of the cato agreement. Federations actively collaborate in keeping production down and out of prohibited areas as they have a vested interest in keeping the price of leaf high so that the cato will generate a reasonable subsistence income for their members. *

Current policy offers participating farmers a life free of state violence, as well as social inclusion and full citizenship rights for the first time. In exchange growers commit to pursuing a risky economic path: a future beyond reliance on coca. Trust is critical in this shift, built on mutual respect between growers and the government, combined with practical components such as land titling (which remains incomplete), improved education, health, and road infrastructure, as well as diversified crop production and marketing. Cato income has encouraged farmers to take risks with activities from pineapple to fish farming. “The cato is like having a savings account in case something goes wrong,” says Eddie Godoy, treasurer of the Federation of the Tropics. “Now we have a real chance to diversify our production with government assistance.”

Attempts to foster the legal market for coca products got off to a rocky start, and continue to lag, but by 2011 a Chapare factory, opened making goods from traditional Christmas cakes to coca liquor. In the Yungas, two revitalized 1980’s factories manufacture bagged coca tea and baking flour. But local demand is limited, and expert Karl Hoffman worries: “without international legalization, the market is just too small.” While the 2012 victory over the UN convention spurred the promotion in both the Yungas and Chapare of organically grown coca, to date, no international mandate exists to export the leaf beyond as a flavoring agent.

In November 2013 the government released a long-awaited EU-funded study on licit domestic demand. The report identified 14,700 hectares of coca as necessary to meet the local demand of just over 3 million consumers. “The government will buy the difference between this local consumption quantity and the 20,000 hectares we recognized in 2007 as necessary to maintain social peace in coca growing regions,” explains Vice-Ministry of Social Defense Administrative Director, Humberto Fuentes. “We will use the 5,300 hectares difference for alternative coca products. Any remainder will be destroyed.”

Community coca control is not designed to stop drug trafficking, as forces beyond Bolivia’s borders shape prices, demand, and availability of cocaine. Almost half the cocaine paste and refined powder seized in Bolivia seeps in from Peru through 650 miles of sparsely populated and monitored border. The Morales administration has aggressively pursued cocaine paste and refined cocaine, achieving record seizures over several years. It also staunchly opposes drug decriminalization or legalization.

Peru still pursues forced eradication with U.S. financing, and the divergence from Bolivia’s current orientation could not be sharper. “Forced eradication might be the catalyst that fuels violence and social conflict among the rural Quechua and mestizo peoples, who still suffer the trauma of the 1980’s and 1990’s armed conflict. Criminal groups could take advantage of this situation to provoke conflict between the rural population, the government and the armed forces,” says former Peruvian drug czar, Ricardo Soberón. Colombia also continues to rely on forced eradication, including damaging aerial fumigation with a high human toll, continued conflict and negative environmental impact. Although Colombia forcibly eradicates an average of over 100,000 hectares a year, its coca crop is still double that of Bolivia’s.

Increased citizenship rights for Bolivia’s growers has fostered unprecedented acceptance of the once-hated rural antidrug police (UMOPAR). “Now the military, UMOPAR, and the government work with the unions, and we have good coordination. The massacres and torture have come to an end,” says Marcela López of the Women’s Federation.

It has become harder to find places to manufacture cocaine paste as well because growers fear losing their cato if paste operations are discovered on their land. Community control has “been bad for the cocaine business,” says the former director of the anti-drug police, Gonzalo Quezada. “The growers themselves turn in traffickers, something they never did before.”

Brazil, now the world’s second-largest paste and cocaine consumer, buys almost 80% of Bolivia’s production. The 2,000 mile border through tropical wilderness and isolated scrubland make control close to impossible. Nonetheless, in November 2012, the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Peruvian governments formed a working group to systematize control efforts and to address drug over-flights between their countries.

Bolivian government and participating growers see it as a matter of national pride to be responsible international partners in the drug control efforts. “This government helped raise our awareness that we couldn’t grow more coca, not just because it is illegal, but also because it would give our country a bad international image,” declares Yungas grower Juan Mamani.

Given Bolivia’s history of bureaucratic inefficiency, community control’s results are impressive. Faced with a significant funding gap in 2013 and 2014, the concept’s persistence reflects growers’ organizational strength, trust, and loyalty. Yungas union leader Elias Cruz insists that even a year after funding stopped, “community control remains in force, not as an institution, but in the conscience of producers.”

