Daily Archives: February 12, 2012

Bolivian’s cocaine industry under the analysis of the Wall Street Journal

This is an excellent article, well written by John Lyons; it reveals how Bolivia has been captured by the worst imaginable nightmare, follows excerpts from this article, portions that pertain to Bolivian reality:

Cocaine: The New Front Lines

by JOHN LYONS, The Wall Street Journal

In the dusty town of Villa Tunari in Bolivia‘s tropical coca-growing region, farmers used to barricade their roads against U.S.-backed drug police sent to prevent their leafy crop from becoming cocaine. These days, the police are gone, the coca is plentiful and locals close off roads for multiday block parties—not rumbles with law enforcement.

“Today, we don’t have these conflicts, not one death, not one wounded, not one jailed,” said Leonilda Zurita, a longtime coca-grower leader who is now a Bolivian senator, a day after a 13-piece Latin band wrapped up a boozy festival in town.

The cause for celebration is a fundamental shift in the cocaine trade that is complicating U.S. efforts to fight it. Once concentrated in Colombia, a close U.S. ally in combating drugs, the cocaine business is migrating to nations such as Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, where populist leaders are either ambivalent about cooperating with U.S. antidrug efforts or openly hostile to them.

Since 2000, cultivation of coca leaves—cocaine’s raw material—plunged 65% in Colombia, to 141,000 acres in 2010, according to United Nations figures. In the same period, cultivation surged more than 40% in Peru, to 151,000 acres, and more than doubled in Bolivia, to 77,000 acres.

More important, Bolivia and Peru are now making street-ready cocaine, whereas they once mostly supplied raw ingredients for processing in Colombia. In 2010, Peru may have passed Colombia as the world’s biggest producer, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Between 2009 and 2010, Peru’s potential to produce cocaine grew 44%, to 325 metric tons. In 2010, Colombia’s potential production was 270 metric tons.

… while Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself a longtime coca grower, expelled the agency altogether. With Myanmar, they are the only countries currently “decertified” by the U.S. as failing to combat illegal drugs.

In South America, the balloon effect has coincided with another phenomenon: The rise of a generation of populist leaders who view U.S. antidrug efforts as a version of the “Yankee imperialism” they disdain.

Both Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez and Bolivia‘s Mr. Morales built support among mostly poor populations as staunchly anti-U.S. leaders. They describe the drug war as a facade for a strategy to control the region’s politics and natural resources, especially oil.

In Bolivia, Mr. Morales, a 52-year-old Aymara Indian who took office in 2006, has spent a lifetime opposing the U.S. drug war. As the head of his country’s coca growers, he built a political movement by demonstrating against the drug police. The marches he led on the capital La Paz brought down a pro-U.S. president and paved the way for his election.

Once in office, Mr. Morales named coca growers to key law-enforcement posts, including drug czar, and has asked the legislature to expand the area for legal coca growing to almost 50,000 acres—five times the amount needed to supply Indians with chewable coca for traditional purposes.

Mr. Morales describes his policy as “Coca yes, Cocaine no,” a nod to the central role the leaves have played for centuries in Indian culture. Coca is traditionally chewed by Andean Indians as a mild stimulant. To mark the change, Mr. Morales took office in a mountaintop ceremony conducted by an Aymara Indian shaman in flowing robes.

But “Coca yes, cocaine no” turns out to be a hard ideal to follow. Valentin Mejillones, the shaman who swore Mr. Morales into office and acted as his personal spiritual guide, was arrested in 2010 with more than 500 pounds of liquid cocaine in his home. He denies wrongdoing.

Then there’s Margarita Terán, a coca grower and one-time Morales girlfriend picked to produce a section protecting coca growing for a new Bolivian constitution. In 2008, two of Ms. Terán’s sisters were caught with 300 pounds of coca paste, which is semirefined cocaine, at a police roadblock. They deny wrongdoing.

Last year in Panama, agents of the U.S. DEA nabbed Gen. Rene Sanabria, who headed a Morales anti-narcotics agency, as he was preparing to ship 317 pounds of cocaine to the U.S. Mr. Sanabria pleaded guilty and is now serving a 15-year prison sentence in the U.S.

