The Miami Herald
Jun. 28, 2002

Political turmoil threatens to weaken Bolivia's drug war

  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 and a
  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, hoping to
  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 fruit vines.
  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
  coca plantings.

  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, and
  producing cocaine.

  ''In my government we will have a frontal attack on cocaine, not coca. Coca is a traditional, cultural theme, but we will fight against drug trafficking,''
  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 or fourth,
  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 to maintain
  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.''