<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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The trademarks "Narco News," "The Narco News Bulletin," "School of Authentic Journalism," "Narco News TV" and NNTV © 2000-2011 Al Giordano


Coca Cookies and Constitutional Dreams

Decriminalization and How It Could Change Life for Bolivia’s Cocaleros

By Jean Friedsky
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

December 2, 2005

LA PAZ: The mini-bus pulls up to the military checkpoint in the heart of the Chapare and the UMOPAR (Narcotics Mobile Rural Patrol Unit) officer slides open the door. Realizing the passengers are a dozen cocalero (coca grower) leaders headed to their regional Federation of Coca Producers meeting in the neighboring town of Villa Tunari, the soldier forgoes the required vehicle and bag search. Just before the bus pulls away, one of the leaders asks the soldier: “So, you going to vote for Evo?,” and the cocaleros laugh. Shrugging and looking over his shoulder, “it depends on what he is offering,” he answers with a smile.

Coca leaves at market.
Photo: D.R. 2004 Jeremy Bigwood
It’s October 2005 in the Chapare region of Bolivia and as Villa Tunari Mayor Feliciano Mamani notes, “a lot has changed.” As Narco News has reported extensively since 2001, Chapareños had, for years, lived in a fully militarized zone created by U.S.-backed Bolivian drug-war policy that demanded the forced eradication of the coca plant in this tropical region of the country. Under threat of search, detention and torture for their resistance, cocaleros lived in constant conflict with (and fear of) soldiers like those at the military checkpoint.

The wounds from this era are deep. “We see widows, orphans, people with missing legs, arms and eyes everyday around here — reminders of our history and struggle,” explains Chapare cocalera leader Apolonia Sanchez. Poverty, prevalent sickness and an unstable economy make for an uncertain future.

But now, after years of resistance, the Chapare has entered a new epoch, and there is hope on the horizon.

An October 2004 agreement with then-President Carlos Mesa, which allows each Chapareño to legally grow a small amount of coca, has lowered daily tensions in the Chapare and greatly improved life for the cocaleros.

Evo Morales.
Photo: D.R. 2004 Noah Friedsky
But there’s more. As the country prepares for general elections, their man — indigenous Chapare cocalero leader Evo Morales — leads handily in the polls and, to the dismay of U.S. government representatives in Bolivia, he is making the controversial issue of coca a central tenet of his presidential bid.

“We are going to initiate a campaign to decriminalize coca on an international level,” Evo stated on November 21, 2005 to the Bolivia daily La Razon, echoing his often-heard campaign trail declaration.

The rise of Evo and his platform, along with the Mesa agreement, are moving the cocaleros closer to their ultimate goal: the right to grow their sacred crop without repression.

“A Relative Calm”

She shines in the sunlight. With her machete freshly sharpened on a nearby rock, 41-year-old Apolonia Sanchez hacks away at the trees on the edge of her chaco (farm). Barely five feet tall and slight for a Quechua cocalera, she brings down palm braches with one swift swing. “I love being here,” she says looking over her young coca crop. “This is where I always want to be — out here in the fields. It’s my home.”

Apolonia is standing within the 1600 square meters of coca that the government now allows her to grow. She feels at ease, knowing that the UMOPAR officials will not appear from the dense bush, suddenly attacking her and her land. The roadside military checkpoints remain and soldiers roam the fields monitoring growth but Apolonia explains that, in stark contrast to the last 16 years in the Chapare, “we now have a relative calm.”

Apolonia Sanchez on her chaco.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
On October 3, 2004, Carlos Mesa and the Six Federations of Coca Producers of the Tropic of Cochabamba signed an agreement that allowed 7,900 acres of coca to be grown in the Chapare—approximately one cato (about .4 acres) per cocalero. A longtime demand of the cocaleros, this accord tacitly legalized coca grown in this region for the first time in 16 years.

