Despite U.S. Aid, Coca Cultivation On Rise in Andes

By Juan Forero and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

COROICO, Bolivia -- Benito Cocarico admits that some of the coca leaves he grows to sell as tea and a traditional pick-me-up are channeled off into the broad stream of the global cocaine trade. But as he trudges on the muddy trails of his farm, located in a region where the raw material for the drug grows on narrow terraces, he explains how central the crop is to his family's well-being.

"The prices of oranges, mandarins, coffee and other products are too low, and they do not give you enough to survive," said Cocarico, 50, adding that he plans to double the size of his coca crop. "So we are obligated to plant coca."

Across the Andean region, the size of the coca crop has increased 18 percent in the past five years, a period during which the United States has spent $4 billion on anti-drug programs. With farmers turning to pesticides and modern irrigation to improve crop yields, the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia -- source countries for nearly all of the global supply -- hovers at 1,100 tons a year, according to a recent U.N. report.

Here in the lush Yungas region of western Bolivia, farmers are allowed by law to plant a total of nearly 30,000 acres of coca -- leaf that is then sold in the domestic market for tea or to be chewed to ward off hunger. But production here far exceeds that threshold, and much of the surplus feeds a cocaine trade thriving in part on the new regional demand of a rising Latin American middle class.

The Andean cocaine supply now exceeds the amount produced in the 1990s, when U.S. policymakers pushed anti-drug aid to the region to counter powerful Colombian cartels. In 1993, when a U.S.-supported police unit shot dead the drug lord Pablo Escobar in his home town of Medellin, the Andes produced 200 fewer tons of cocaine than it did last year.

"If you look back at the days of Escobar, the names have changed but there's as much cocaine or more cocaine coming out of the Andes as a whole as in the peak anti-Medellin war on drugs," said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group critical of U.S. anti-drug policies in the region. "We're talking almost 20 years later."

So far this decade, the United States has invested nearly $8 billion in the drug war, funding manual eradication efforts in Bolivia and neighboring Peru and an aerial herbicide-spraying program in Colombia that has covered more than 2.5 million acres since 2000.

In Colombia, where the United States has spent the most, coca cultivation rose 27 percent from 2006 to 2007, to about 245,000 acres. That accounts for more than 50 percent of all coca production in the region. Coca plantings in Bolivia and Peru also increased by about 5 percent each. Taken together, the United Nations reported a 16 percent increase in Andean coca production in 2007.

"It has been three steps forward, two steps back," said David Murray, chief scientist at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington. "But there actually has been progress. Throughout the Andes and in Colombia."

Murray attributed the reported increase in coca cultivation to a change in U.N. methodology. The anti-narcotics aid to Colombia has helped strengthen the central government there by weakening drug-trafficking rebel and paramilitary groups, Murray said, while reports from law enforcement agencies in the United States indicate that it has become more difficult to buy the drug.

"They're losing ground, is our argument, they're smaller plots [of coca], they're more remote, they're more labor-intensive, and it's more difficult for them to extract a cocaine living out of this," he said. "The cocaine market is in decline."

While Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is revered in Washington for his tough stance against cocaine trafficking, the Bush administration has been sharply at odds with Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, a former coca farmer who still heads the coca growers federation. Morales rose to power on the strength of his leadership of coca growers, who organized against what they saw as damaging U.S.-sponsored eradication policies.

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