Pubdate: Sun, 30 Jun 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Page: A15
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Kevin G. Hall, Knight Ridder News Service


Chimore, Bolivia - Bolivia's remarkable victories in the war against drugs 
may be at risk in presidential elections today.

The South American nation, which once led the world in cultivating the 
plant from which cocaine is made, has eradicated 85 to 95 percent of its 
coca plants in the last four years.  But political turmoil threatens to 
undermine the controversial anti-coca efforts.

Opinion polls suggest that no candidate is likely to win a majority of 
today's vote.  If that's the case, the Bolivian Congress would have to pick 
a president, and a weak coalition government likely would result.

That would be a severe blow to the U.S. war on drugs.  Political turmoil in 
Peru has allowed the cocaine trade there to rebound, and despite millions 
of dollars in U.S. military aid, Colombia has failed to defeat the Marxist 
rebels who control coca-producing zones there.

Bolivia has uprooted almost 90,000 acres of coca in the southern Chapare 
region, and since 1998 has taken 230 tons to 300 tons of cocaine out of the 
world drug trade.

But the hearty coca bush, which is harvested four times a year, could 
bounce back faster than crabgrass if Bolivia's new government lacks the 
will and the muscle to continue the unpopular campaign against it.

The current government tried in November to discourage coca farmers from 
replanting by decreeing that possessing or transporting coca was a 
crime.  But violent protests nullified the decree, and U.S. eradication 
experts in the Chapare said 95 percent of the bushes now being eradicated 
had been newly planted.

"We need a legal measure to penalize the person who goes back to this. 
After it is uprooted, they just go back to planting it," Lt. Col. Jaime 
Cruz Vera, the head of rural interdiction forces, said in an interview at 
an army base in muggy Chimore, once home to much of Bolivia's coca trade.

Hours after soldiers had uprooted her remaining coca bushes along a back 
road near the Chimore River, Emedia Castro stripped and dried them, hoping 
to earn what little she could in one of the region's 15 illegal coca markets.

Chapare is the size of New Jersey, and Bolivian forces and their U.S. 
partners must revisit a third of the region every year in an effort to wipe 
out new coca plantings.

Bolivia's next government may not be willing or able to continue the 
battle.  Eradicating the coca trade in Chapare cost farmers in South 
America's poorest country $400 million in illicit earnings, and the leading 
presidential candidates are trying to avoid alienating Bolivia's Indian and 
mixed-race majority.

In an interview, Manfred Reyes Villa, the presidential front-runner, drew a 
careful distinction between growing coca, which Indians use for medicinal 
purposes, and producing cocaine.

"In my government, we will have a frontal attack on cocaine, not coca. Coca 
is a traditional, cultural theme, but we will fight against drug 
trafficking," Reyes Villa said.

The campaign against coca has helped make and obscure agitator named Evo 
Morales Ayma a political force.  Polls show Morales running third or 
fourth, and his Indian-based Movement to Socialism Party may wind three of 
27 Senate seats.  That would enable him to gum up antidrug legislation and 
demand that Chapare farmers legally be allowed to cultivate small plots of coca.
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