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.