SHINAHOTA, Bolivia — President Evo Morales on Saturday appointed a coca leaf grower to lead the country's fight against drugs.
Morales announced the appointment of Felipe Caceres, a co-founder of his Movement Toward Socialism party, during a trip to the heart of Bolivia's coca-growing region.
"A coca farmer is going to be in charge of the fight against drugs," Morales said, wearing a hat of woven coca leaves. He drew loud applause from hundreds of people, many of them coca farmers, gathered in this lush jungle town.
Morales, who as a candidate pledged to roll back U.S. efforts to curb coca growing in his country, the world's third-biggest cocaine producer, took office a week ago.
The previous head of Bolivia's anti-drug efforts worked closely with Washington, which spends about $150 million a year on coca-eradication programs in the South American country.
Morales first rose to political prominence as the leader of the country's coca farmers, and led sometimes violent protests against U.S.-backed eradication efforts.
He said the struggle to preserve the legal growing of the plant was deeply tied to his political party, known popularly by its initials, MAS. "MAS was born from the coca leaf," he said. "We will never be separated."
The cultivation and sale of small amounts of coca is legal in Bolivia, with the limit set at 30,000 acres. But the United States contends that larger crops of the plant, which is used to make cocaine, eventually end up on illegal drug markets.
The plant is prized by Bolivian indigenous farmers for traditional medicinal uses and herbal teas. Indians in Bolivia chew coca, a mild stimulant, to ward off hunger and altitude sickness. Morales has said he wants to increase production of the leaf for use in medicines, toothpaste and soft drinks.
Morales, insisting that he is opposed to drug trafficking, has said he is seeking a drug-fighting program that would say, "No to zero coca, but yes to zero cocaine."