Bolivian Official: Up to 20 Percent of ‘Legal’ Coca Goes to Cocaine

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In what is sure to fuel more debate on whether coca should be taken from the list of United Nations’ banned substances, the Bolivian government announced that only 10 to 20 percent of legally grown coca is used to make illicit drugs.

But while the announcement may bolster Bolivian President Evo Morales’ international campaign to legitimize traditional uses of coca as part of his government’s “Coca Yes, Cocaine No” policy, it overlooks the massive amounts of illegally grown coca and the government’s sketchy process of monitoring coca.

In a recent press conference, Bolivian Director of Coca Industrialization, Luis Cutipa, said that coca retailers and producers likely diverted between 1,905 and 3,819 tons of the coca paste to the black market in 2010, which he says is 10 to 20 percent of the total legal market. The rest of the legal coca market goes to licit activities, such as coca-chewing, sodas, butter, flour, teas and other products.

The official estimate is likely to further fuel the international showdown between the U.S. and Bolivia over whether the United Nations should remove the coca leaf from a list of banned substances.  Although the Bolivian government has petitioned the UN to repeal the ban on the grounds that usage of coca is a harmless indigenous tradition, the United States maintains that such a repeal would strengthen drug-trafficking operations in the region.

Morales has a tricky line to hold. He is a coca-grower himself, and he was elected in large part with the support of the country’s largest coca-growing union. In an effort to placate his constituency, the Bolivian president has increased government-santioned coca fields from 30,000 acres to 49,000 acres. But the U.S. State Department says that has fostered more cultivation of coca by as much as 37,000 acres that is used for the production of cocaine.

No one seems to have the answer. In August, Cutipa told the business journal AméricaEconomía that 35 and 40 percent of all the coca produced in the country is “used for the illegal trade,” while 65 percent is used for traditional consumption. And Bolivian authorities have begun to hail 2010’s record number of cocaine seizures as proof that the government is cracking down on drug trafficking in the country. U.S. authorities, however, are unconvinced, and argue that the increase in seizures only reflects an increase in cocaine production under Morales’ watch.

At the core of the dispute is the manner in which coca cultivation is monitored in the country.  Although the government tasks Cutipa’s agency with official oversight, a significant amount of control is given to ‘cocaleros,’ the coca-growing unions themselves in a program known as “social control.”  In this system, cocaleros are given economic incentives to report illicit coca production, and union officials play a large role in encouraging compliance.  According to a 2009 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, this policy is beginning to show results in the Chapare and La Asunta regions, and “social control” helped lead to crop diversification in the affected regions.

Still, the program faces enormous obstacles.  In addition to the obvious economic incentives that farmers have to produce cocaine, Cutipa believes the small size of his staff makes his job more difficult. “DIGCOIN [the Office of Coca Control and Industrialization] has 120 people nationwide,” said the official.  “They are tasked with monitoring over 11,000 coca traders, in addition to the 72,700 coca producers…Our staff is not nearly enough.”

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