HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html A Political Drug War in Bolivia
Pubdate: Tue, 28 Mar 2006
Source: Der Spiegel (Germany)
Contact:  2006 Der Spiegel
Author: Jens Gluesing
Note: Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Is Coca the New Hemp?

The wine, a bit on the sweet side, is supposedly a remedy against 
Parkinson's disease and impotence and, according to the label, it is 
especially suitable for "athletes and singers." In small doses, that 
is, because the wine is pressed from coca leaves, enhancing the 
effect of the alcohol. If you get drunk, you don't have to worry 
about how you're going to feel the next day because "coca wine 
doesn't cause a hangover," says Melby Paz.

Paz, a businesswoman from Bolivia's coca production center, 
Cochabamba, bottles a few hundred liters of her coca wine each month. 
The ink-colored beverage is the top-selling product for her company, 
Coincoca. She also sells soap, shampoo, toothpaste and cookies made 
with coca, and she has plans to develop instant soups and muesli in 
the future. Indeed, Paz is serious when she says "coca is an 
incredible valuable food and medicine."

Once people disparaged Paz as "La Loca de la Coca," or "the crazy 
coca woman." For years, she has been developing coca-based products, 
which she sells in her shop in downtown Cochabamba. Business was 
mediocre until a South American Indian and representative of coca 
farmers -- Evo Morales -- was elected president. Now Bolivia's new 
president plans to use government aid to promote the sale of coca products.

"Coca si, Cocaina no" -- yes to coca, no to cocaine -- was one of 
Morales' campaign slogans. The goal of his new program is to 
disassociate the plant that provides the substance used to make 
cocaine from the drug stigma. In the Andes, the coca plant has been 
used as a medicine for thousands of years, and the wonder plant was 
even farmed by the Incas. Millions of poor Bolivians chew the leaves 
because they dull the sensation of hunger and make backbreaking labor 
more bearable. Bolivian officials are even considering adding coca to 
school meals.

Morales plans to build a state-owned coca factory, a venture in which 
Paz is his biggest ally. She has been hired to conduct a study on 
industrial-scale coca production. Her company processes 350 kilograms 
of the plant each month, but, as she complains, "it could be more if 
the leaves weren't so expensive." Until Morales took office in late 
January, the army systematically destroyed coca plantations, making 
coca, a staple food for Bolivians, scarcer and more costly.

Now that the new president has put a stop to the destruction of 
plantations, coca farmers are hoping for a new boom. Experts believe 
that the 3,200 hectares (7,907 acres) of legal coca plantations in 
the Chapare region -- a major coca farming area at the base of the 
Andes -- could triple under the new policy. But they also fear that 
the drug mafia will be the biggest beneficiary of the official 
about-face. "Bolivia will flood neighboring countries with cocaine," 
warns the newspaper Los Tiempos.

Military experts in Washington are already predicting a nightmarish 
scenario, the emergence of a socialist "narco-state" under populist 
farming leader Morales. They believe that Morales, with the help of 
his friends, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban dictator 
Fidel Castro, could destabilize the entire Andes region.

Ironically, Washington itself is partly responsible for the rise of 
the man once vilified as a "narco terrorist." In the 1990s, when the 
Andean country had become one of Latin America's biggest coca 
producers, the Americans experimented with a new approach to the drug 
war in Chapare, promising the government generous development aid in 
return for its agreement to eradicate the coca plantations. The aid 
was intended to encourage the farming of alternative products, such 
as pineapples, bananas, coffee and oranges. Washington was so pleased 
with the program that it held up its alliance with La Paz as a global model.

Since then, American and European aid organizations have injected 
about $700 million in development aid into Chapare. But the 
development projects failed when it became apparent that the region's 
remoteness makes shipping pineapples and bananas too expensive, and 
that prices for the crops can't compete with coca. The drug war 
brought nothing but violence and poverty to farmers in the region, 
fueling animosity toward the gringos -- US drug enforcement and 
military experts who consult with Bolivian security forces on 
eradicating the coca plantations. Indeed, government forces even used 
torture in their campaigns against coca farmers, with dozens of the 
campesinos disappearing without a trace. This brutal treatment almost 
triggered a revolt in Chapare, where the resistance movement against 
the government was led by a cunning union organizer: Evo Morales.

Morales had hardly been inaugurated before he had himself reappointed 
chairman of the powerful umbrella organization of coca farmers, a 
conflict of interest the president apparently feels is no cause for 
concern. "I will continue to be your leader," he innocently 
announced, "so that I don't lose touch with the people." It was as if 
the president were the godfather of the poor.

