Political turmoil threatens to weaken Bolivia's drug war
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Herald World Staff
CHIMORE, Bolivia - Bolivia's remarkable victories in the drug war may be at risk in presidential elections Sunday.
Bolivia, which once led the world in cultivating the plant from
which cocaine is made, has eradicated 85 to 95 percent of its coca production
over the past
four years. But political turmoil threatens to undermine the controversial anti-coca efforts.
Opinion polls suggest that no candidate is likely to win a majority
of Sunday's vote. If that's the case, Congress would have to pick a president
weak coalition government probably would result, dealing a blow to Washington's war on drugs.
Political turmoil in Peru has allowed the cocaine trade there
to rebound, and despite millions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Colombia
has failed to defeat
Marxist rebels who control drug zones.
Bolivia has uprooted nearly 90,000 acres of coca in the southern
Chaparé (Chah-pah-REH) region, and since 1998 has taken 230 to 300
tons of cocaine
out of the world drug trade.
But the hearty coca bush, which is harvested four times a year,
could bounce back faster than crabgrass if Bolivia's new government lacks
the will and the
muscle to continue the campaign.
The current government tried last November to discourage coca
farmers from replanting by decreeing that possessing or transporting coca
is a crime. But
protests nullified the decree, and U.S. eradication experts in the Chaparé said 95 percent of the bushes that are now being eradicated are newly planted.
''We need a legal measure to penalize the person who goes back
to this. After it is uprooted, they just go back to planting it,'' Lt.
Col. Jaime Cruz Vera,
the head of rural interdiction forces, said in an interview at an army base in Chimore, once home to much of Bolivia's coca trade.
Hours after soldiers uprooted her remaining coca bushes along
a back road near the Chimore River, Emedia Castro stripped and dried them,
earn money in one of the region's 15 illegal coca markets.
During a trip through the Chapare this month, a Knight Ridder
reporter found coca bushes hidden among banana trees and behind passion
Peasant women dried coca leaves in front of wooden shacks, and at one clandestine coca market, Indian women said coca would continue to be grown in
the Chapare because it was the only cash crop.
The Chapare is the size of New Jersey, and Bolívian forces
and their U.S. partners must revisit a third of the region every year in
an effort to wipe out new
Bolivia's next government may not be willing or able to continue
the battle. Eradicating the coca trade in the Chaparé cost farmers
in South America's
poorest country $400 million in illegal earnings, and the leading presidential candidates are trying to avoid alienating the country's Indian and mixed-race
In an interview, Manfred Reyes Villa, the presidential front-runner,
drew a distinction between growing coca, which Indians use for medicine,
''In my government we will have a frontal attack on cocaine,
not coca. Coca is a traditional, cultural theme, but we will fight against
Reyes Villa said.
The campaign against coca has helped make an obscure agitator
named Evo Morales Ayma a political force. Polls show Morales running third
and his Indian-based Movement to Socialism Party may win three of 27 Senate seats. That would enable him to block anti-drug legislation and demand
that Chaparé farmers be allowed to have small coca plots.
U.S. drug experts say any backsliding will lead to uncontrolled
new plantings, but President Jorge Quiroga said he expected his successor
Bolivia's anti-coca course.
``I have seen nothing that leads me to believe that the next government will backtrack, because really the hard part has been done.''