The accord with Mesa resulted from years of resistance against the vilified 1998 Regulation of Coca and Controlled Substances Law (better known as Law #1008) that began the forced eradication of Chapareño coca. The rise of cocaine and crack in the United States during the 1980s led the U.S. government to launch a concerted campaign to control the production of coca, the main raw material for cocaine. Claiming that eliminating the coca supply would alleviate its domestic drug crisis, the U.S. pressured Bolivia and its Andean neighbors to implement draconian laws such as #1008 that effectively waged war against the indigenous people for whom coca growing was both integral to their culture and their only means of economic survival.

That coca is a sacred plant with traditional usage is obvious to anyone who has spent time in Bolivia. The omnipresent bolo (the cheek bulge created when one chews coca) from the sidewalks of El Alto, to the valleys of the Chapare, to the mines of Potosi, is a visible reminder that the nation’s poor have chewed coca for centuries to stave off hunger and fatigue. Celebrations or remembrances of any kind (sometimes even those of the white middle class) are not complete without a mesa, a ritual burning that includes coca leaves as an offering.

“The legitimate consumption and use of the coca leaf by the Bolivian population through their social and cultural practices is understood,” reads article 4 of Law 1008. However, despite this acknowledgment, the Law establishes that only a very limited amount of coca fulfills this traditional demand, and that this is the crop from the Yungas, not the Chapare.

The “spontaneous and unstructured cultivation process [in the Chapare region] has created increased a surplus crop which goes towards [the coca leaf’s] illicit uses,” Article 10 states.

Most of the Chapare thus became a “red zone” — an area of coca marked for eradication — and military officers began intimidation and terrorizing campaigns. “Our crops were ripped from the ground, our houses destroyed, our compañeros imprisoned and our women raped,” recalls Leonilda Zurita, president of the Federation of Women Coca Producers of the Tropic of Cochabamba.

Government figures estimate that 90% of Bolivian coca was eradicated from 1988 to 2004, though it’s common knowledge in the Chapare that these figures are exaggerated so that the government can please its American overseers. “The government only wants to see what’s being pulled out, not what’s being put back in,” one cocalera confided. “So in one area, we are ‘eradicating voluntarily’ as the Mesa accord says we should, but in another we put them back in.”

Despite this hidden resistance, Chapare coca growing capacity was ravaged throughout the 90s, and along with it the economic stability of the region’s peasant farmers. The government’s schemes to replace coca — encouraging the cultivation of the so-called five stars of alternative development (pineapple, oranges, palm hearts, rice and coffee) — have been virtually useless for the cocaleros.

“We dedicate ourselves to harvesting other crops but the problem is that we don’t even know where these products will go or how much money they will bring in.” explains longtime coca leader Rolando Vargas. “The government tells us to grow the crops but they have done nothing to ensure that there is a market for them.”

The figures tell it all: They must harvest 60 pineapples to earn $1; oranges often go five for one boliviano (about twelve U.S. cents); a 1/2 acre plot of palm hearts yields about $25 of profit, but this same size plot can provide up to $500 worth of coca annually.

Cocaleros never gave up their fight for the right to defend coca and modify Law 1008. Since 1988, they have held marches of thousands of miles, held dozens of hunger strikes and manned countless road blockades. In the halls of Congress, they have recently made their voices heard through the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS in its Spanish initials), the electoral wing of their movement.

The cocaleros took control of the already existing MAS party in the late 90’s and made it MAS-IPSP (Movement Towards Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People). The decision to work within this party structure was a calculated move to augment their street power with state political leverage.

Through this double-sided strategy of resistance they impeded the government’s advances time and time again, refusing to let the military close coca markets or to unilaterally eliminate coca.

The Mesa agreement changed the dynamic by tacitly legalizing coca from the Chapare. It is a duly celebrated victory because of the rights it now gives to the cocaleros, and because it has improved daily life in this conflicted region.

But despite the lowered tensions the agreement produced, cocaleros feel that this period is a mere calm in the middle of the storm. The Mesa accord is not permanent; the amount of legalized coca in the Chapare is subject to change based on the results of a national study that will measure the amount of traditional consumption of coca within Bolivia.

Also, the accord makes eradication of all coca beyond the 7,900 legal acres “voluntary,” meaning cocaleros are on their own to stop planting. But the government threatens military involvement if the “voluntary” eradication doesn’t work to its liking.

