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Soldiers destroy illegal fields of coca in Bolivia. Soldiers destroy illegal coca plants with machetes during a government-organized media trip to the Villa Nueva community of Chimore, Bolivia, Feb. 26, 2016 (AP photo by Juan Karita).

Is Bolivia’s Coca Policy Protecting Traditions, or Creating a Narco-State?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on Bolivia’s relationship with coca, funded by WPR’s International Reporting Fellowship. The second installment can be found here.

Ten years ago, Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which had been tasked with curbing the production of coca in Bolivia, the main ingredient in cocaine. Since then, Morales has championed a nationalized, legal coca market, but critics accuse him of fostering the rise of a narco-state.

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On a Monday afternoon this past February, around 300 residents of the small jungle town of Chimore in central Bolivia gathered at the town plaza ahead of a speech by the country’s president, Evo Morales.

As they waited, children chased one another in front of the stage that had been erected along the main road. Their parents mostly hid under umbrellas, though some held heavy banners displaying slogans of various coca-growers’ unions.

Listen to Max Radwin discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 21:34.

Chimore is situated in a dense jungle region, and its culture and identity have been heavily shaped by coca, the plant best known as the main ingredient in cocaine. Ten years ago, the town was the site of a base camp for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, which was investigating coca cultivation and drug trafficking. Going back to the 1980s, the agency’s primary strategy had involved destroying as much coca crop as possible, leaving many rural families in poverty.

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In 2008, however, Morales expelled the agency, citing its reputation for violence and meddling in Bolivian politics. In the decade since then, Chimore, like the country at large, has intensified its commitment to coca, thanks to a controversial nationalized market championed by the government.

When the president finally arrived in Chimore on the back of a four-by-four utility vehicle, loudspeakers played the official song of the ruling political party—the Movement to Socialism, or MAS—so loudly that they began to pop. Morales, wearing a short-sleeve, button-up shirt tucked into dirty black jeans, saluted a row of military officers and accepted a ceremonial lei before climbing the stage.

Though Morales was ostensibly there to inaugurate Chimore’s newly constructed municipal building, he spent much of his speech talking about the importance of coca in Bolivia. He lamented that it had, to his mind, been misrepresented as a harmful drug, and he had harsh words for what he described as the egregious acts committed by the U.S. as a result.

“When I was first running for president, the ambassador of the United States, what did he say? That Evo is a criminal and the cocaleros are the Taliban,” he told the crowd, using the colloquial term for coca farmers. “It was in the newspapers.”

Even 10 years on, the expulsion of the DEA continues to represent one of Morales’ greatest victories. In some ways, the move ushered in a new era in Bolivia’s relationship with the coca leaf, one in which production of the crop, already legal and regulated, was stripped of its stigma. More than ever, coca cultivation and consumption are treated as common practices in Bolivia, whether for tea or for more modern products like gum and lotion. The fight against drug trafficking was placed almost exclusively in the hands of internal law enforcement, giving Morales and his government freedom from outside interference.

It was a transition that resonated far beyond Bolivia’s borders. Every change to Bolivia’s drug policy makes a ripple through the worldwide network that traffics cocaine. On its own, the country is the origin of between 13 and 23 percent of all cocaine in global circulation, depending on who’s counting. It also serves as a passageway for cocaine from Peru, which accounts for approximately 34 percent of the global total, according to the most recent estimates of cocaine production from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC. Most of those drugs head to Brazil, where they are shipped to Europe, Asia and Africa.

Even 10 years on, the expulsion of the DEA is seen as one of Morales’ greatest victories.

Bolivian officials take advantage of events like the one in Chimore to celebrate what they frame as their unprecedented success in having fought the global drug network on their own terms. They say their restrictions on legal coca cultivation have caused annual production of the plant to fall well below pre-2008 levels, and that drug activity has been sharply curtailed.

Yet with the DEA gone, it’s hard to judge the credibility of these claims. For all the agency’s faults, it still would have represented the best source of third-party intelligence on cocaine and coca in Bolivia. In its absence, a wide range of views has emerged on just how successful Morales’ drug policies actually are.

Many outside scholars consider them to be fairly effective, in that the country appears to have significantly lowered the amount of land devoted to growing coca while imposing regulations on those areas that still do. On the other end of the spectrum, Morales’ most vocal critics question whether he is creating a “narco-state” by allowing illicit activity to permeate every level of the government.