Mr. Morales’s fiercest critics say the high-profile arrests suggest his government condones drug trafficking. Others say that his ambivalence toward antidrug enforcement has generated a level of corruption that is now out of control.

“What’s happening is that drug trafficking, amid a lack of clear policy, amid weak institutions, amid weak parties, is finding its way in,” says Juan del Granado, a former La Paz mayor and former Morales supporter who broke ranks with the president over drug policy and other differences.

The cocaine industry has migrated before. Peru and Bolivia, where coca is legal and Indians have chewed it for centuries, were the primary source of coca leaves for a cocaine boom in the early 1980s that spawned kingpins like Colombia’s Pablo Escobar.

Then the U.S. made Bolivia and Peru the front lines of efforts to squelch drug supply. U.S. military helicopters ferried Bolivian drug police—trained, outfitted and fed by the U.S.—on coca raids. In Peru, the air force shot down airplanes suspected of carrying coca paste to Colombia in a controversial venture with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Today, Plan Colombia is pushing coca cultivation back to Peru and Bolivia, a round-trip journey that analysts say illustrates the difficulties of drug interdiction.

In Bolivia, the biggest challenge today may be the growing presence of international drug cartels from Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, intelligence experts say. In October, Bolivian soldiers happened upon a huge cocaine processing lab on a remote coca-growing frontier. One trafficker was killed and another was captured in a fire fight—and both were Colombian.

An internal Bolivian intelligence report obtained by The Wall Street Journal detailed the presence of Mexican, Colombian and Brazilian traffickers in the city of Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Brazilian police say 80% of that country’s cocaine supply comes from Bolivia.

Signs of expansion are easy to find in El Chapare, a coca-growing center in Bolivia’s tropical flatland, where 90% of the harvest ends up as cocaine, by many estimates. On a recent visit, plumes of smoke and the scent of burnt wood in the muggy air signaled that locals were burning new plots for coca planting.

Workers at a local hotel warned guests not to stray from the grounds lest they happen upon a coca-processing lab nearby and startle its owners. Motorists complain that local filling stations are occasionally sold out of gasoline, which is used as a precursor in processing cocaine.

But the biggest change around El Chapare may be, ironically, the peace. For years, towns like Villa Tunari saw tense and sometimes deadly skirmishes between growers and police.

Under a new policy, coca union leaders, rather than police, enforce limits on growing. Each family member can plant one basketball-court sized “cato” of coca. U.N. figures show that Bolivia eradicated more than 20,000 acres in 2010, though the total area under cultivation remained the same.

One reason locals trim back coca farms is to maintain prices, says Ms. Zurita, the coca-grower leader. “We tell everybody you have to be smart,” she says. If everyone grows as much as they want, then it won’t be worth anything.”

Critics say that the eradication numbers are misleading. For one, older fields that have lost their productivity are being cut down to make way for new farms in pristine jungle.

That process is visible a short distance away, on the edge of one of Bolivia’s biggest Amazon reserves, where some 15,000 coca growers have cut plots into the protected land. More are expected to pour into the reserve if a major road ordered by Mr. Morales is completed. Amazon Indians who live in the park, fearing that the coca growers will damage their land and overrun their culture, have launched a movement to keep them out.

Their odds aren’t good. The president’s “loyalty is to the cocaleros [coca growers], and in reality, the cocaleros are the drug traffickers, producing coca for cocaine,” says Fernando Vargas, a leader of the Indians who is seeking to block the road. “As a result, our culture could be destroyed.”

—Martin Arostegui contributed to this article.

Write to John Lyons at john.lyons@wsj.com


If you want to read the full article and see some pictures and also a video, use the link right above. Special thanks go to The Wall Street Journal for not forgetting and making the world know about our ordeal. Kudos for John Lyons and Martin Arostegui, brave journalists who defy and expose the worst business in this era: the narcotraffickers of the world and their operatives.