“We are going to see confrontations again if the military returns to eradicate,” says Apolonia, “because they aren’t going to leave this issue alone and we aren’t going to let them do that to us again.”

The feeling of instability also comes from an awareness of how coca growing is viewed internationally. “They are always watching us to see how we handle the coca issue,” notes Vargas, “they” referring to the U.S. government.

“We know,” says Egberto Chipana, director of Chapareño radio station Radio Chipiriri, “that the American Embassy did not agree with the 2004 agreement with Mesa, that they want to continue the eradication and destruction of lives in the Chapare. So there is always a threat that this time of peace will come to an end.”

And at its heart, the agreement with Mesa has limited effects on the cocaleros because it is only a small step in a long journey towards growing coca without restriction.

“Though it is better that we are living in relative tranquility,” explains Egberto, the cocaleros “have not been able to overcome the problem of economic survival, which is the most important thing.”

Double Lives

“If I could be here every day, my land wouldn’t look like this,” Apolonia says as she surveys the weeds growing in between her coca plants and the encroaching bushes along the edge of the cultivated area. “My plants would be able to grow healthier and produce more if I could be here all the time.”

Apolonia’s house in the countryside.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
Since 1997, Apolonia has led a double life. She has her several-acre plot where she grows mandarins, palm hearts and coca. But she resides in the nearby town of Eterezama with her two teenage children, in a room in a long row of identical garage-like living areas.

Apolonia’s double life — part town, part farm — is an effect of the 17-year repression.

“From 1988 on, there was so much persecution,” recalls Egberto. “The people could not cultivate their coca. They could barely work their fields even cultivating other crops with dignity. So they were forced to the towns to make ends meet.”

Apolonia came to the Chapare in 1980 at the age of 16. Like so many others, she came as part of a mass migration from other regions of the country where jobs were disappearing as neoliberal policies began to take affect. Ex-miners and other day laborers saw hope in the Chapare because they could learn to grow coca easily and because it provided a steady and reasonable income.

Apolonia’s living space in Eterezama.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
Apolonia bought land, which was then plentiful and cheap. And around her, a community grew. “This road used to be filled with people and cars,” she says, pointing to the dirt road that leads to her farm from the main artery that connects Eterezama and other small towns.

A skeleton of the community that once thrived, the area around her farm is now full of partially abandoned living structures and planted but minimally kept fields. One or two cars per day pass on the dirt road, and during the eight hours we spent on her land, we saw only four other people — two older, barefoot and shirtless men with machetes and a younger women with a small child.

Apolonia now has a stand in Eterezama where she sells children’s clothing to augment her income. It doesn’t bring in much, she admits, “but it’s something.” According to Mayor Feliciano Mamani, 90 percent of Villa Tunari residents live this way—residing and working in town but tending their farms as well.

The migration to the towns began with the militarization, but the recent agreement with Mesa has only exacerbated this split life.

“In the 1990s people left the countryside,” Egberto of Radio Chipiri explains. “Now, they are returning to farm more, to grow their coca, because they no longer feel so persecuted on their land.” But, he maintains, this doesn’t mean they are able to go back to farming exclusively.

“One cato of coca is not enough for us to live on,” say Rolando Vargas. “We can’t simply go back to only working in the fields because we can’t make enough money. We are stuck continuing this way.”

One cato of coca from the Chapare provides, on average, a $120 crop three times a year.

A street in Eterezama.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
“We can’t live on just this income,” Rolando concludes. The double economy “is the only way can at least survive and provide bread for our families each day.”

The cocaleros’ adaptation to their split life is another form of their resistance. There is strength and resilience in their decision to develop double lives: they stay because they give no one the power — neither the military nor the government — to tell them they have to leave.

But the sadness from this life is in Apolonia’s eyes. “I don’t want to go back to Eterezama today,” she confesses. This is her first time on her land in the past two weeks. A relatively costly taxi ride from Eterezama, and then a one-and-a-half mile walk in the hot sun, the trip to her chaco and the demands of her life in Eterezama are limiting.

She tries to smile but the longing belies her attempts. “This is where I am most happy. I just want to live here again, like I was able to before…” And her voice trails off.

Decriminalization and Industrialization

“Absolutely, the topic of decriminalization of the coca leaf is the most important demand of the cocaleros today,” explains Bolivian sociologist and coca specialist José Mirtenbaum. “It’s what could provide a permanent calm for the cocaleros and improve their lives by legitimizing their work.”

The idea of decriminalization of the coca leaf is not new. “We have always talked about this as an important goal,” explains Mayor Mamani. For years, decriminalization advocates have worked on legal proposals to modify Law 1008 and have kept the discussion alive even when the repression against cocaleros was at its height.

But the prospects for the realization of this goal have now changed.

“One of the greatest myths of the drug war in Bolivia has fallen to pieces,” wrote Alex Contreras on October 7, 2004, just days after the agreement with Mesa was confirmed. “The typical rhetoric on the Chapare coca – that it all goes to narco-trafficking… or that its farmers are narco-terrorists – have been left behind. That coca will now be respected.”

In addition to destroying the notion that Chapareño coca is no more than a base ingredient for cocaine, this accord has far-reaching legal applications. In his article, Contreras relays Evo Morales’ perspective on the agreement’s potential: it created a legal fissure in Law 1008 by recognizing the legitimacy of Chapare coca, a fissure that could become a full breach with the right combination of organizing and political will.

That organizing and political push is what’s currently underway. Tactically, the campaign is multilayered. The accord with Mesa called for a national study of traditional consumption of coca, a study in which “we are going to demonstrate that the coca from the Chapare has a [legitimate] market,” Evo Morales stated to La Razon on November 22, 2005.

Mired in debate about who should run it and how it should be carried out, the study has not yet begun. A November 3rd article by BolPress reports that the Six Federations of Coca Producers of the Tropic of Cochabamba and the government have finally agreed on the composition of the commission — 2 representatives from the government, 6 from the Federations — and that work should begin soon.

Moreover, the demand for decriminalization has been coupled with a call for the industrialization of coca-based products. Coca producers say that this decriminalization and increased coca production would enhance Bolivia’s legitimate economy — providing jobs and new products for export and national use — rather than increasing drug trafficking.

“Coca cookies, coca toothpaste, wine made from coca; we can industrialize the coca leaf and we know there is great potential demand for these products,” explains Apolonia. “A coca industry would help the nation by ensuring our coca be used for healthy products, not drugs.”

Cocaleros also seek to utilize the developing political situation to their advantage.

Leonida Zurita Vargas.
Photo: D.R. 2004 Noah Friedsky
“Coca is Bolivia’s natural resource, just like gas, oil or water,” explained Zurita in her address to the International Colloquia on Coca, held in La Paz on November 4th. “Therefore, it ought to be protected in our constitution when we re-write it next year in the Constitutional Assembly. ”

And there is no way to discuss decriminalization of coca without also discussing the MAS.

“This is a time of great hope in the Chapare,” notes Egberto of Radio Chipiriri. Despite the strong criticism of Evo from parts of the Bolivia left, in the Chapare he is undoubtedly a hero. “For them, ‘Evo’ is about having someone who speaks, thinks and acts like them in the government,” Egberto adds. They draw strength and pride from his rise to power.

But they have real expectations as well: Chapareños want an Evo-led government to re-write Law #1008 or introduce new legislation that would decriminalize coca. As well, they want a state-sponsored industrialization process.

Evo first announced on September 20, 2005 the MAS’s intention to decriminalize the coca leaf. The announcement brought criticism from the U.S. embassy, and the two other major presidential candidates — Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga and Samuel Medina — quickly distanced themselves from his proposal.

“This idea could be an incentive for narco-trafficking,” Jaime Navarro, campaign chief of the National Unity Party was quoted as saying in a September 21st La Prensa article. The spokesman for the Tuto’s party Podemos echoed these sentiments: “The coca from the Chapare must be eliminated,” he stated in the same La Prensa article.

