Who's Counting?

U.S. plan to eradicate coca crops in Bolivia fails miserably

by Benjamin Kunkel and Lisa Kunkel

In These Times magazine, May 13, 2002


The lush, rugged Chapare region of Bolivia is home to some 35,000 families engaged in growing coca, a plant that has been cultivated here since human settlement. Over the past 14 years, the Chapare has also been the site of U.S.-sponsored efforts by the Bolivian government to eradicate coca. This campaign, now called Plan Dignity, intensified in 1998 and seemed successful in December 2000, when the Bolivian government announced the total elimination of coca in the region.

But that was only if you didn't look too closely. A month later, officials stated that 1,400 acres of coca had been missed. Nine months later, the number of acres under cultivation was estimated at 9,900, and the potential Bolivian contribution to the world cocaine market was placed at 66 tons, or 6 million grams.

The other apparent success on this front of the Andean drug war has been, in the words of the State Department, to "enable farmers to support themselves and their families without the need to cultivate coca." The State Department's annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report claims that 16,167 families have received American assistance to grow alternative crops, such as bananas, macadamia nuts and oranges. But the Bolivian government gives the number as 12,000, and many families growing other crops have preserved their coca as well. As farmer Jotge Cala llto says, "Surely I'm among the 12,000 beneficiaries the minister has indicated, but I can tell you that I still have coca because that is our only source of survival."

Coca is a hearty plant, resistant to rotting and disease. Its use and sale as a dried leaf is traditional and legal in Bolivia; refined into cocaine, it has proved an enduringly popular product, particularly in the United States. Coca thrives and so do its markets-advantages not enjoyed by anything else Chapare farmers might grow.

In December, when growers' unions set up roadblocks to protest the elimination of their coca and therefore their livelihoods, they also dumped rotting pineapples, bananas and other fruits by the roadside. These crops may be legal, but Bolivia lacks the infrastructure to transport them reliably, and the international economy-with its mixture of agricultural protectionism and unstable commodity prices-can't ensure regular access to markets at a decent price.

As in the past, the roadblocks and other protests led to bloody clashes between farmers and security forces. Tensions increased when the government issued a decree banning the cultivation of all Chapare coca. In the past six months, 10 coca growers and four soldiers have been killed, and more than 350 protesters have been injured or detained. Six deaths came over three days in January with the closure of the Sacaba coca market, one of 16 markets the United States would like to see closed. In a measure of the farmers' desperation, many of the wounded were found to be suffering from acute malnutrition.

At least three protesters were shot and killed by members of the Expeditionary Task Force, an irregular group of 1,500 soldiers devoted to coca eradication, under Bolivian command but receiving their salaries from the Narcotic Affairs Section of the local U.S. Embassy. These deaths are being investigated, not by a civilian court and in accordance with Bolivian law, but by a military tribunal. Such tribunals have yet to find any soldier responsible for the use of excessive force or to discover a single instance of the widespread use of torture noted by Amnesty International in 2001.

Yet the Bolivian government may have less tolerance for carnage than the State Department does. On February 9, the coca growers' unions and the government of President Jorge Quiroga reached an uneasy peace agreement. The coca-growing ban has been suspended, allowing farmers to grow some coca legally, and the families of injured or killed farmers are to be compensated. Despite American displeasure, Quiroga's government may not attempt to close more coca markets before elections in June.

Still, the peace is fragile. The U.S. interest in the elimination of coca and the farmers' need to subsist can't currently be reconciled, and the Bolivian government sits anxiously in the middle, always betraying either its people or its patron. The drug war continues to torment Bolivia while retaining, for the American government, its ritual character.

All efforts to eliminate coca in the Andean region thus far have failed miserably. When asked about the supply of cocaine to the United States, Randy Beers, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement, says: "I cannot tell you at this point in time, based on available information, that the amount of cocaine that comes into the United States is less."

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