Bolivia: progress seen in coca policy

Total area planted with coca in Bolivia dropped by up to 13% last year, according to separate reports by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Bolivia stepped up efforts to eradicate unauthorized coca plantings, and reported an increase in seizures of cocaine and cocaine base—even as the Evo Morales government expanded areas where coca can be grown legally. “It’s fascinating to look at a country that kicked out the United States ambassador and the DEA, and the expectation on the part of the United States is that drug war efforts would fall apart,” Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, told the New York Times. Instead, she said, Bolivia’s approach is “showing results.” 

Larry Memmott, chargĂ© d’affaires of the US embassy in La Paz, opined: “Our perspective is they’ve made real advances, and they’re a long way from where we’d like to see them. In terms of law enforcement, a lot remains to be done.” (Bolivia moved to restore diplomatic ties with the US last year, but still declines to cooperate with the DEA.)

In the coca growing region of Chapare (Cochabamba department), some 43,000 growers have registered to grow a set maximum of coca under state regulation. If registered growers are found to have plantings above the maximum allowed, soldiers are called in to remove the excess. If growers violate the limit a second time, their entire crop is eradicated and they lose the right to grow coca. Growers’ unions can also be punished if there are multiple violations among their members. Current government policy permits about 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of legal coca plantings, although the actual area in cultivation is much higher. The UN estimates there were 67,000 acres of coca last year.

“The results speak for themselves,” Government Minister Carlos Romero told the Times. “We have demonstrated that you can objectively do eradication work without violating human rights, without polemicizing the topic and with clear results.” He said that the government was on pace to eradicate more acres of coca this year than it did last year, without the violence of years past. According to government figures, 60 people were killed and more than 700 wounded in the Chapare from 1998 to 2002 in violence related to eradication. The Morales government is also lobbying the UN to amend its Narcotics Convention to recognize the legality of traditional uses of coca leaf. A decision is expected in January.

But critics insist that far more coca is produced than is needed to supply Bolivia’s internal traditional market. The Times said that an EU-financed study estimating how much coca was needed for traditional use is being supressed by the Bolivian government, which has refused to release it on the gorunds that more research is needed. The White House drug office estimates that despite the decrease in total coca acreage last year, the amount of cocaine that could potentially be produced from Bolivian coca jumped by more than a quarter—because new plantings with higher yields replaced older, less productive fields. Additionally, traffickers switched to more efficient processing methods, the office said. (NYT, Dec. 26)

Bolivia’s Presidency Minister Juan Ramon Quintana announced this week that a special Joint Task Force of army and National Police troops will restart eradication efforts early next year. “There is no rest in the struggle against drug trafficking. There is a pause in activities for rationalization and eradication because of the weather conditions, but the operation capacity will be re-established starting from January 1 to destroy all possible coca cultivations,” Quintana told reporters in La Paz, boasting a total of 11,043 hectares (27,288 acres) destroyed this year, with little violence. Operations were concentrated in Chapare and Las Yungas region of La Paz, where 2,500 hectares (6,177 acres) were destroyed. 

Quintana also praised the work of the Special Force against Drug Trafficking in breaking up local and regional trafficking networks, claiming seizures of several million dollars, 36 tons of cocaine, light aircraft, vehicles, and other items. (Presna Latina, Dec. 24)

Viceminister for Social Defense and Controlled Substances, Felipe Cáceres, said that Yungas, traditionally the area where coca production for the internal traditional market has been legal, will be the greatest focus of eradication efforts in the coming year. He also stressed that no coca cultivation will be permiited in national parks, claiming that thousands of hectares were eradicated this year in Isiboro SĂ©cure National Park, Carrasco National Park (both in Chapare) and El ChorĂ© Forest Reserve (in Santa Cruz). (Erbol, Dec. 19)