Saturday, February 22, 2003

Bolivia may legalize coca

                  Threatens U.S. drug effort

                  LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- The president of Bolivia is considering a plan to
                  resume cultivation of the raw ingredient in cocaine in a remote jungle
                  basin -- a move the U.S. government fears would undermine what is
                  viewed as its most successful anti-drug program in South America.

                  President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada is studying a proposal to allow cultivation of coca in the
                  Chapare region of central Bolivia to help calm unrest among growers who have blockaded
                  major highways and put their support behind his political rival.

                  "We've begun serious dialogues with coca growers with the aim of combating drug trafficking
                  and maintaining social tranquility," Ernesto Justiniano, the vice minister of social defense, said in
                  an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.

                  Justiniano said the program would hurt drug traffickers by giving the government more control
                  over what is now a clandestine industry in the jungle lowlands.

                  U.S. officials staunchly oppose the proposal to allow each grower in the area to plant one-fifth
                  of an acre of coca, saying it would undermine the $1.3 billion effort to eradicate coca
                  plantations from the region over the last six years.

                  "Our policy is very clear and it remains clea r," said an official at the U.S. embassy who spoke
                  only on condition his name not be used. "Any proposal that would legitimize or legalize any
                  coca in the Chapare, which is illegal, would be a violation of Bolivian law and a violation of
                  international treaties to which Bolivia is a signatory."

                  U.S. officials have said the proposal could trigger a halt in aid from the United States and
                  international lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund to South America's
                  poorest nation. It could also be used to exclude Bolivia from inclusion in a proposed hemispheric
                  free-trade zone backed by Washington.

                  Bolivia's government plans to conduct a six-month study to determine the size of the nation's
                  limited legal coca market, which is now restricted to some 30,000 acres to supply indigenous
                  people who chew the leaves, which act as a stimulant and can stave off hunger.

                  American officials fear that enlarging the area allowed for legal cultivation would return Bolivia
                  to the ranks of major cocaine producers.

                  All coca production in the Chapare_a jungle basin the size of New Jersey that supplied half of
                  all cocaine in the world five years ago_is illegal. The leaf has been eradicated by U.S.-trained
                  soldiers who often engage in firefights with coca farmers.

                  Despite U.S. opposition, analysts say Bolivia's government has little bargaining power with the
                  coca growers, who stage frequent blockades along the nation's largest highway at a time
                  when the Bolivia's government is struggling with an economic crisis that has provoked deadly

                  A move to aid coca growers, who generally belong to the nation's strongest opposition group,
                  could aid the president on the domestic front.

                  "Bolivia has suddenly been confronted by a unified burst of anger from movements on all
                  sides," said Jim Shultz, executive director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia's
                  third largest city. "The president is weak and ready to give away the store."

                  If Bolivia were to alter its eradication policy, American officials said it would run the risk of
                  losing part of an estimated $150 million annual aid package it receives from the U.S. Congress,
                  and threaten its membership in the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas.

                  U.S. officials also warn Bolivia could again become a major part of the international drug circuit
                  again. Once the world's largest supplier of the raw ingredient of cocaine, Bolivia is now an
                  insignificant producer behind Colombia and Peru.

                  U.S. officials are also concerned that allowing more cultivation would encourage Socialist
                  candidate Evo Morales, a former coca grower who narrowly lost last year's presidential

                  "One of the things that destabilized Bolivia in the past was a rampant, unfettered drug trade,"
                  the U.S. official said. "It would be a shame to turn around and go backwards."