U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee, while avoiding statements about a possible U.S response, has maintained an ominous refrain on the subject: “I hope there are no changes [in coca legislation] because if there are negative changes, the country that’s going to suffer is Bolivia,” he stated in a November 18, 2005 La Razon article.

MAS has not strayed from their decriminalization stance publicly. But when it comes to how or to what extent they would use their power to advance this goal, there is an eerie silence.

In MAS’ most recent governmental platform, “Government Program of MAS-IPSP: A Dignified, Sovereign and Productive Bolivia,” the word “coca” appears only once in the 186-page document. (The vague statement, “program for the industrialization of the coca leaf,” is point #5 in the sub-section “Promotion of the Transformation and Commercialization of Products from the Community and Producer Organizations.”)

There is no mention of decriminalization in the entire document.

Decriminalization advocates, while hoping for an ally with state power, are not limiting their work to electoral-based strategies. “The idea of decriminalization is not a political platform,” explains Dionicio Nuñez, one of the leaders of the coca decriminalization movement and a current MAS Congressman who is not seeking re-election. “It is a historical demand from our bases and the struggle for this goal will need to happen both inside and outside government.”

Organizationally, this extra-political work is based in the Coca and Sovereignty Campaign. A project among community leaders and scholars, the Campaign is working internationally to remove the coca leaf from the United Nation list of “controlled substances.”

In 2008 the U.N. will hold its preparatory meeting in Vienna for the 2013 Convention on Narcotics. “At this preparatory convention we have to make the world understand that coca is not inherently harmful to your health but is in fact beneficial,” explains sociologist Mirtenbaum. “We must demonstrate that keeping coca on this list is perpetuating human rights violations, environmental destruction and poverty in many Latin American nations.”


Should coca be removed from the UN list of controlled substances, the consequences could be far-reaching. For the peoples of the Americas, the most significant result is that the U.S.-driven drug war would be turned on its head.

Sociologist Mirtenbuam adeptly demonstrated in a recent article for Narco News the ways in which cocaine and all “chemical substances and psychotropic drugs [have] played an important role in the ‘illicit’ sector of the processes of transnational capital accumulation.”

From directly boosting the U.S. national economy, to serving as a pretext for meddling in the political affairs of their southern neighbors, to helping keep global neoliberalism afloat for decades, the drug war has, in essence, enabled the U.S. to maintain its hegemony in this region of the world.

The indigenous people of Latin American who grow coca have always been at the losing end of the equation, even when the illegal drug trade enhanced their own nations’ economies. “Those who had possession and control of the raw material,” Mirtenbaum writes, “would pay the consequences and cost of cocaine’s surplus value, with the added social stigmatization of producing a controlled substance.”

Specifically in recent years, the U.S. has exerted its influence over these indigenous communities by drawing them into a deadly and unequal battle ostensibly based solely on the goal of coca eradication. From poisonous fumigation practices in Colombia to the militarization of the Chapare, the U.S. war has wielded great power over the lives of these communities.

Coca’s removal from the UN drug list would not only change the rules of the game, but also who plays, who wins and who loses. Without the omnipresent justification of eradicating coca, the U.S. could not maintain its powerful grip on Andean countries in the same way.

The indigenous people of this region would for once be in control of their coca — both the amount produced and the creation of new opportunities for how it is used. As Mirtenbaum concludes, this holds grand significance. The proposition of decriminalization on an international level for “a country like Bolivia is, above all, an exercise in the right of sovereignty.”

The prospective changes in the lives of cocaleros that could come from decriminalization, either via Constitutional Assembly or UN decree, are more perhaps mundane, but just as important.

While the word “decriminalization” is not necessarily on the lips of the ordinary coca grower, there exists a consciousness that real peace and economic stability can only come from an end to coca eradication policies.

Legal decriminalization could be the key to settling the nerves that continue to pierce through the Chapare, and is the hoped-for answer to giving Apolonia the choice to live once again on her farm.

“If there was legalization of the coca leaf, surely many of the families [that now live in the towns] would return to the fields to live and work,” says Rolando Vargas. “This would be a great step forward in the lives of cocaleros because they would be able to live and work again with dignity.”

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America