Pubdate: Thu, 27 Dec 2012
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The New York Times Company
Author: William Neuman
Note: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky contributed reporting from Ivirgarzama,


TODOS SANTOS, Bolivia - There is nothing clandestine about Julian
Rojas's coca plot, which is tucked deep within acres of banana groves.
It has been mapped with satellite imagery, cataloged in a government
database, cross-referenced with his personal information and checked
and rechecked by the local coca growers' union. The same goes for the
plots worked by Mr. Rojas's neighbors and thousands of other farmers
in this torrid region east of the Andes who are licensed by the
Bolivian government to grow coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

President Evo Morales, who first came to prominence as a leader of
coca growers, kicked out the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009.
That ouster, together with events like the arrest last year of the
former head of the Bolivian anti-narcotics police on trafficking
charges, led Washington to conclude that Bolivia was not meeting its
global obligations to fight narcotics.

But despite the rift with the United States, Bolivia, the world's
third-largest cocaine producer, has advanced its own unorthodox
approach toward controlling the growing of coca, which veers markedly
from the wider war on drugs and includes high-tech monitoring of
thousands of legal coca patches intended to produce coca leaf for
traditional uses.

To the surprise of many, this experiment has now led to a significant
drop in coca plantings in Mr. Morales's Bolivia, an accomplishment
that has largely occurred without the murders and other violence that
have become the bloody byproduct of American-led measures to control
trafficking in Colombia, Mexico and other parts of the region.

Yet there are also worrisome signs that such gains are being undercut
as traffickers use more efficient methods to produce cocaine and
outmaneuver Bolivian law enforcement to keep drugs flowing out of the

In one key sign of progress in Bolivia's approach toward coca, the
total acres planted with coca dropped 12 to 13 percent last year,
according to separate reports by the United Nations Office on Drugs
and Crime and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
At the same time, the Bolivian government stepped up efforts to rip
out unauthorized coca plantings and reported an increase in seizures
of cocaine and cocaine base.

"It's fascinating to look at a country that kicked out the United
States ambassador and the D.E.A., and the expectation on the part of
the United States is that drug war efforts would fall apart," said
Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a
Bolivian research group. Instead, she said, Bolivia's approach is
"showing results."

Still, there is skepticism. "Our perspective is they've made real
advances, and they're a long way from where we'd like to see them,"
said Larry Memmott, charge d'affaires of the American Embassy in La
Paz. "In terms of law enforcement, a lot remains to be done."

Although Bolivia outlaws cocaine, it permits the growing of coca for
traditional uses. Bolivians chew coca leaf as a mild stimulant and use
it as a medicine, as a tea and, particularly among the majority
indigenous population, in religious rituals.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Rojas placed a few dried leaves into his
mouth and watched the sun set over his coca field, slightly less than
two-fifths of an acre, the maximum allowed per farmer here in this
region, known as the Chapare.

"This is a way to keep it under control," he said, spitting a stream
of green juice. "Everyone should have the same amount."

Mr. Rojas is a face of a changing region. He makes far more money
growing bananas for export on about 74 acres than he does growing
coca. But he has no intention of giving up his tiny coca plot. "What
happens if a disease attacks the bananas?" he asked. "Then we still
have the coca to save us."

The Bolivian government has persuaded growers that by limiting the
amount of plantings, coca prices will remain high. And it has largely
focused eradication efforts, of the kind that once spurred strong
popular resistance, outside the areas controlled by growers' unions,
like in national parks.

The registration of thousands of Chapare growers, completed this year,
is part of an enforcement system that relies on growers to police one
another. 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 cut down
and they lose the right to grow coca.

Growers' unions can also be punished if there are multiple violations
among their members.

"We have to be constantly vigilant," said Nelson Sejas, a Chapare
grower who was part of a team that checked coca plots to make sure
they did not exceed the limit.

But there is still plenty of cheating. Officials say they are going
over the registry of about 43,000 Chapare growers to find those who
may have multiple plots or who may violate other rules.

"The results speak for themselves," said Carlos Romero, the minister
of government. "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. A government report said 60 people were killed and more than 700
were wounded in the Chapare from 1998 to 2002 in violence related to

But even as Bolivia shows progress, grave concerns

The White House drug office estimated that despite the decrease in
total coca acreage last year, the amount of cocaine that could
potentially be produced from the coca grown in Bolivia jumped by more
than a quarter. That is because a large amount of recent plantings
began to mature and reach higher yields; new plantings with higher
yields replaced older, less productive fields; and traffickers
switched to more efficient processing methods.

Yet the glaring paradox of Bolivia's monitoring program is that vast
amounts of the legally grown coca ultimately wind up in the hands of
drug traffickers and are converted into cocaine and other drugs. Most
of those drugs go to Brazil, considered the world's second-largest
cocaine market. Virtually no Bolivian cocaine ends up in the United

Cesar Guedes, the representative in Bolivia of the United Nations
drugs office, said that roughly half of the country's coca acreage
produces coca that goes to the drug trade. By some estimates, more
than 90 percent of the coca in Chapare, one of two main producing
regions, goes to drugs.

Two Chapare farmers explained that they generally sell one 50-pound
bag of coca leaf from each harvest to the government-regulated market.
The rest, often 200 pounds or more, is sold to buyers who work with
traffickers and pay a premium over the government-authorized price.
One of the growers said he recently delivered coca leaf directly to a
lab where it would be turned into drugs.

The central question is how much coca is needed to supply traditional
needs. Current government policy permits about 50,000 acres of legal
coca plantings, although the actual area in cultivation is much
higher. The United Nations estimated there were 67,000 acres of coca
last year.

Whatever the exact figure, most analysts agree that far more is
produced than is needed to supply the traditional market.

The European Union financed a study several years ago to estimate how
much coca was needed for traditional uses, but the Bolivian government
has refused to release it, saying that more research is needed.

The push to reduce coca acreage comes as the Morales government is
lobbying other countries to amend a United Nations convention on
narcotics to recognize the legality of traditional uses of coca leaf
in Bolivia. A decision is expected in January.

On a recent morning just after dawn, a squad of uniformed soldiers
used machetes to cut down a plot of coca plants near the town of

They had come to chop down an old coca patch that had passed its prime
and measure a replacement plot planted by the farmer. The soldiers
determined that the new plot was slightly over the limit and removed
about two rows of plants before going on their way.

"Before, there was more tension, more conflict, more people injured,"
Lt. Col. Willy Pozo said. "This is no longer a war."

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky contributed reporting from Ivirgarzama,
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