Community coca control, for all its inevitable limitations, has proven more effective and cost efficient than forced eradication, and represents a sovereign, local initiative appropriate to its context. By permitting farmers to grow a small amount of the product they rely on for economic survival, combined with participatory monitoring, improved government services, economic development initiatives, and a reduction in violent repression, growers are in a better position to diversify their production base and limit their dependence on an illicit crop. “Results from a policy as innovative as this are not going to be immediate,” contends former Chapare Human Rights Ombudsman, Godofredo Reinicke. “There will be successes and failures, ups and downs, but community control of coca needs to be given sufficient time to see if it makes sense as a sustainable approach to reducing drug-related violence.”


Linda Farthing is author of three books on Bolivia, the latest Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change (Texas 2014), and a founder of the Andean Information Network. Kathryn Ledebur is Director of the Andean Information Network.

Note: This article is part of NACLA’s current issue (Reimagining Drug Policy in the Americas).  If you wish to reproduce this article in any way, you must obtain the appropriate permissions from NACLA.  Please



This piece was written by AIN research fellow Thomas Grisaffi during his Drugs, Security, and Democracy Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council.

Written by Thomas Grisaffi[i]                                                

In October 2013, Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Bolivia under President Evo Morales is turning into a rogue-state, awash with drug money.[ii]  The Bolivian press has argued that cocaine production sites are growing “like mushrooms”[iii] and that coca farmers are a class of “nouveau riche” peasants who spend their ill-gotten drug money on luxury cars, parties, and lavish houses.[iv] And it’s not just the press – ex-President Jorge Quiroga recently accused the Chapare coca growers’ federations, and by extension the Morales government, of protecting illicit cocaine production.[v]

Bolivia, the world’s third largest producer of coca leaf after Peru and Colombia, is caught at the lowest rungs of the international drug trade, producing significant quantities of low-value cocaine paste – the first step towards refining pure cocaine.[vi]  While cocaine paste production takes place throughout the country, the Chapare – one of Bolivia’s two main coca-growing regions – is often presented in the mainstream media as the primary hub for drug production and trafficking.

Three key arguments about of how drug production and trafficking function easily dispel this widespread misinformation. First, the majority of Chapare coca farmers are not directly involved in drug trafficking. Second, profits from most low-level drug trafficking are limited. And finally, the Chapare coca unions are not complicit with illegal activity; rather, they have proven to be active partners in the fight against drug production and trafficking.


Cocaine paste production

In the Chapare, cocaine paste production is referred to as pichicata; the people who make cocaine paste are known as pichicateros. The pichicateros set up their artisanal laboratories – henceforth referred to as “production sites” – by creating a makeshift vat with a heavy nylon tarp (the size of a small wading pool). They fill the vat with coca leaves, which are then soaked in chemicals including sulfuric acid, ammonia, caustic soda and gasoline. Young men, who are known as pisa-cocas, stomp on the coca mulch for several hours to mix up the solution. The “agua dulce” or “rich water” is drained off and processed, which produces a beige paste called pasta base or cocaine paste.

Over the past ten years, the “coca stomping” maceration pit method has largely been replaced by a mechanized technique first developed in Colombia. The new approach, known as the “Colombian method,” includes the use of leaf shredders (weed whackers), large plastic water tanks, cement mixers, and a new combination of chemicals. The mechanized approach speeds up the maceration process, reduces the amount of coca to process one kilo of paste, and requires less workers – most production sites now employ three people instead of five. A production site using the Colombian method and working at full capacity can process up to of 3 kilos of cocaine paste per day.


From paste to cocaine

The owner of a production site generally sells the finished product to a local buyer, called a rescatista. The rescatistas buy up cocaine paste from several sites.  Once they have amassed several kilos, they arrange for it to be transported out of the Chapare, generally by teenagers or members of the large itinerant population who are always on the lookout for work. Whether by foot, road, or river, the transporters have innovative strategies to hide the drug so that they can pass through or avoid the police checkpoints.  Cocaine paste is concealed in car door panels, under truckloads of oranges, packed into powdered milk tins, or taped to people’s stomachs. Some carry the paste by foot to the city of Cochabamba, a five-day trek with the risk of robbery. Cocaine paste also makes its way north along rivers into the department of Beni.

The cocaine paste still needs to be refined into pure crystalized cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride), but this is a complex process, requiring more skill, equipment, and expensive, difficult to obtain chemicals. Much of Bolivia’s cocaine paste is refined outside of the country, although laboratories have been discovered in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands and in some urban areas. Police raids have revealed that some of these laboratories have a workforce of up to thirty people – very different operations than the rudimentary Chapare cocaine paste production units.