Each coca farmer is allotted one cato, or about 1,600 square meters 
(a little under half an acre), to plant coca. The military no longer 
destroys excess coca shrubs, because "we ourselves make sure that no 
one exceeds the quota," explains union leader Asterio Romero. 
Experts, however, doubt that fighting a drug war on the basis of 
voluntary self-monitoring can work. Washington is already threatening 
to cut financial aid to Bolivia.

A Booming Drug Trade

Morales' predecessors were consistently unsuccessful in their 
attempts to regulate the coca trade. The government agency that 
issues shipping licenses for "legal" coca, for example, is considered 
corrupt. Only a fraction of the Chapare harvest makes it to the 
state-run coca market in Cochabamba, says development expert Oscar 
Coca, who calls Chapare a "Bermuda triangle." Police-confiscated coca 
leaves, which are supposed to be burned, are often resold to the drug mafia.

Meanwhile, the drug trade continues to boom. Since the beginning of 
the year, the drug police have discovered 339 cocaine laboratories in 
Chapare and confiscated 250 kilograms of illicit drugs. "The couriers 
hardly even resist when they're arrested," says police chief Rene 
Salazar. "They know that in most cases they'll quickly be released." 
The courts are slow in prosecuting cases, and drug smuggling is 
treated as a minor offence.

Couriers are willing to transport the coca -- by bus, bicycle or taxi 
- -- for a handful of dollars. The work is far more lucrative than 
farming fruit or coffee. Signs of the failed development policies are 
everywhere: dilapidated structures originally intended as vegetable 
markets and funded by the European Union, or highly subsidized 
pineapple plantations where the fruit often rots in the fields 
because farmers are unable to find buyers.

Foreign aid workers, many of whom earned princely salaries, elicited 
nothing but envy and rage among the farmers. "The gringos gorged 
themselves with the aid money," complains coca farmer Juana Quispe, 
"but we never got it." Quispe, a living legend in Bolivia, often 
joined Evo Morales during demonstrations and road blockades to 
protest raids by the drug police. She and Morales have been friends 
for the past 14 years.

Soldiers stormed Quispe's hut in the small town of Chimore two years 
ago. They tore up coca bushes in her garden, stole chickens and 
oranges and molested Quispe's daughter. A fellow activist, union 
leader Feliciano Mamani, was tortured at the Chimore military base 
for allegedly stirring up anti-military sentiment among the farmers. 
During a demonstration four years earlier, Mamani was shot at and his 
shinbone was shattered. He claims that "American drug enforcement 
agents" led the attacks.

Now the former victims of persecution are in power in Bolivia. Quispe 
represents the socialist governing party, MAS, in the Bolivian 
congress. Mamani was elected mayor of Villa Tunari, a city in 
Chapare. The foreign aid workers have been driven out, and local 
municipalities are now administering the foreign aid money. As a next 
step, former activists Mamani and Quispe want to see the American 
drug enforcement agents pull out.

But it's a radical step that even President Morales isn't quite 
willing to take. As president of a poor Andean country dependent on 
foreign aid, Morales would be unlikely to survive a confrontation 
with the powerful Americans. To avoid alienating the US, Morales has 
publicly vowed to respect all international agreements over battling 
the drug trade. He has even demonstratively attempted to convince US 
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of his peaceful plans for the 
coca plant. At a meeting in the Chilean city of Valparaiso, Morales 
gave Rice a guitar decorated with coca leaves.

So far, his strategy seems to be working. More than 70 percent of 
Bolivians stand behind their new president. In early March, the 
congress gave its blessing to Morales's most important political 
project, a new constitution. An influential group of business leaders 
in the country's Santa Cruz province, a group that had bitterly 
opposed Morales during the election campaign, is now assiduously 
courting the popular hero.

His campaign against corruption has been especially popular among the 
ordinary people. Morales cut his presidential salary in half and 
managed to push through a reduction in lawmakers' salaries. Several 
high-ranking officials Morales accused of corruptibility were fired.

These days, life in Bolivia's presidential palace resembles life in a 
commune. The president, his vice president and several ministers all 
live in the building, and cabinet meetings often begin as early as 5 
a.m. Although Morales has several children, he is unmarried, and his 
sister usually accompanies him at official events.

Coca entrepreneur Melby Paz has also capitalized on the new 
president's popularity, displaying an oversized photograph of Morales 
in her shop in Cochabamba. Apparently it works. "Ever since Evo has 
been in office," she says, "my sales of coca products have doubled."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake