Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 237 | Abril 2001


Latin America

The War against Coca: A View from Bolivia

The United States has invented a war. It goes after coca to eradicate cocaine and blames Latin American coca growers for the cocaine addiction of its youth in the States. What hidden motives lurk behind this war?

René Mendoza Vidaurre

In its fight against drugs, the US government has declared war on coca and thus on the peasant families who grow this prodigious plant in the valleys of the Andes. Presenting coca as the equivalent of cocaine—when it is only one of many alkaloids or chemical substances contained in coca leaves—and coca growers as the equivalent of drug traffickers, the United States has launched this "crusade" to "save humanity."

We are the children of coca

Last year, I visited the area around Chapare in Cochabamba, Bolivia, one of the regions where coca is cultivated. Several members of my family live there, growing plantains and pineapples along with up to an acre of coca. Coca was their most profitable crop when they were able to hide it from military intelligence. When we sat down to talk, we chewed coca leaves, as is the custom. They told me how the army and police were constantly harassing and repressing them. They felt that their humanity was being denied, along with their right to live in accord with their own values and culture. "They treat us like pigs," one said to me, "clubbing us over the head if we try to leave the pen and expecting us to eat their garbage if we stay. We feel that no one listens to us. Don’t we have a voice?"

I was born and raised with the smell, taste and vitality of coca, which many years later, the government of my country, Bolivia, would declare "illegal" to please the government of the United States. My parents and grandparents chewed coca throughout their lives, and I learned of its benefits as a young child. We have a special word in Bolivia for chewing coca leaves: "acullicar." We mix the leaves with the ashes of certain vegetables and chew this little ball without swallowing it to get out all the juice, which is a very potent nutrient. I remember that we might spend a day working in the field without food, but never without coca. We didn’t have pharmacies but used coca instead to cure many diseases. When we prayed, the ritual began with coca and incense. Coca was our greatest ally to forget pain or overcome fatigue so we could keep on working. If we wanted to know the right time to plant, coca leaves forecast the weather. As children, we made up fortune-telling games with coca leaves.

Coca nourishes, takes away hunger, serves as an anesthetic, favors digestion and helps overcome the altitude sickness one feels living or climbing high up in the mountains. Just 100 grams of coca, which is what indigenous people traditionally consume in a day, supplies 305 calories, 10 grams of protein, 3-5 grams of fat, 46 grams of carbohydrates and the adult daily requirement of iron, phosphorus, calcium and vitamins A, B2, C and E.

Coca thrives at high altitudes, in shade, with little water. It has grown in the valleys of the Andes since before they were inhabited by human beings. For thousands and thousands of years, the Quechua and Aymara people, my forebears, used coca as medicine, food and money. In our culture, the culture of the vast Andean region that made up Tihuantisuyo, the Great Inca Empire that included what is now Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and part of Colombia, we would have no hope without land, but without coca we would have no spirit. The people of Central America are the children of corn; the people of Asia are the children of rice; we are the children of coca.

Questions of cultural genocide

As a child of coca, I stand alongside my brothers and sisters, who have the right to maintain their culture and live their lives as human beings, not pigs. From this position, I "crossed over" to try to understand another way of thinking, the thinking of those who have declared war on coca, who have launched a "crusade to defend humanity" and are assassinating peasant families in total impunity and condemning many young people to long years in prison—the thinking of those who, from the pinnacle of globalization, are orchestrating cultural genocide.

What hidden motives lurk behind this "crusade"? Why, after more than ten years of all-out war, has no progress been made in eradicating cocaine? Might we be witnessing another invented war? Shouldn’t we ask ourselves if cocaine should be legalized? Any analysis of this issue should take place in the widest possible framework, and take into account the human faces of the problem, its ethical dimension, the millenary nature of coca, the farmers’ reaction to the strategy of "repression combined with social engineering," and the geopolitical situation. All of these elements are visible in the case of the coca cultivated and persecuted in Chapare, in the Bolivian tropics.

Eradicating coca to eliminate cocaine:
the carrot and the stick

Eradicating coca will eliminate cocaine: this is the logic that dominates the drug war declared by the government of George Bush in 1989 and directed ever since by the DEA and the US embassies in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, with the collaboration of the governments of these three countries. The logic is both simple and suspicious: cocaine will disappear if coca cultivation is eradicated, and that can be accomplished by combining repression (the stick) with social engineering (the carrot). There is a geopolitical dimension to this approach: only if the carrot and stick policy works will these governments receive the certification the US Congress awards each year to collaborators in the fight against drugs; and this certification is indispensable to receiving aid and even qualifying as a "democratic country."

The strategy towards coca producers combines the carrot and the stick. The stick takes the form of herbicides sprayed on the plants to get rid of coca; it is also mowed down and burned. In response to farmers’ resistance, Law 1008 was passed in Bolivia in July 1988 making coca illegal and requiring people detained in relation to coca to prove their innocence, rather than requiring the state to prove their guilt. To put this law into effect, the government created new military units whose exclusive function is to repress and detain coca growers. The law tries to give a veneer of legitimacy to a moralistic campaign that equates coca and cocaine, and blames coca growers for the drug addition of young people in the countries of the North.

Like the good cop/bad cop police duo who interrogate criminals, this strategy also includes a carrot: "alternative development" programs. The reasoning is that, tired of being the target of repression (the stick) and seeing other productive alternatives, farmers will stop planting coca and dedicate themselves to other crops. In Chapare the government is promoting the cultivation of plantains, cassava, citrus fruits and coffee as well as agroforestry techniques; in some cases, it has also organized people to process agricultural products. And promises rain down of future aid for coca growers who stop growing the crop.

Ten years of a failed strategy

Coca cultivation has been sentenced to death. Armed battalions chop down the plants and fumigate the fields. Other military entities specialize in repression. The judicial system is based on laws that violate human rights and imprison hundreds of families that cannot prove their innocence. Enormous efforts are aimed at families who have not gone to jail—and who are made to believe that they are the "bad guys in the movie"—to convince them that it is better to plant something besides coca.

But this strategy has been underway for over ten years now, and the results are not encouraging. Instead of reducing coca, it has led to a systematic reduction in peasant families. In Chapare, with a population of some 40,000 families, the military repressed or wounded thousands of families, killing over 60 people and imprisoning over 300 in the second half of last year.

The chart shows some reduction in the production of both coca leaves and cocaine during the 1990s, but relative to the 1980s, coca production has increased and cocaine production has doubled. Brazil, where coca production is on the rise, is not included in this chart. There have been fluctuations over time: production increases in some countries, decreases in others, emerges in others and migrates from one region to another; in short, the total volume of coca leaves and cocaine produced has increased over the last 15 years. At the same time, the total area planted shrank from 230,800 hectares to 183,000 between 1987 and 1999, suggesting that the productive yields of coca have increased.

While coca has migrated, the drug industry has become increasingly diversified, both vertically and horizontally. Horizontally, for example, the cultivation of opium, which was unknown in Colombia until 1990, has now taken root; over 6,000 hectares were planted in 1999, according to the journal The Economist. Vertically, cocaine processing and refining, traditionally centralized in Colombia, has been increasing in Peru. While coca cultivation is migrating north, the expertise and technology required for the later phases of its industrialization are migrating south.

Promoting "alternative development"

Several studies have shown that the "alternative development" package combined with official repression does not help improve the standard of living of former coca growers, but rather the opposite. The products offered to replace coca have little value on the market, are susceptible to diseases in the area and mostly give just one harvest annually. Coca, in contrast, is disease-resistant, produces up to four harvests a year, and is easily worth over US$2,000 per hectare in the same market.

There are many varieties of coca. One variety, for example, is consumed nationally but is inappropriate for use in cocaine production. The logical thing to do would be to introduce genetic innovations to ensure that only the variety of coca suited to traditional domestic consumption is cultivated. But there is no such initiative, nor are there initiatives designed to control the chemical inputs needed to produce cocaine, which come to Bolivia from the countries of the North.