Production costs and other profit constraints

To process one kilo of cocaine paste, the pichicateros require 100 liters (about 26 gallons) of gasoline.[vii] However, the Morales administration has put tight controls on the movement of precursor chemicals, especially gasoline.  Chapare gas stations only allow people to buy one tank per day, and they add pink dye to it, which makes it less attractive for cocaine paste production.[viii] Consequently, some taxi drivers – known as cisterñeros – smuggle fuel from the cities, doubling the sale price in the Chapare.[ix] Other precursors, including chalk and caustic soda, also come at a premium because of tight government controls.  When the pichicateros cannot get hold of the correct chemicals, they improvise – for example, using cement instead of chalk to process paste.

Coca leaf represents the most costly element in the production chain. Over the past five years, the price of coca has doubled to 28 Bolivianos per pound ($4), in part as a result of government controls restricting the production and commercialization of coca leaf.  On average, it takes 300 pounds of coca to process one kilogram of cocaine paste, which means that at current prices, the pichicateros spend over $1200 on coca leaf alone.[x] It costs approximately $1500 to produce one kilo of cocaine paste – this includes overheads for the initial equipment,[xi] coca leaf, precursor chemicals, labor, and transport.  In the Chapare, one kilo sells for between $1650 to $1700 dollars, meaning that net profits for cocaine paste producers can be as low as $150 per kilo.

It is also important to note that production is not constant. Pichicateros tend to spend far more time idle than working.  This is because it is difficult to obtain the necessary chemicals, which slows or even stalls production. In addition, the pichicateros often lack sufficient capital to cover the costs of the inputs until they have sold their previous batch of paste.  And finally, the pichicateros take frequent breaks from processing in order to avoid drawing attention to their illicit activities and risking arrest; as one man put it, “We often have to let things cool down.”  Along with irregular production, there is also a high margin of waste – if they mulch coca carelessly, the leaves turn black, and the entire batch has to be thrown away. As a result of these combined factors, most production sites make less than ten kilos of cocaine paste per month.



Just like any other industry, illegal cocaine paste production is stratified, with owners of the means of production and others who sell their labor.  The three key roles in cocaine paste production include the ‘peon’ (or day laborer), the chemist, and the owner of the production site.

The Laborers or “Peones”: Peones represent the majority of the workers in the pichicata industry. They undertake manual tasks such as carrying the heavy bags of coca and precursor chemicals to the production site, stomping the coca, shredding coca leaves, and acting as lookouts.  The majority are either recent migrants to the region (who have come looking for work as either builders or farm hands) or local teenagers who want to earn extra spending money. The owners of the production site are very careful only to hire people who are ‘de confianza’ – people who are well known and can be trusted.

Most laborers earn about $30 a day[xii] (agricultural labor pays less than half that) for work that is tiring, irregular, and harmful to their health.  It is also very risky: if caught, they face 8 years in prison. A 14 year-old pisa-coca (coca stomper) described wading around in a toxic mulch of coca, gasoline, and acid for several hours a day. The fumes gave him a terrible headache, and his flimsy rubber boots let in acid that turned his toe nails green.  Laborers who work processing drugs on average earn $300 per month.

The “Chemists” or ‘Skilled Labor’: The next rung on the ladder is the químico or chemist. They are mid-level technicians familiar with the basics of processing cocaine paste, i.e. the quantities of chemicals that are needed and when they should be added. The chemist earns 200 Bolivianos (around $30) for every kilo of cocaine paste produced, which means that on a good day, they can earn up to $90 – but that would be exceptional – average earnings are more like $60. The químico can complement this wage by skimming off any extra production and selling it privately.

The Owners: At the top of the local production ladder are the owners of these rudimental production sites. The owners are few in number; they might be richer peasants or non-resident immigrants from elsewhere in Bolivia. If caught, the owner faces 15 years in prison; consequently, on the whole they do not work directly in cocaine paste production.[xiii]  The owner makes the most money from the operation – a generous estimate would be $2000 dollars a month, less than an assistant manager at McDonalds.[xiv]

Pichicata and the local economy

The laborers, chemists, and even the owners do not get rich from pichicata – all it allows them to do is to save up to buy their own plot of farm land, small business, car, or even a house.  These are modest ambitions – enough to buy a beat-up Toyota station-wagon, not a Mercedes Benz or a Land Rover.[xv]  Their rural houses are often made from rough cut planks and do not have running water, sanitation or electricity. Many claim that once they have amassed the requisite capital to invest in a productive activity then they will abandon their illegal activities. Older farmers confirmed that they had done just that; after acquiring their own plot of land where no credit was available, they had decided the risks far outweighed the benefits and had subsequently dedicated themselves to farming instead. One man said, “when you work in pichicata, you spend the whole time looking over your shoulder, you can never relax. It’s just too stressful.”

