The Price of Success: Bolivia’s War against Drugs
and the Poor
first appeared in North
American Congress on Latin America (NACLA),
Volume 31, Issue 1, July/August 2001
Andean Information Network
2001, Bolivia was dropped from the list of major drug-producing countries
for the first time in nearly half a century. The country has been hailed
by U.S. officials as the only South American country that has successfully
eradicated coca production. The resulting devastation of the country’s
economy has left ex-dictator President Hugo Banzer, no friend of the Bolivian
poor or the social movements that defend them, begging for substantial
U.S. economic support to keep the export economy permanently off coca/cocaine
revenues. The U.S. response to these pleas for economic assistance has
been vague and unsubstantial, preferring to continue its emphasis on supporting
repressive measures. As a consequence, the economic crisis, described as
worse than the hyper-inflation period of the early 1980s, has created a
level of social upheaval not seen since the protests leading to the 1982
return to democracy.
Banzer came to office in 1997, on his fifth electoral attempt to win the
position he had held as a military dictator between 1971-1978, he pleased
embassy with his commitment to eradicate “excess” coca production by any
means. There was considerable irony in Banzer’s program, called “coca zero”
or “Dignity Plan,” since the original insertion of Bolivia
into the coca/cocaine economy took place during his dictatorship. He vowed
that by the end of his presidency in 2002, his government would destroy
all coca beyond the 30,000 acres grown in the Yungas, the region northeast
that the government estimates is needed for traditional Andean daily ritual
and medicinal use.
the 1970s, coca production began expanding from the Yungas, where it has
been grown since before the Spanish invasion, to the Chapare region east
Production in the Chapare mushroomed in response to increasing northern
demand for cocaine, mostly from the United
At its peak, coca was grown on an estimated 100,000 acres, with approximately
90% dedicated to the cocaine market. Until Banzer came to office, for every
acre eradicated under voluntary programs that offered some limited financial
incentives, another acre was planted.
financing of a combined military-police force, the Joint Task Force (FTC),
the “Dignity Plan” destroyed about 70,000 acres of coca in the Chapare.
Certainly the U.S.
is pleased. “Bolivia
has done in the past two to three years what no other country has done
in the drug war in Latin
said Manuel Rocha, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia
since July 2000. “In Latin
this is the success story.”
“success” has come at huge expense to the poorest and least powerful actors
in a global commodity chain. Coca eradication has cost the Bolivian economy
an estimated $500 million a year and decimated the regional economy of Cochabamba.
It has also contributed to the serious social upheavals that began in April
2000, revived in September and violently erupted again this April. According
to one Cochabamba
businessman who wished to remain anonymous: “This is the worst I’ve ever
seen it. There’s no money on the street and nobody’s got any work. It’s
not just the poor, but the middle classes too who are hurting. For example,
house prices are down a lot—50-60% in some cases and nothing is selling.”
Banzer government announced in January that it would begin coca eradication
in March or April in the Yungas, where the government has decided that
4,200 acres of coca cultivation is “excess.” The current government offer
includes a one-time payment to affected coca growers of $1,000 per acre,
almost exactly the same as the compensation offered in the early 1990’s
in the Chapare, which both Bolivian and U.S.
officials acknowledge was completely ineffective. “Even if they offered
U.S. $4,000 per acre, it would not be enough,” states Fidel Ticon, a campesino
The package also includes $20 million in development aid to an area where
previous efforts to promote alternative crops failed miserably, despite
the UN’s expenditure of $32 million between 1984 and 1993.
April, in a bid to defuse the growing unrest in the region, the government
agreed to suspend forced eradication in the Yungas until it recalculates
whether excess coca is really under cultivation. At the end of the month,
as marchers protesting a range of issues converged on La
from around the country, the government convinced leaders from targeted
areas in the Yungas that they would be spared immediate forced eradication.
These moves have effectively served to separate coca growers in the Yungas
from those in the Chapare, who are once again being isolated from broader
social support. This divide and conquer strategy was extremely effective
during in the uprisings last September/October, and worked again in April
2001, when coca growers from the Chapare set out from Cochabamba, along
with trade unions, organizations against the privatization of water and
other campesinos, towards La Paz on a “March for Life and Sovereignty.”
For coca producers the march was the latest response to the U.S.-financed
war on drugs, which over the last three years has forcibly eradicated these
peasant farmers’ coca fields, the most economically productive crop in
the region. Although the peaceful marchers finally reached La Paz despite
police and military attacks en route, the popular movement fizzled in early
May due to ongoing deep internal divisions in the country’s campesino and
the government opts for forced eradication, the rugged and rainy Yungas
promises to be a significantly more difficult target than the flat plains
of the Chapare region. There is only one narrow winding road that connects
the region with La
The six organizations of coca producers in the Yungas have emphatically
sworn that they will never allow their coca plants to be destroyed.
the government pushes ahead with its plans for the Yungas, in the Chapare,
coca growers are reeling from the eradication campaigns of the last four
years. “Coca was taken away and the campesinos were abandoned—this is not
a battle won. It is a human tragedy for thousands of poor families with
no way to support themselves now,” says Rev. Sperandio Ravasio Martinelli,
pastor of the largest parish in the Chapare.
comes after coca?” asks Carlos Torranzo, of the Latin American Institute
for Social Research in La
“To sustain ‘zero coca,’ you need an economic plan. And we still haven’t
seen that plan.”