There is reason to think the latter might be true. Officials under Morales have been closely tied to international trafficking activity on numerous occasions, even if Morales himself has avoided any kind of direct culpability. Criminal conduct has trickled into low-level politics and the justice system, where drug-related corruption runs rampant. At all levels of government, Bolivia continues to work on strategies for fighting drug trafficking, but the country’s efforts show mixed success and have left some neighboring countries frustrated.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that the DEA’s own record in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America is spotty at best. It’s certainly possible that the agency, if it were still around, might have worsened the situation with its antiquated “war on drugs” tactics, or that it would have had no impact at all in combating the drug trade.

These days, the DEA primarily serves as a punching bag for Morales and those loyal to him, as was evident during the event in Chimore. “What did the DEA do?” asked Edgar Quispe, secretary of the Central Chimore Community Federation, which lobbies for the cocaleros’ interests. “The DEA killed us. The DEA kicked us down.”

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks at the inauguration of a municipal buildilng,
Chimore, Bolivia, Feb. 11, 2018 (photo by Max Radwin).

Officials also used the occasion to affirm their support for the president and his policies. “We will remain in the palace of the head of our President Evo forever and indefinitely,” Leonardo Loza, an executive of the coca-growers’ federation of Chimore, said during his introduction to Morales’ speech. “We’re going to change Bolivia and make it a political stronghold, so that no neoliberal comes again to impoverish us or take our natural resources.”

As Morales delivered his remarks, Loza and several other officials sat onstage near him, and they stood by his side during the ribbon-cutting for the town’s new municipal building. After a photo-op and private tour, the group retreated into a side room for lunch of pacu fish caught from a local river.

The group was all seated at a long table, with Morales near one end. Coca leaves were piled up on the table for them to chew—a nearly universal habit in Bolivia, renowned for curbing altitude sickness and hunger while providing a small jolt of energy similar to caffeine. The officials lingered after finishing their fish, drinking a Bolivian beer called Pacena. Soon, Morales was pointing to various people in the room and directing them to take a shot of whiskey, then a double shot, and then two double shots. All the while, officials chewed coca leaf like tobacco, their cheeks bulging as they drank.

A Partnership Unravels

Cocaine began to permeate Bolivian politics in the 1960s, a process that came to a head during the 1980 coup carried out by Luis Garcia Meza, a general who had financial backing from the Bolivian drug lord Roberto Suarez Gomez, known as the “Cocaine King.” The putsch marked the first time that a true “narco-state” had come to power in South America.

Meza’s dictatorship, characterized by corruption, forced disappearances and press censorship, lasted just 13 months before he was forced to flee to Brazil. While the country revived its fragile democracy, the DEA was busy eradicating coca fields and investigating trafficking routes, which at that time were still mostly directed toward the United States.

In 1988, as coca cultivation boomed, Bolivia introduced Law 1008 in hopes of asserting some control over crop output. The law, which was met with intense protests, limited nationwide coca production to designated areas of the country—12,000 hectares in total. By 1997, the DEA and the Bolivian government were working together to carry out Plan Dignidad, aiming to eradicate all unlawful coca production.

Yet by the time Morales came to power, in 2006, coca eradication had still not made a noticeable dent in cocaine trafficking, and the DEA had earned a reputation for violent tactics including alleged beatings, unlawful arrests and torture. The situation was made even more tense by the fact that, in the year leading up to its expulsion, the DEA was going after the Morales government much like it had gone after Meza, building a case against the president and several close officials by secretly monitoring their phone calls. However, according to Alexander Toth, who was assistant regional director of the DEA at the time, the agency could never get the “right” call—one strong enough to warrant the arrest of a sitting president on trafficking charges.

To this day, Toth has no doubt that Morales was involved in drug trafficking. “Evo is deep in it,” he says. “That’s not just political talk.” But the Bolivian government denies this, and many outside analysts are also skeptical, saying the DEA’s claims could merely represent an attempt by Washington to maintain influence in the country.

As they worked to eradicate coca in Bolivia, U.S. officials earned a reputation for alleged beatings, unlawful arrests and torture.

Toth had been transferred to Bolivia from DEA headquarters in Arlington, Texas, in February 2008, seven months before the agency received notice of its expulsion. The agency was relying on the cooperation of Special Investigation Units, Bolivian law enforcement units that were vetted, funded and trained by the DEA, to carry out joint operations. But as they closed in on big-name politicians, the Bolivian side started growing distant and less communicative, hesitating to carry out drug busts.

In September of that year, the DEA received a diplomatic note at the U.S. Embassy saying it had 90 days to leave the country. Toth recalls he was eating dinner in Santa Cruz, on the opposite side of the country, when another agent called him with the news. He returned to La Paz, where he and other DEA staff spent several days trying to convince the Bolivian government to change its mind. Unsuccessful, they began reassigning agents and their families, and destroying decades of classified intelligence.

