A coca/cocaine disconnect

Times Staff Writer

In the past, Bolivian cocaine labs tended to be primitive, makeshift affairs where peasants known as pisa-cocas stomped on coca leaves to produce coca paste.

But recent busts of relatively sophisticated cocaine-refining laboratories in the country’s jungles have set off alarms about rising drug production here. Many of the labs have links to Colombian narcotics traffickers, officials say.

“We’re seeing more Colombian and other international traffickers turning up in Bolivia, and that’s troubling,” said Brad Hittle, an official with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “These are people with a lot of experience, money, connections and know-how.”

Bolivia still ranks a distant third behind Colombia and Peru as a supplier of cocaine to the United States. But coca production here experienced the steepest rise among the three nations in 2006.


The latest estimate from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, released last month, showed an 8% increase in Bolivian cultivation of coca leaves, the raw ingredient in cocaine.

U.S. law enforcement authorities see the increase as a sign of trouble stemming from the policies of Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Morales, who took office in January 2006, rose to prominence as a leader of the country’s coca producers. He has proclaimed a goal of “zero cocaine” while simultaneously exalting coca production as a linchpin of Bolivia’s social and economic identity. He favors the “industrialization” of coca for products as varied as tea, medicines and toothpaste, and is pushing to abolish international bans on export of coca products.

From Morales’ viewpoint, coca is a resource to be exploited, like natural gas or minerals.

He and his supporters draw a clear dividing line: The good guys are the poor cocaleros, or coca growers; the bad guys are those who use the substance to produce and transport cocaine.

“Obviously, coca is the mother of our economy,” said Asterio Romero, a Morales ally and fellow cocalero who leads the Bolivian legislature’s anti-narcotics commission. “As for the problem of narco-trafficking, that’s very difficult to resolve until the United States does something about its drug addicts.”

Fifty-pound bundles of coca leaves are hawked legally in the Villa Fatima market in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, as well as at other sites.


And here in the wild, mountainous region known as the Yungas, Bolivia’s largest coca-growing zone, Morales’ policies have proved popular.

“Coca provides us with a living,” Cenobia Pacxi, 30, said as she cared for her daughter in a hut near this coca boomtown. Five siblings harvested coca leaves on the steep slope below. “We depend on coca,” she said.

Morales’ family was among the many Bolivians who migrated to the subtropical Chapare region after the collapse of the country’s mining industry in the 1980s devastated the economy of its highlands. The migrants were drawn to coca, a steady cash earner with as many as four harvests a year.

“Coca provides us a bit of income to live on,” said Eliseo Valencia, a farmer in Villa 14 de Septiembre, the hamlet where Morales once tilled his field. Farmers say they cannot survive on alternative crops touted by U.S. officials.

But officials in Washington say Morales’ policy of “yes to coca, no to cocaine” will not work. Increased coca production inevitably boosts the cocaine trade, they argue, because the market for legal uses such as chewing, medical preparations and tea is stable.

“More coca means more cocaine,” has been the mantra of U.S. Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg.

Reports of escalating cocaine production also have caused consternation in Brazil, which neighbors Bolivia and is the world’s No. 2 cocaine consumer after the United States. Brazil is now the principal market for Bolivian cocaine.


South America’s largest nation faces a destabilizing drug-crime crisis, as the daily death toll in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo illustrate.

Brazil also is a major transshipment point for cocaine en route to Europe, a growing market.

Clandestine laboratories and hidden airstrips now dot the isolated Bolivian-Brazilian border zone, law enforcement authorities say.

“Various Colombian narco-trafficking clans have been detected operating along the border, introducing new techniques for fabricating cocaine,” said Col. Rene Sanabria, director of the Bolivian anti-drug police.

For years, Washington touted Bolivia as a successful front in the fight against drugs. U.S.-backed tactics were aimed at destroying coca fields.

A military-style offensive in Bolivia during the 1990s contributed to the shifting of cocaine production to Colombia, now the main U.S. supplier.


But the U.S.-financed assault, with its bloody clashes pitting police against cocaleros, caused much damage and fanned anti-Washington sentiment. Many innocents were jailed, human rights activists say.

Coca growers were at the forefront of social upheaval that ousted several presidents and led to the election of Morales.

“Evo is, I think, without doubt a son of the U.S. War on Drugs,” said Alejandro Landes, director of a new documentary, “Cocalero,” about Morales’ rise to power.

The Morales government named as its drug czar Felipe Caceres, a coca-grower from the Chapare. Eradication last year dropped to 12,523 acres, the lowest level in more than a decade. All was voluntary, the government says.

The change in direction has brought a measure of social peace: Tens of thousands of hardscrabble farmers dependent on coca no longer face loss of a livelihood.

But Morales’ two titles -- president and coca-growers union leader -- have generated conflicting demands. Farmers’ natural instinct is to plant as much coca as possible without deflating prices.


As president, however, Morales must also assuage a wary international law enforcement community.

Morales opposes unrestrained coca plantings, both to calm international fears and to maintain the leaf’s price for farmers dependent on its sales. His strategy encourages voluntary limits on cultivation while stepping up efforts to stop cocaine traffickers.

Bolivia reported seizing 15 tons of cocaine base and related products last year, a 27% increase from 2005, according to U.N. figures.

Seizures of Peruvian cocaine moving through Bolivia en route to Brazil, Argentina and Europe account for part of the upsurge, Bolivian authorities say. Bolivia also recorded an increase of more than 50% in the number of clandestine labs destroyed.

In the Chapare, interdiction efforts are high profile: Fatigue-clad police officers known as las garras (the claws) man checkpoints, searching suspect vehicles for contraband coca leaves, coca base and cocaine. Teams roam the forests and savannas seeking maceration pits, where coca leaves are turned to paste.

But the once-prevalent atmosphere of tension and conflict is gone.

“Today we operate in a climate of cooperation with the people of the Chapare,” said Lt. Col. Rene Salazar of the anti-drug police.


Bush administration officials remain skeptical, however, arguing that more arrests may simply reflect the greater production of cocaine.

“It remains to be seen if the increased interdiction results are from stricter law enforcement or as a result of increased cocaine production due to a more permissive environment,” said the report on Bolivia by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.


Special correspondent Oscar Ordonez in La Paz and Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.