Speaking before the representatives of 150 countries at a United Nations
Conference against Transnational Organized Crime in December 2000, Banzer
warned, “If there’s not concrete assistance to Bolivia,
there is the risk that many people will begin to plant coca again.”According
to the Andean Information Network (AIN), this is precisely what is happening.
AIN’s co-coordinator Kathy Ledebur says, “Everyone we know in the Chapare
is starting to replant. Alternative development has simply not offered
anything quickly enough.”
all this, eradication of coca in the Chapare has had little impact on regional
production. While significant reductions in coca acreage have occurred
in both Peru and Bolivia, which between them provided three-fourths of
world production in the early 1990s, Colombia is now the largest producer,
with almost 336,000 acres, which represents an 11% increase in the last
year alone and leaves worldwide coca production effectively unchanged.
This scenario illustrates the balloon theory—suppressing coca production
in one place only leads to it reappearing in another. So in addition to
creating chaos in Bolivia,
coca eradication has fueled “more of a mess in Colombia
than we started with,” according to Stephen E. Flynn, a senior fellow at
the Council of Foreign Relations in New
has success in Bolivia
had an impact on the price of street cocaine in the United
An April 19 article in The Guardian reported that prices in England
are at a all-time lows.
Even if coca production had not simply shifted to Colombia, there is little
indication that forcing the price of coca higher in the Andes through repression
would have an impact because the cost of leaves comprises less than one
half of one per cent of the price of cocaine on the streets of U.S. and
European cities. As part of the broader strategy of the war on drugs, source
eradication has long been understood to be a blunt and inefficient policy
tool, both creating enormous problems in other countries and wasting U.S.
taxpayer’s money. According to a highly respected 1994 RAND study, investments
in source-country control, such as those in Bolivia,
offer the worst payoffs in drug control, generating only $0.15 in benefits
per dollar invested. In contrast, treatment and education programs reduce
the social costs associated with drugs by almost $7.50 for each dollar
spent. In other words, treatment and education in the U.S.
returns 50 times that of coca eradication.
approximately $350 million that the United States has pumped into the drug
war in Bolivia since 1993 has largely been directed at militarized solutions
to a complex set of social, economic and political problems. Beginning
in late 1997, as coca eradication targets were met, the Banzer government’s
repeated requests to the Clinton Administration for additional aid to Bolivia’s
ruined economy fell on deaf ears. While insisting that Banzer continue
full steam ahead with the coca eradication plan, Madeline Albright, on
a three-hour visit to La
last August, said she could not promise any additional funds. She pointed
forgiveness of $450 million of Bolivian debt in the last decade (of a total
debt of over $6 billion) as a significant U.S.
contribution, but this has had little impact on the lives of those most
affected by coca eradication.
the existing mistrust of U.S.
intentions, the U.S. Department of State stated in a report last year that
the Bolivian government must reevaluate in 2001 whether the 30,000 acres
deemed “legal” coca is in fact needed to supply the traditional market.Indeed,
coca has been an important commodity for over a thousand years; it was
one of the first trade goods in the Andes.
It has been a highly symbolic article within a precapitalist context and
a valuable commodity in a capitalist one. The cultural importance of coca
has in fact been ignored throughout the war on drugs. Coca dulls hunger
and fatigue, aids in digestion, provides vitamins and minerals lacking
in Andean staples, and is used in medicine. Coca is offered in all ritual
and ceremonial events from the sowing of crops to the beginning of a house
and all life passages.
Its celebration in traditional legends and poetry can be glimpsed in these
lines from Legend of Coca, an oral Andean poem:
its leaves with love. And when you feel pain in your heart, hunger in your
flesh and darkness in your mind, lift it to your mouth. You will find love
for your pain, nourishment for your body and light for your mind.”
cocaine was discovered to be a highly addictive drug, coca has been demonized
and, in a very real sense, is another victim of the war on drugs. Removed
from its original cultural and economic context, the sacred leaf has become
a commodity that threatens to disrupt the essential fabric of Andean life.
ongoing assault on coca has involved development aid directed at creating
“alternatives” to the leaf. In 2000-2001, Washington
committed a total of $85 million in development aid, much of it directed
to balance-of-payment support. That which remains, called the “Progress
Plan” by the Banzer government, is largely directed at rural electrification,
which will do little to address the immediate problem of losing the region’s
major cash crop. Bush’s proposal for next year, part of Plan Colombia,
includes $101 million, of which $54 million is for police and military
aid. Only some of the $47 million that remains is planned for alternative
development, a paltry amount given the economic challenges faced.