Toth recalls that in the period leading up to the expulsion, his relationship with Rene Sanabria, the head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotics police, had deteriorated. Three years later, Sanabria would be extradited to the U.S. on trafficking charges following his arrest in Panama, where he had gone to complete a sale involving 144 kilograms, or 317 pounds, of cocaine. In response, Morales, still trying to cultivate a positive relationship with the international community, condemned any corruption found within his ranks, while vaguely accusing the U.S. of trying to “implicate the government.” Toth, stationed in Brazil, flew to Miami to speak with Sanabria about other corrupt figures in the Morales government; he says today that the information he gleaned confirmed what he had suspected about many top officials.

Morales, seeming worried, again tried to cast doubt on the credibility of the investigation. “What will Gen. Sanabria be negotiating so that his sentence is shorter?” he asked at a press conference following Sanabria’s arrest. “Maybe he’s negotiating with the image of the president. I know the kind of negotiations done by ‘the empire’ are political actions. It’s not a fight against drug trafficking.”

In the end, more than a dozen other officials connected to Sanabria were also arrested by authorities in Bolivia. Morales has nevertheless maintained that any officials found to be trafficking drugs are outliers in an otherwise clean government program that, in recent years, has expanded significantly.

The Cocalero President

It should come as no surprise that Morales, a former cocalero and growers’ union activist himself, has closely associated his government with coca production. After all, he would never have reached the presidency without the rural support base he forged from his coca-growing days. Over the past 35 years, his advocacy for cocalero rights, along with his brash rhetoric, have won farmers’ admiration and given him the status of a living legend: a cocalero who pulled himself out of extreme poverty to defend indigenous peoples’ ancestral relationship with coca.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Morales was beaten by police, tear-gassed, thrown into rivers and arrested while protesting against restrictive coca laws and eradication efforts. He has staged hunger strikes and led 300-mile marches. By the late 1990s, Morales had transformed what began as coca activism into a political movement, taking over his political party, the MAS, and earning himself a seat in Congress.

A coca farmer shows off his crop, Chapare region, Bolivia, Feb. 11, 2018 (photo by Max Radwin).

When he ran for president in 2005, one of his slogans was “Coca Yes, Cocaine No,” underscoring his belief that coca should be disassociated from the fight against cocaine, as consumption of the leaf is part of the cultural heritage of Bolivia and its many indigenous groups, such as the Quechua and Aymara. He won that election with over 53 percent of the vote—the first time a Bolivian president had been elected with a majority since 1978.

He has maintained this strong support. Four years later, in his 2009 re-election bid, he received over 64 percent of the vote. This followed the adoption of the 2009 constitution, which established that he and future presidents could be re-elected to a second term. During his third run for the presidency, in 2014, Morales won with 61 percent of the vote, despite having to argue that his initial term did not disqualify him from office, as it occurred under a different constitution.

With Morales in office, Bolivia has consistently promoted a nationalized legal market for products containing coca, such as shampoo and candy. In 2017, the country increased the legal coca production limit from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares.

Yet Morales’ philosophy has been a tough sell for some skeptics, especially because coca in Bolivia that is consumed legally can sometimes bear a close resemblance to cocaine. To this day, the leaf is sold legally in plastic baggies that are pounded with a hammer on a wooden stump, then mixed with bicarbonate and Nescafe powder. The combination allows the leaf to be chewed like tobacco. But the recipe only lacks the gasoline needed to transform the mixture into the base form of cocaine.

Critics accuse Morales of closing his eyes to a drug-trafficking problem that is only getting worse.

Nonetheless, Bolivia’s Anti-Narcotics Special Task Force, known by its Spanish acronym FELCN, has reported significant improvement in curbing cocaine production since the DEA’s exit. Its figures show a gradual increase in the number of cocaine hydrochloride and crystallization laboratories destroyed each year since 2008. Whereas authorities were busting around 10 or fewer laboratories each year between 2000 and 2008, they are now busting well over 100. In 2016 alone, over 12 metric tons of cocaine base and 17 tons of cocaine hydrochloride were confiscated.

In the eyes of the government, then, Morales’ “Coca Yes, Cocaine No” approach has been a success. “Not only have we defended coca leaf as part of our economy, as part of agricultural production, but we have defended it as part of our identity, and as a defense of our identity,” Morales said in a joint statement in January with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera.

But not everyone agrees that the Bolivian government has addressed the trafficking issue. Jimena Costa, a lawmaker in the opposition Democratic Unity party, says trafficking pollutes Bolivian politics at the national level, and that Morales is actively choosing to ignore an increasingly serious problem. “When investigations take place and the solution requires that someone step down,” Costa says, “the president closes his eyes.”

Max Radwin is a writer and journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow his reporting on Instagram @max.radwin.

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