The processing of alternative products has not been successful either. The few projects launched to form groups of farmers to process coconut oil or other agroindustrial products have gone bankrupt when the external subsidies ended. In contrast, coca growers who have entered into the coca-cocaine chain can carry out the first phase of processing, which adds substantial value to the product because the know-how required for this work is relatively simple and the necessary technology is easily accessible. Also, those who do the first stage of processing coca also tend to market it and run increasing risks, which adds further value to the product.

The repression’s fury has been unleashed on those who are socially and economically most vulnerable and the principles of human rights and democracy—proclaimed by the United States all over the world—are not even mentioned in coca producing countries. Meanwhile, the "alternative development" policies reflect the typical paternalistic attitudes and errors that rural development policies always succumb to, built on the belief that small farmers can be "controlled." The farmers’ resistance, the migration of coca growing and its industrialization and the increasing poverty all help explain why the policy relies so heavily on the "stick": the "carrot" is too weak.

Three troubling hypotheses

Once coca is eradicated, what is to keep coca growers from planting it again? The US government has proposed two measures in its strategy: military bases and national laws. The United States establishes military bases in the regions where coca is being eradicated, with national military units trained and supervised by the US Army. The US military offensive in Colombia provides the most extreme example of this strategy. Plan Colombia is moving ahead unsteadily, justified by the "moral" argument of the fight against drugs. The other measure implemented by the US government through the DEA and its embassies, in agreements with governments like Bolivia’s, is to try coca growers who resume coca cultivation as criminals in the courts.

If coca eradication and "alternative development" were effective, why would there be a need to establish military bases? In other words, if the DEA and the US embassies believed in their carrot, why use more sticks? After more than ten years of failure, what sense do bases make? In Chapare, as in many other places in Latin America, people have three hypotheses. The first is that, after losing the Panama Canal, the United States is seeking to maintain military control of the continent; the crusade against drugs gives it the perfect, indisputable pretext, while other excuses would not be accepted by current public opinion in Latin America. A second hypothesis has to do with the US interest in controlling the Amazon, full of valuable natural resources and yet undiscovered wealth.

The third hypothesis is the most troubling: that the US government wants to wrest the profitable cocaine business away from the South and control the whole thing itself. The cocaine network is a true transnational, the first to be partially controlled by countries of the South. The argument that US policy seeks to weaken this control is supported by the fact that thousands of poor young people in the United States end up in jail but never the "big business fish," while in the South, not only thousands of poor farmers but also some "big fish" have gone to jail when they accidentally step outside the power networks.

This hypothesis merits consideration, and when we consider it, we find a typical "Pharisee’s ethics." While the coca plantations of Chapare and many other corners of the Andes are being destroyed and the growers crushed, gadgetry for cocaine consumption—for example, personalized cases with inhaler, mirror, knife, and a device to measure the cocaine’s purity—is freely available in the big cities of the United States. Furthermore, US drug traffickers have tried hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to adapt coca cultivation to the climate of some region in the United States, in order to control the whole process from production to final marketing. In fact, this is precisely what they did with marijuana. People rarely remember that marijuana used to be a Latin American crop, before it became the third largest crop in the United States, after corn and wheat. California is the world’s largest producer of this hallucinogenic herb, followed by Oregon and Hawaii. Some 25 million people in the United States consume marijuana produced in their own country.

The chain from coca to cocaine

If the war’s objective were really to eradicate cocaine, US policy would have to aim at the driving force behind all three phases in the chain—production, processing and marketing—and at the key actors in these three phases. The chain begins with the coca growers and continues with those who carry out the two stages involved in processing cocaine. The processors in the first stage of making the paste include some coca growers, landowners and owners of urban pharmacies and even gas stations. The processors in the second stage of refining and crystallizing the paste are pharmaceutical manufacturers and laboratories, chemical engineers, industrialists and big rural landowning businesspeople.

The process in both stages is simple. When the leaves are dry, they are mixed with sulfuric acid and water, which is then crushed and made into a paste. Kerosene is then added to make the alkaloid in the coca leaf—the cocaine—rise to the surface, and this juice is dried in the sun to make the base, which is cocaine sulfate. This base is then washed with ether or acetone and mixed with hydrochloric acid to make cocaine hydrochlorate, or pure cocaine.

Both of these stages have traditionally been carried out in the South. The small shops that can handle the first stage, from coca leaves to base, tend to be found in Peru and Bolivia, while the laboratories needed to convert the base into cocaine have been located in Colombia, although this has been changing as repression increases and the business migrates.

Transporters play a key role in both stages. Vehicles carry the coca to the processing sites, while small planes and boats transport the paste and the refined cocaine to the countries of the North. There are many intermediaries all along the chain: small retailers, bar owners, gang members… The true professionals are those who sell cocaine on a large scale: ship owners, members of the bourgeoisie with contacts in various governments, armed mercenaries, business czars…
At the end of the chain are the consumers. They include people of all ages, but mostly youths in the North. They also come from all social classes, although the ones in jail are mainly young Latinos and African Americans. Nor can it be forgotten that coca is also consumed by pharmaceutical companies and very powerful companies like Coca-Cola, which annually imports 175,000 kilos of coca from Chapare each year, the same variety used to make cocaine.

There are more than two in this story

What does this chain of coca-cocaine production show us? It shows, first, that the chain may begin with the coca growers and cocaine consumers, but they are hardly the only people involved. The essential actors in the chain are the big businesspeople with the capital, the networks and the government contacts that allow them to transport and market cocaine. Many of the intermediaries, transporters and those who handle the second phase of refining cocaine operate on their orders.

Since the biggest link in this chain involves marketing and is located in the North, these northern cocaine czars and the political and financial structures under which they take cover should be the target of this war. Resources should not be wasted mounting shows for journalists by detaining people carrying a few kilos of paste or small intermediaries and consumers with a few grams of cocaine, when the real transport and sales transactions are measured in tons and are directed by executives in suits and ties. These people, however, act with immunity and impunity. It is likely that the same thing happens here as in Italy, where the legislative anti-mafia commission members belong to the mafia itself. In other words, the people who control the big cocaine business are the very ones who have designed and are implementing anti-cocaine policies. This would explain why they don’t go after the roots of the weed instead of just pruning away its outer leaves; they have no interest in eradicating cocaine, which has made them incredible fortunes.

A business with ballooning profits

The cocaine business brings in vast profits: some $22 billion for the American continent in 1989, of which $20 billion stayed in the United States and $2 billion in Latin America. Only in the arms and oil businesses do people earn so much money, and never so quickly. The drug business is the fastest way to make a million, as the best-situated "entrepreneurs" in this business can earn $1,000 for each $1 invested.

Prices are significantly distorted in the economic process that makes up the coca-cocaine chain. It takes roughly 275 kilos of coca leaves to make 2.5 kilos of paste. These 2.5 kilos of paste make 1 kilo of base, and this kilo of base makes 600 grams of pure cocaine. How do the prices increase along this chain? The Bolivian or Peruvian farmer earns some US$250 for these 275 kilos of coca leaves. The 22.5 kilos of coca paste fetch $5,000, the kilo of base, $11,000 and 600 grams of pure cocaine, $20,000. All these are prices in the South.
In the North, the numbers go sky high. The same kilo of pure cocaine that sells for $20,000 in Colombia or in Bolivia brings in $60,000 in the United States. It is then cut to reduce its purity by half, and the two cut kilos bring in $120,000. These two kilos are then reduced to 12% purity to make eight kilos which, sold by the gram in the streets of any city in the United States, can bring in up to $500,000.

The purer the cocaine, the less dangerous it is, but also the more expensive. In the United States and the societies of the North, an increasing number of musicians, artists, politicians and businesspeople use cocaine to make themselves feel confident and capable of doing or saying anything in front of an audience. These people pay what it takes to get pure cocaine. In the poor countries of the South and among the poor in the North, people consume not pure cocaine but rather crack or bazuko, a cocaine paste that is only partially refined and mixed with other chemicals that do great harm to the body.

North and South: Double standards

To repeat: cocaine is not coca. Its characteristics are different. Coca is the central crop of a millenary culture and has been consumed from time immemorial. Cocaine’s history is a short one. Not until the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th did people begin to extract cocaine from the coca leaf as the result of chemical and pharmaceutical progress made in the developed countries of the North. Sniffing cocaine soon became fashionable for artists and certain people of high society in Europe and the United States. In 1931, the use and sale of cocaine were declared illegal all over the world.

Cocaine is a processed product, a stimulant that endangers the body, like alcohol. Alcoholism is a vice with harmful consequences, and is far more widespread than drug addiction. But to put an end to alcoholism, should we declare war on the producers of sugar cane, the raw material for rum, or the producers of barley, the raw material for beer? Should we imprison those who drink beer or whiskey? The questions seem ridiculous. It should seem just as ridiculous to attack coca growers in the name of eradicating cocaine.

Coca is a product of the South, but the products needed to make cocaine come from the countries of the North. The airplanes that carry Bolivian-made cocaine to the United States return to Bolivia carrying ether made in the United States. Ether, a chemical product indispensable for making cocaine, is produced in only a few factories in the United States. The Latin American drug traffickers send cocaine and the US drug traffickers send ether. Since both take part in the same business, why punish only one? Why the double standard that prohibits in the South what it allows in the North?

Stabilized consumption in societies in crisis

The demand for cocaine is obviously not determined by supply. Rather, cocaine is available because there is a demand for it, according to simple economic law, and the main demand comes from the North. Cocaine does not rely on TV commercials to encourage its consumption and its high price makes it a luxury product. According to many official statistics and publications, the cocaine demand has remained more or less stable over recent years. Although the United States remains the biggest market, especially in urban areas, consumption there has fallen somewhat, mainly among people known as casual users. In Canada, after a drop in consumption from 1993 to 1997, it rose again in 1999. European countries as a whole increased their consumption throughout the nineties, with the exception of 1998.

The prices on the market—a market characterized by secrecy and violence—are tending to stabilize, after falling in the United States in the eighties and in Europe in the nineties. Prices vary: in Europe, prices considered average according to the size of the society have fallen in Italy, remained about the same in Spain, Germany and Switzerland, and are rising in France and England. All information indicates that supply is not the only thing not under control. Neither is demand. Consumption has not dropped significantly—as they would like us to believe—but rather remains more or less stable.

Why so many addicts?

In the United States, an estimated 20-30 million people are addicted to cocaine. What explains this high demand for the drug? Why do young people, mainly those in the North, consume cocaine and become addicted to it? Is it because of their frustration with a social system that feels alienating? The emptiness that results from individualism and the kinds of relationships produced when techno-bureaucracy and the cold rules of a society in which coexistence is virtually unknown replace friendship? The feeling of having no control over one’s own life? After conducting participatory studies with drug consumers, Tom De Corte, a Belgian criminologist and anthropologist, posits that the problem is not so much the drug but rather the lack of self-control, a factor that is especially sharp among the poorest youth. The problem does not lie in the cocaine, but in the societies of the North, in their system and way of life. Would it not be more reasonable, then, to look for answers and propose "alternative development" programs there, in the societies of the North?

Should cocaine be legalized?

As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. Even if the United States fills its stick with lead and fattens its carrot, coca will sprout up again in new areas and regions. It will not be eradicated. This is true partly because there is a demand for coca in the South as a source of medicines—a demand that has always existed—and mostly because there is a demand for this luxury drug in the North. Perhaps cocaine will someday be produced without the marvelous coca leaves. Perhaps cocaine will someday be legalized around the world. Should this happen, what will have been the point of ruining the lives of so many families, of assassinating so many people? History teaches us that coffee was once a prohibited product, one considered "immoral." The same was true of alcohol. In 1919, the Dry Laws were passed in the United States prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. This law did not decrease alcohol consumption; it just sent its price through the roof and removed the product from any quality controls. It also fostered extremely powerful, violent trafficker mafias. Those were the times of Al Capone in Chicago. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, things went back to normal: those who drank kept drinking, the price of alcohol fell, the dicey "bathtub gin" disappeared and the mafias began to lose their power.

Things change over time and over space. In Holland, Denmark and Belgium, marijuana consumption is legal, and statistics show no greater cause for alarm in these countries than in those where marijuana continues to be an illegal, prohibited and persecuted product. A look through time and space shows that the morality of an economic activity is often relative. Furthermore, illegal business is always riskier and these risks are what distort prices. Networks of corruption always grow up around illegal activities, since the "businesspeople" behind them must buy consciences, authorities, institutions… And illegal things always generate violence; with no laws, courts or authorities to turn to when problems arise, conflicts are resolved with guns.

An increasing number of people around the world argue that the solution would be to legalize the production, marketing and consumption of cocaine—in other words, to free up the market. In today’s world, where everything is supposed to be guided by the free market, this seems only logical. The day cocaine becomes legal, the fabulous profits will dry up and so will the violence that accompanies the business. Naturally, those most interested in ensuring that cocaine isn’t legalized are the US drug traffickers, the Al Capones of today, who are making the most money from cocaine’s illicit sales.

Playing with fire in an
invented, unnecessary war

The moral-immoral dichotomy is especially false when cast from the viewpoint of the politically and economically powerful, who in this case invert values. The enemy is cocaine, but they attack coca. The undesirable thing is the system that does not satisfy the majority of young people, but they imprison the dissatisfied young people for trying cocaine. Cocaine, which will surely be legalized one day, and coca, which was a legal and sacred part of the culture of millions of human beings for thousands of years, are seen as sins, while the true sin is the unpunished spilling of the blood of poor farmers. Would it not be better to produce new kinds of society instead of inventing new wars?
When wars are invented based on twisted values, it is easy to miss the deep wounds being inflicted or their repercussions over the medium and long term. According to a law of physics, any action (the policy of the stick) provokes a reaction (a movement of peasant farmers). Thus the conflicts in Bolivia, Peru and especially Colombia are not being resolved, but rather sharpened. The state can humiliate peasant farmers in the short term, but it sows violence for the long term.

What does not seem to cause any concern whatever for the US government, or for the governments of the South that submit to its policies, should cause concern to those who stand on the side of the majority and work to eradicate poverty. The Bolivian state forces peasant farmers to live with the humiliation they suffer from soldiers who come from their own people and even their own communities. Can these wounds be healed by providing funds for "alternative development," "sustainable development," "poverty reduction," "strengthening civil society," "gender and civic participation"? Can sending in priests, ministers, NGO and international agency representatives who do not speak out against this cruel and unnecessary war cure these wounds? How can we expect the children of peasant farmers to go to school and listen to their teachers talk about respecting the President and the country when the night before their father was killed, their brother imprisoned, their aunt raped in the name of that country? In Bolivia, the drug war reveals the Achilles’ heel of globalization, its rejection of different cultures that have their own interests and visions. The countries of the North impose their values and waste their resources inventing wars in other countries. The results of these wars have proven that their values and their analyses are wrong.

The drug of war

The US government is perhaps quite rightly accused of having hidden motives in this war: defending their own cocaine czars and appropriating the Amazon’s land and resources while avoiding having to deal with the internal contradictions of its own system that make millions of its young people so unhappy. But it is playing with fire: the volcano of the humiliated can awaken. The violence sown to ensure that no more coca is sown can only harvest violence.

The Bolivian government should open up talks with the movement of coca growers, who participate actively in the country’s institutions with their own representatives in the legislature and their council members in municipal governments. This would provide an opportunity to build a national project without the need to sign onto a foreign war. It takes dialogue to build a shared vision, not the monologue imposed by a sole vision with ever-bigger sticks and a carrot that provides no nourishment. Such a process would help Bolivia avoid the drug of war.

René Mendoza Vidaurre is a researcher with Nitlapán-UCA.

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