Pubdate: Fri, 03 Jan 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: John Otts


SHINAHOTA, Bolivia-During nearly 14 years as president, Evo Morales
pampered the Chapare, the coca leaf-growing jungle region of central
Bolivia where he got his start in politics.

Mr. Morales expelled U.S. antidrug agents and promoted the health
benefits of the coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, which is
legal and chewed by many indigenous people. His socialist government
built a paper mill, an airport, and a 25,000-seat soccer stadium in
the region. In turn, the farmers gave Mr. Morales, the head of a
federation of coca growers, their fervent support.

Now, coca farmers are struggling to cope with the sudden loss of their
longtime patron after Mr. Morales resigned amid allegations that he
rigged the October election. They are bracing for cuts in public
services and harder-line policies against cocaine that could impede
coca production.

"This has set us back more than a decade," said Andronico Rodriguez,
Mr. Morales's deputy in the coca-growers federation, wearing a garland
of coca leaves around his neck as he addressed about 300 farmers in
this rural town.

Bolivia's conservative, U.S.-backed government, led by interim
President Jeanine Anez, is already signaling a tougher approach.
Interior Minister Arturo Murillo says the Chapare is rife with cocaine
traffickers and is threatening to strip its residents of their right
to vote in do-over presidential and legislative elections planned for
this year.

Shortly after Mr. Morales resigned on Nov. 10 amid a police mutiny
against his government, his angry followers torched all five police
stations in the Chapare. They also burned down a local tourist hotel
owned by Mr. Murillo, a fierce Morales critic. Coca-federation
security guards now patrol towns in the Chapare and, according to Mr.
Murillo, are blocking the police's return.

"If the leaders of the coca growers do not calm down their most
radical members as well as the narco-terrorists who are encrusted in
some of the unions, this is going to cause grave problems: It will not
be possible to carry out elections in these places," Mr. Murillo said
in a Dec. 11 news conference in La Paz, the capital. The coca-growers
federation denies that its members are involved in drug

But cracking down on the Chapare could backfire, said Eduardo Gamarra,
a Bolivia scholar at Florida International University. Its coca
growers have been central figures in antigovernment protests over the
past three decades and, with Mr. Morales leading the way, helped force
out two Bolivian presidents, in 2003 and in 2005.

"With Evo gone, their power is waning but they are still a very
organized bunch," Mr. Gamarra said.

In November, they led a large protest against the Anez government in
which nine demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police. They
also blocked the main highway linking La Paz and Santa Cruz, the
country's largest city, for three weeks.

Segundina Orellana, who heads an organization of female coca growers
here, predicted more of the same should authorities cancel elections
or attempt to scale back coca production. "That might be the
government's dream but the people will not allow it," she said.

Ironically, Mr. Gamarra and other analysts say Mr. Morales's approach
to drug control was more effective and less violent than U.S.-backed
policies in the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, special police units
often got involved in deadly clashes with farmers as they moved in
with shovels to dig up and destroy coca fields.

Under Mr. Morales, each farm family was allowed to cultivate slightly
less than a half acre of coca while communities were encouraged to
self-police to ensure that growers didn't exceed the limit. According
to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the area used to grow
coca under Mr. Morales fell from about 68,000 acres in 2006 when he
first took office to about 57,000 acres last year.

One problem that didn't change, said Oscar Serrate, Bolivia's newly
named envoy to Washington : A significant portion of Chapare coca is
still diverted to make cocaine. As Bolivia's new government normalizes
relations with the U.S.-Mr. Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and
the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008-Mr. Serrate said Bolivia
is considering international cooperation in the war on drugs.

"Narco-trafficking is like a cancer," Mr. Serrate said in a telephone
interview. "In a fight like this you have to use all the available
tools to cure the patient."

However, even if Bolivia goes back to forced eradication and seeks
U.S. help to do so, it might not get much cooperation from Washington.
Although Bolivia ranks as the world's No. 3 producer of cocaine, most
of it goes to South America, Europe, and East Asia. By contrast,
Colombia is the main U.S. supplier of the drug and American officials
are increasingly focused on trafficking routes through Mexico and the
northern triangle of Central America.

"Honestly, if I had to put money into counternarcotics, Bolivia would
be at the bottom of the list," said William Brownfield, who until 2017
headed the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement
Affairs, or INL.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz and at the INL in Washington
declined to comment.

Whether or not drug policy changes, residents here are girding for
tougher times.

Under Mr. Morales schools, public housing and gymnasiums, all painted
in the blue-and-white colors of his Movement Toward Socialism party,
sprang up. Newly built radio stations broadcast pro-Morales messages
and slam Ms. Anez.

The current crop of government officials, including Mr. Murillo, whose
hotel was destroyed, are unlikely to coddle the former president's
stronghold, said Conrado Lazcano, 64, who grows coca on part of his
10-acre Chapare farm.

Under the Morales government "we grew accustomed to the benefits," he
said. "But now we are being treated like criminals."
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