Over the past five years, the proliferation of cars, motorbikes, fiestas, and home improvements shows that the Chapare’s economy has started to grow. However, contrary to journalistic hyperbole, this economic dynamism cannot simply be attributed to a presumed rise in drug production and trafficking.  The Chapare looks so much richer today because people are now prepared to invest their money in the region. During the period of forced coca eradication,[xvi] anyone who had any money (and sense) invested his or her capital elsewhere (normally in Cochabamba city’s slums or peripheral communities). Other factors have contributed to the region’s new economic dynamism, including improved access to cheap government loans, the legalization of coca cultivation, the influx of return migrants (mostly from Spain), and the expansion of informal activities such as commerce and transport.  Finally, the government has front-loaded development assistance to the region and farmers are taking advantage of these opportunities, including crop substitution and fish farming projects.


The Federation is committed to tackle drug trafficking

Previous governments treated the coca growers’ agricultural federations as criminal organizations; in contrast, the Morales administration has conscripted them as partners in the fight against drug trafficking.[xvii] The Chapare’s 45,000 coca growers are organized into sindicatos – these are territorially-bound self-governing units of between thirty and two hundred members; these in turn are grouped into Federations.[xviii]

Over the past five years, the federations have made a concerted effort to tackle cocaine paste production. The leader of each local level sindicato organizes frequent commissions (composed of union leaders and community members) to check that no member is producing cocaine paste on his or her land.[xix] If a functioning or even abandoned production site is found, then the sindicato will impose sanctions against the landowner, including prohibiting them from growing coca,[xx] or in extreme cases, confiscating the land and expelling the culprit from the community. The threats are real, and the majority of coca farmers will not allow the pichicateros to set up production sites on their land.

Coca growers worry about the trade’s harmful impact on their communities. “Pichicata, it’s just so ugly,” one woman said, “I want my son to go to university. I worry about him being tempted by the easy cash.” Coca farmers also oppose cocaine paste production because of concerns about local pride. Drug production is seen as bringing shame on the community – indeed, one leader likened it to the whole community having a criminal record. Moreover, association with drug trafficking can have serious material consequences. One union leader described how the coca grower-dominated municipal government will suspend public works investment to any community suspected of being involved in cocaine paste production.  In a region where many people do not have access to roads or basic services, this represents a significant threat. Another important factor is envidia (jealousy); people do not like to think that someone is making more money at their expense, and this motivates them to denounce pichicateros to the sindicato and to the police.

Finally, as the Chapare coca growers identify strongly with the goals of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS by its Spanish acronym) administration, they genuinely do not want to make the government look bad by engaging in illicit activities.  One coca grower explained that they collaborate in the fight against drug trafficking to “shut up the international community” and also to assist in the government’s long battle to legalize coca leaf. The coca growers know that if President Morales fails and another government enters, they face the prospect of a return to the militarized coca eradication of the 1990s and 2000s, which generated widespread poverty and provoked violent conflicts in the region.[xxi]


The impact of Federation action

The pichicateros feel the pinch of the Chapare Federations’ commitment to tackle drug production. Previously, during the US-backed drug war, they could process cocaine paste close to the main roads and towns, safe in the knowledge that their neighbors would not denounce them to the authorities. US-financed repression against growers was effective in convincing all Chapare residents that the police were enemies.  But this is no longer the case; one pichicatero lamented, “Before, the coca growers would tell you when UMOPAR (anti-drug police) were coming, now they just turn you in.”

As a result of this pressure, the pichicateros have been forced to alter their behavior, setting up production sites in ever more remote areas in the middle of the night.[xxii] They never maintain a production site in one place for more than two weeks. Often absentee landowners are unaware production ever occurred on their property.[xxiii] Attempts to bribe local farmers to avoid prosecution are increasingly unsuccessful, due to the unions’ anti-cocaine stance.



