The Price of Success: Bolivia's War Against Drugs and the Poor

September 25, 2007

For the first time in nearly half a century, Bolivia has been dropped from the list of major drug-producing countries. 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.

When 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 the U.S. 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 of La Paz that the government estimates is needed for traditional Andean daily ritual and medicinal use.

In the 1970s, coca production began expanding from the Yungas, where it has been grown since before the Spanish invasion, to the Chapare region east of Cochabamba. Production in the Chapare mushroomed in response to increasing northern demand for cocaine, mostly from the United States. 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.

Using U.S. 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 United States is pleased. “Bolivia has done in the past two to three years what no other country has done in the drug war in Latin America,” said Manuel Rocha, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia since July 2000. “In Latin America, this is the success story.”[1]

This “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.”[2]

The 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 leader.[3] 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.

This 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 Paz 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 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 social movements.[4]

If 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 Paz. The six organizations of coca producers in the Yungas have emphatically sworn that they will never allow their coca plants to be destroyed.

While 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.[5]

“What comes after coca?” asks Carlos Torranzo, of the Latin American Institute for Social Research in La Paz. “To sustain ‘zero coca,’ you need an economic plan. And we still haven’t seen that plan.”[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8]

Despite 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 York.[9]

Nor has success in Bolivia had an impact on the price of street cocaine in the United States or Europe. An April 19 article in The Guardian reported that prices in England are at all-time lows.[10] 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 United States yields returns that are 50 times greater than coca eradication.[11]

The 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 Paz last August, said she could not promise any additional funds. She pointed to Washington’s 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.[12]

Fueling the existing mistrust of U.S. intentions, the U.S. Department of State maintained in a report last year that the Bolivian government must re-evaluate in 2001 whether the 30,000 acres deemed “legal” coca is in fact needed to supply the traditional market.[13] 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.[14] Its celebration in traditional legends and poetry can be glimpsed in these lines from “Legend of Coca,” an oral Andean poem:

“Guard 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.”

Since 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.

Part of the United States’ 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.

Development 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.

Not 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.

The characterization of poor campesinos—most of whom 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 harvested. Instead, they found their labor rewarded with debts and further hardship.[15]

The 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.

The 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.”[16]

The 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 Reinicke, Bolivia’s 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.[17]

Chapare 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 2,000 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 and Peru.

For 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.”

ABOUT THE AUTHORSBen Kohl and Linda Farthing worked in Bolivia for seven years. Ben is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. Linda is on the Board of the Andean Information Network, a group that works on drug war issues in Bolivia.

Thanks to Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network and Gina Amatangelo of the Washington Office on Latin America for reviewing this article.
1. Anthony Faiola, “In Bolivia’s Drug War, Success has Price: Farmers Victimized by Coca Eradication,” Washington Post, March 4, 2001.
2. Phone interview with author, April 23, 2001.
3. “Coca’s Second Front,” The Economist, January 6, 2001.
4. The decision by the Aymara leader Felix Quispe, known as el Mallk’u, 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 those 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.
5. Anthony Faiola, “In Bolivia’s Drug War, Success has Price: Farmers Victimized by Coca Eradication.”
6. Clifford Krauss, “Bolivia Wiping out Coca at a Price,” The New York Times, October 23, 2000.
7. Los Tiempos (Cochabamba), December 13, 2000.
8. Personal communication with Kathy Ledebur, April 6, 2001.
9. Christopher Marquis, “U.S. finds that coca cultivation is shifting sharply to Colombia,” The New York Times, March 2, 2001.
10. Jeevan Vasagar, “Cocaine spreads among young as price falls,” The Guardian, April 19, 2001,,2763,475044,00.html.
11. Michael Kennedy, Peter Reuter and Kevin Jack Riley, A Simple Economic Model of Cocaine Production (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1994).
12. Matthew Lee, “Albright pleased by Bolivian drug fight, unable to promise aid,” Agence France Presse, August 18, 2000.
13. “The 2000 Report of the Department of State on International Narcotic Control Strategy” cited in “Los Cocaleros Preparan Medidas de Resistencia,” Los Tiempos (Cochabamba), March 5, 2001.
14. See Catherine Allen, The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988) for a detailed account of the role of coca in Andean life.
15. Linda Farthing, “Carrots for Coke,” This Magazine (Toronto), October 1992. In 1998, Robert Lessman, approached one of the agencies working on alternative development, the Bolivian Institute for Agricultural Technology (IBTA) with a proposal to market pepper through a German spice company. The company had been impressed by the samples from the Chapare they had seen, and were interested in buying the entire harvest. Even though the income from pepper production is potentially twice per hectare of that of the coca, Lessman found that IBTA officials had no marketing plan for pepper, no one competent to negotiate with the spice company and inaccurate figures about production levels. As a consequence, the proposal went nowhere. See Robert Lessman, “Where the Pepper Does Not Grow,” Drugs and Development, No. 10, July-August 1998, in the European NGO Council on Drugs and Development Website:
16. Interview with Feliciano Mamani Quispe, conducted by Veronica Ramos and Jose Luis Mamani, April 30, 2001.
17. For example, see “Bolivia under pressure: Human Rights Violations and Coca Eradication,” Human Rights Watch/Americas, May 1996.

Tags: drug war, Bolivia, eradication, coca, global capitalism, campesinos

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