The Miami Herald
Sat, Jul. 31, 2004
Coca to cocoa: Bolivia softening antidrug tactics

Bolivia is challenging Washington wisdom of forced eradication of coca in the Andean drug war as having too high a social and political cost.

Knight Ridder News Service

LA PAZ, Bolivia - After nearly a decade of forced eradication of coca, Bolivia wants to try to persuade poor farmers to abandon illicit crops in favor of coffee and cocoa.

The shift, outlined in a report obtained by Knight Ridder News Service, is tacit acknowledgement that the unpopular program of forced eradication has come with too high a social and political cost for a country once hailed as the Andean leader in the U.S.-backed drug war.

The United States and Europe, which will be asked to pay for most of President Carlos Mesa's new $969 million, five-year antidrug plan, are somewhat sympathetic.

Past eradication efforts, in which military troops uproot coca plants, from which cocaine is made, have taken an estimated $400 million out of Bolivia's small economy in recent years, causing violence, roadblocks, and political and social unrest.


They've also helped turn Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian politician whose power base is among the coca growers, into Bolivia's most influential up-and-coming politician. His Movement to Socialism Party could win up to half of Bolivia's municipal elections in December, increasing the chances that Bolivia could have a pro-coca president -- Washington's worst nightmare.

U.S. officials involved in Bolivia's drug war aren't uncomfortable with the size of Bolivia's alternative development request. They privately concede that the weakness of the government and the difficult terrain in Bolivia's remaining coca fields make it unrealistic to expect a repeat of past eradication successes.

In the 1970s and '80s, Bolivia ranked either first or second in the world as a supplier of coca. With Peru and Colombia, the main refiner of cocaine, it forms the Andean triangle that provides most of the world's cocaine.

Since the fall of pro-U.S. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October, U.S. antinarcotics experts have worried that political instability would undo Bolivia's gains and allow a haven for drug rings fleeing stepped-up eradication efforts in Colombia.

Coca growers led the street violence that toppled Sánchez de Lozada last year, and they could easily turn against Mesa, a historian and rookie politician without a political party or legislative base.

Mindful of Bolivia's political minefield, Mesa proposes to spend $557 million on alternative crop development, $355 million on interdiction, $17 million on rehabilitation and treatment and just $40 million on eradication.

''We want greater equilibrium,'' Jorge Azad Ayala, Bolivia's vice minister for alternative development in the Ministry of Agriculture, said in an interview. ``What has happened in previous governments is the four elements were not balanced.''


If donor countries disagree, they can use their power of the purse to realign Bolivia's drug-war tactics.

Critics question Bolivia's plan to make coffee and cocoa the focus of alternative development efforts. Similar efforts failed in Peru because surplus world production drove down coffee prices to record lows.

Mesa's priority on alternative development comes as the Bolivian government turns its attention to the Yungas, a remote zone where coca production is growing fast.

The Yungas is home to a large number of native Bolivians who chew coca leaves to ward off hunger or brew them in a tea to fight altitude sickness. Consequently, Bolivian law allows them 30,000 acres of coca cultivation for traditional uses. But U.S. satellite photos at the end of 2003 put the estimated coca cultivation in the Yungas at 58,000 acres.

Yungas coca growers have been especially hostile to eradication efforts, attacking aid workers and soldiers. They have the benefit of craggy, foggy terrain where it is difficult for the Bolivian military to deploy helicopters.