programs, and the promises that accompany them, are nothing new in the
Chapare—significant investments in U.S.-
financed “alternative” development began with George Bush’s 1989 Andean
Initiative. But these initiatives have been failures overall. An examination
of these programs reflect the advantages coca offers as a cash crop—it
grows like a weed; it is pest resistant and produces four harvests a year;
it is light and easy to transport; and it offers a return higher than any
other crop in the region because there is a constant market demand. Before
eradication, it is estimated that coca accounted for over 90% of agricultural
income in the Chapare.
only is coca close to an ideal crop, but alternative development programs
have been plagued by political considerations, poor design and botched
implementation. Some critics blame the failure on the shortsighted and
politically motivated development strategies, which have informed the U.S.
Agency for International Development (AID) programs. AID has absolutely
refused to work through the local campesino federations, which since the
1960s have not only represented the interests of the population, but in
many cases served as the local authority in areas where government presence
never reached. Since the establishment of direct municipal elections in
1995, representatives of coca growers have also held power in municipal
governments throughout the Chapare.
characterization of poor campesinos who make less than $1000 a year as
drug dealers by U.S. AID and Embassy officials meant all programs were
met with distrust and suspicion at the grassroots. While substantial resources
went into developing a demonstration farm to promote alternative crops,
only a handful of extension agents, who are supposed to provide technical
support to campesinos, were employed to serve the 35,000 families that
grew coca. In the early 1990s alternative agricultural development projects
encouraged campesinos to shift to other crops, such as pineapples, pepper
or turmeric. Yet the projects did not ensure markets for these crops, and
projects failed when campesinos, many of whom had borrowed money to plant
new crops, could not sell what they had reaped. Instead, they found their
labor rewarded with debts and further hardship.
vast majority of alternative development funds have been spent in high
salaries for foreigners and local experts, along with luxury offices and
vehicles. Year after year coca grower federations heard of the substantial
sums invested in development without ever seeing significant results in
the Chapare. This has led to a profound cynicism about U.S.
intentions and capabilities in any area except repression.
government’s refusal to recognize coca producers continues. In January,
current Agriculture Minister Hugo Carvajal reaffirmed that the government
rejects the legitimacy of the coca growing federations to represent the
area’s campesinos. Says Feliciano Mamani Quispe, Secretary General of the
largest Chapare federation of coca growers: “The government has never allowed
our participation, and in fact conditioned people’s involvement in alternative
development on leaving the union. All that this money has done is make
government officials rich. We have always been willing to demonstrate to
the government that we can manage these funds, and make these projects
work. They refuse to give us the chance.”
eradication of coca was characterized by escalating confrontations between
growers and repressive forces. In the past year alone, in this traditionally
peaceful country, more than a dozen campesinos and soldiers have been killed.
Human rights organizations have complained vigorously for years about violations. Godofredo
human rights ombudsman for the Chapare region, Human Rights Watch, the
Bolivian Permanent Assembly on Human Rights and the Andean Information
Network, have all documented that U.S.-funded soldiers have stolen goods,
burned houses and tortured coca growers.
coca growers, led by Evo Morales, a dynamic activist who has been elected
to the Bolivian Congress, have vowed to continue the struggle to defend
their livelihood. The U.S.
and Bolivian governments place “hard core” support for Morales’ leadership
at about 2000 Chapare families, but as the impact of the destruction of
coca radiates out into the economy, the frustration, resentment, and resistance
of the general population has grown. Coca seeds are being kept, and it
is widely suspected that if Plan Colombia
is successful in reducing coca production in Colombia,
large-scale replanting will begin in Bolivia
the majority of coca growers, coca has represented the one possibility
to fend off starvation with the economic collapse of the 1980s and the
International Monetary Fund’s imposition of a rigid structural adjustment
plan in 1985. “Cocaine is not a Bolivian problem,” says grower Adrian Martina.
“I’ve never even seen it. Cocaine is an American problem. Our problem here
comes from those who treat us like criminals because we grow coca, which
we have done for thousand of years.”
The decision by the Aymara leader Felix Quispe, known as el Mall’
ku, to postpone the road blockades that he had committed to begin in the
Altiplano on May 1st left the rest of the popular movement with
little other option but to agree to temporarily halt blockades in other
parts of the country. On May 3, COMUNAL, representing the marchers from
Cochabamba, and the government agreed to negotiations and discussions on
subjects including the Structural Adjustment Law adopted in 1985, land
tenure laws, national water and forestry laws, and anti-drug laws. See
Andean Information Network Alert, Agreement Signed – 17 Days for Negotiations,
May 5, 2001.
Anthony Faiola, “In Bolivia’s
Drug War, Success has Price: Farmers Victimized by Coca Eradication”, Matthew
Lee, “Albright pleased by Bolivian drug fight, unable to promise aid”,
Agence France Presse, August
Personal communication with Kathy Ledebur, April