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Bolivia walks thin line as it struggles to battle coca production

"I think Bolivians are missing a key point," Manso says. "If you look at the U.S. and U.N. numbers from 2000 until now, they both show a steady upward trend and a more than doubling of coca planting in Bolivia."

'There's a thin line'

Coca is an issue that has long defined U.S.-Bolivian relations, and which Morales, a cocalero and head of the coca growers' federation, uses to galvanize his base. "Evo's electoral stronghold was the cocaleros and other groups with the same school of thought: the have-nots neglected by the government masses," says César Guedes, representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Bolivia. "There's a thin line where the government has to be careful: keep the culture of coca without the support and endorsement of cocaine. It takes work for the government to make that message clear."

Morales came to power aiming to develop a legal, global market for coca. Under his "Coca Yes, Cocaine No" policy, his administration committed $5 million to industrialize coca, working with scientists to find alternative uses for the plant and building factories that will process coca into flour, syrups and other products.

But the market is crippled by a 1961 U.N. anti-drug convention that bans the export of any products that contain cocaine alkaloids. "In some ways, Morales overreached," says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counternarcotics expert and fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He wanted to show that coca is okay. He devoted a lot of his counternarcotics focus on getting coca removed from the U.N.'s list of controlled substances. I don't see that happening anytime soon."

Bolivia is spending $20 million on its own counternarcotics efforts, an investment that, if spent elsewhere, could help improve life in one of South America's poorest countries. Cocalero Adela Mamani Poma would like a hospital in the region and a better education for her children.

"My concern is that Bolivia is a victim of the circumstances," Guedes says. "The whole international demand for cocaine fuels this problem. Of the three countries [Colombia, Bolivia, Peru], Bolivia has the least means to confront the problem. It has to distract resources, people, technical means that it could put towards roads and hospitals into fighting narco-trafficking."

Coster reported this article on a grant with the International Reporting Project.

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