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A coca/cocaine disconnect

Bolivia says the crop has cultural roots. The U.S. sees a drug boom.

July 14, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

CARANAVI, BOLIVIA — In the past, Bolivian cocaine labs tended to be primitive, makeshift affairs where peasants known as pisa-cocas stomped on coca leaves to produce coca paste.

But recent busts of relatively sophisticated cocaine-refining laboratories in the country's jungles have set off alarms about rising drug production here. Many of the labs have links to Colombian narcotics traffickers, officials say.

"We're seeing more Colombian and other international traffickers turning up in Bolivia, and that's troubling," said Brad Hittle, an official with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "These are people with a lot of experience, money, connections and know-how."

Bolivia still ranks a distant third behind Colombia and Peru as a supplier of cocaine to the United States. But coca production here experienced the steepest rise among the three nations in 2006.

The latest estimate from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, released last month, showed an 8% increase in Bolivian cultivation of coca leaves, the raw ingredient in cocaine.

U.S. law enforcement authorities see the increase as a sign of trouble stemming from the policies of Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Morales, who took office in January 2006, rose to prominence as a leader of the country's coca producers. He has proclaimed a goal of "zero cocaine" while simultaneously exalting coca production as a linchpin of Bolivia's social and economic identity. He favors the "industrialization" of coca for products as varied as tea, medicines and toothpaste, and is pushing to abolish international bans on export of coca products.

From Morales' viewpoint, coca is a resource to be exploited, like natural gas or minerals.

He and his supporters draw a clear dividing line: The good guys are the poor cocaleros, or coca growers; the bad guys are those who use the substance to produce and transport cocaine.

"Obviously, coca is the mother of our economy," said Asterio Romero, a Morales ally and fellow cocalero who leads the Bolivian legislature's anti-narcotics commission. "As for the problem of narco-trafficking, that's very difficult to resolve until the United States does something about its drug addicts."

Fifty-pound bundles of coca leaves are hawked legally in the Villa Fatima market in La Paz, Bolivia's capital, as well as at other sites.

And here in the wild, mountainous region known as the Yungas, Bolivia's largest coca-growing zone, Morales' policies have proved popular.

"Coca provides us with a living," Cenobia Pacxi, 30, said as she cared for her daughter in a hut near this coca boomtown. Five siblings harvested coca leaves on the steep slope below. "We depend on coca," she said.

Morales' family was among the many Bolivians who migrated to the subtropical Chapare region after the collapse of the country's mining industry in the 1980s devastated the economy of its highlands. The migrants were drawn to coca, a steady cash earner with as many as four harvests a year.

"Coca provides us a bit of income to live on," said Eliseo Valencia, a farmer in Villa 14 de Septiembre, the hamlet where Morales once tilled his field. Farmers say they cannot survive on alternative crops touted by U.S. officials.

But officials in Washington say Morales' policy of "yes to coca, no to cocaine" will not work. Increased coca production inevitably boosts the cocaine trade, they argue, because the market for legal uses such as chewing, medical preparations and tea is stable.

"More coca means more cocaine," has been the mantra of U.S. Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg.

Reports of escalating cocaine production also have caused consternation in Brazil, which neighbors Bolivia and is the world's No. 2 cocaine consumer after the United States. Brazil is now the principal market for Bolivian cocaine.

South America's largest nation faces a destabilizing drug-crime crisis, as the daily death toll in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo illustrate.

Brazil also is a major transshipment point for cocaine en route to Europe, a growing market.

Clandestine laboratories and hidden airstrips now dot the isolated Bolivian-Brazilian border zone, law enforcement authorities say.

"Various Colombian narco-trafficking clans have been detected operating along the border, introducing new techniques for fabricating cocaine," said Col. Rene Sanabria, director of the Bolivian anti-drug police.

For years, Washington touted Bolivia as a successful front in the fight against drugs. U.S.-backed tactics were aimed at destroying coca fields.

A military-style offensive in Bolivia during the 1990s contributed to the shifting of cocaine production to Colombia, now the main U.S. supplier.

But the U.S.-financed assault, with its bloody clashes pitting police against cocaleros, caused much damage and fanned anti-Washington sentiment. Many innocents were jailed, human rights activists say.

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