While the coca-cocaine industry represents a significant segment of Bolivia’s economy, the people who produce cocaine paste are not the industry’s major beneficiaries. The majority of the workers including, pisa-cocas, peones, and quimicos, receive relatively low wages for dangerous work.  These people should therefore be thought of as the proletariat of the cocaine trade.[xxiv]

Given the low wages, harmful working conditions and the risk of being caught (and facing eight to fifteen years in jail), processing and transporting cocaine paste are not particularly attractive options. As a result, the bulk of people who produce and traffic cocaine paste are temporary migrants or young people who do not own their own land and who have little to lose. Meanwhile, the coca union members who own land would prefer a quiet life dedicated to farming.

Contrary to the dominant and often dramatic portrayals in the media, the coca unions are not complicit with drug trafficking organizations. Rather, the Federations take their role in the fight against drug trafficking very seriously. There has been a shift in the coca grower perception of drug trafficking. In contrast to the pre-Morales era, today the coca growers identify strongly with the government’s anti-drug goals and are motivated to actively collaborate in the fight against drug trafficking. However, it would be unrealistic to expect the coca unions to be able to stamp out drug production completely – even the DEA was unable to achieve that.

[i] Thomas Grisaffi received his PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester in 2009. Thomas is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow on the Open Society Foundation’s Drugs, Security and Democracy program and a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Institute of the Americas at University College London. Thomas’s research focuses on coca cultivation, drug control policy and democracy in Bolivia. Thomas has carried out 28 months of ethnographic research in the Chapare province over the past eight years.

[vi] The cocaine content of paste varies from 30% to 80% see Casale, J. & Klein, R. (1993) ‘Illicit Production of Cocaine’. Forensic Science Review, 5, 95-107

[vii] Gasoline can be recycled and used up to three times for cocaine paste production.

[viii] Pink gasoline has to be refined before it can be used to manufacture cocaine paste; this is an expensive and time consuming process, moreover the refined gasoline is said to be less effective than clear gasoline.

[ix] In the Chapare smuggled gasoline costs 7 Bolivianos or around 1 dollar per liter.

[x] This sum does not include the extra 100 Bolivianos ($15) per 50 pounds paid to merchants who smuggle the coca leaf.

[xi]  It costs around $1500 dollars to set up a factory.

[xii] This daily wage is based on a factory that produces two kilos of cocaine paste in one day. The advantage of this work over legal employment is that the wages are better but also the days are significantly shorter. It takes around three hours to produce one kilo of cocaine paste – so an average workday might only last six hours.

[xiii] If an owner also knows the chemistry of producing cocaine paste then they might work at the production site to save money on wages.


[xv] These cars are generally not for personal use but are operated as taxis

[xvi] In the late 1980s Bolivian anti-narcotics policy criminalized coca leaf cultivation in the Chapare and successive governments carried out militarized coca eradication campaigns.

[xvii] The federations make a sharp distinction between coca leaf, a plant Andeans have consumed for millennia, and cocaine, an illicit drug. The federations have proposed the legalization and subsequent industrialisation of coca for licit uses such as teas, shampoo, diet pills, wine and toothpaste.

[xviii] For more information on sindicato organization see Grisaffi, T. (2013) ‘‘All of us are Presidents’: Radical Democracy and Citizenship in the Chapare Province, Bolivia’. Critique of Anthropology, 33:1, 47-65

[xix] The sindicatos frequently carry out ‘control cruzado’ whereby members of one sindicato will revise the plots of a different sindicato – this is done to reduce corruption.

[xx] In the Chapare registered farmers are allowed to grow a limited amount of coca (1600 sq meters) known as a cato to supply the traditional legal market. A cato of coca provides the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage.

[xxi]  See Ledebur, K. (2005) ‘Bolivia: Clear Consequences’, in C. Youngers & E. Rosin (eds.) Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy.  Lynne Rienner: Boulder, London

[xxii] Production sites are always located a minimum of one hundred meters from the nearest path or road. The pichicateros fear that a passerby will be able to smell the chemicals they are using.

[xxiii] In some cases the landowner is aware that drug production is taking place – in these cases the pichicateros pay the owner a substantial ‘rent’.  Farmers who have a registered cato of coca never knowingly allow a production site to be set up on their land – from their perspective there is simply too much to lose.

[xxiv] For similar arguments see Aguilo, F. (1986) ‘Los Peones de la Cocaína’. Cuarto Intermedio, 1, 44-57 also Leons, B. & Sanabria, H. (eds.) (1997) Coca, Cocaine and the Bolivian Reality. State University of New York Press: Albany, N.Y.