How Coca Became Bolivia’s Top Crop

Bolivia is one of the world’s top three producers of coca leaf, but in recent years, the number of processing pits dedicated to converting the plant into cocaine has increased. The country has become a key transit route for Europe-bound drugs passing first through Brazil. Here, there is now less coffee and more coca.

Pedro was 16 when his feet felt the heat of the sulfuric acid for the first time. He stuck his feet in a hole in the ground, a pit with walls lined in plastic, and mixed acid with water and hundreds of kilos of coca leaf. His work consisted of trampling the leaves. Some time ago, he had studied in Cochabamba, the capital of the Bolivian tropics. The money that his parents sent him was not enough for his expenses, so a friend suggested that he work macerating coca in Chapare, a valley of tropical forests 150 kilometers from the city. That was the end of his financial problems. He traveled several times a year and worked mashing leaves in the pits for hours until the leaves released all their alkaloids, at which point another person converted the concentrate into coca base. Later, someone else would turn it into pure cocaine.

More than 20 years have passed. Pedro is a fake name we have given the man, who for security reasons prefers not to reveal his real name, his exact age, his features or any other identifying characteristic. He told his story while sitting on the rear patio of someone else’s house, in Guayaramerin, a city of 40,000 inhabitants in the Beni province, which is located in the jungle region of Bolivia bordering Brazil — one of the country’s key drug trafficking regions. Guayaramerin lies next to the Mamore River, a brownish-green tributary of the Amazon home to snakes and piranhas. Locals tells stories like that of one fisherman who, in 2011, fell in the water after hitting his head and came out without flesh on his face.

This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal and was translated and reprinted with permission from the authors. See original here

But the Mamore is, above all else, the principal source of income for the city. Every day the Brazilians cross from Guajara-Mirim, on the other side of the border with Brazil, to Guayaramerin, and buy suitcases, household appliances and deodorant. In addition to the money brought by tourists and bargain hunters, Bolivia sends hundreds of kilos of cocaine and cocaine paste each month across the river — and also in planes flown over the river — which travel to Brazil and on to Europe.

“It has become a transit country; 10 years ago the principal problem was drug production, which continues to be hidden,” said the European Union’s representative in Bolivia, Nicholas Haunsmann. Bolivia is the third biggest coca leaf producer in the world, after Peru and Colombia. For years, it has fed demand in Brazil, the second biggest consumer of cocaine and its by-products in the world after the United States. Between 2006 and 2013, the Bolivian government seized 209 tons of cocaine, triple the amount seized in the seven years prior to that. Last year, police seized 32 tons of cocaine paste in the country.

A couple of months ago, Brazilian authorities intercepted a 3.7 ton cocaine shipment in the Port of Santos, near Sao Paulo, which was destined for the European market. The drugs came from Bolivia.

There is a 3,420 kilometer border connecting the two countries — 235 kilometers longer than the border separating Mexico from its northern neighbor. In the case of Bolivia and Brazil, the border is full of dense forest and a network of estuaries and tributaries that make monitoring difficult. Guayaramerin is part of this region. Although police and the Bolivian Navy — which due to the lack of coastline operates on the rivers — supposedly monitor the boats that enter and leave the city, the flow of contraband seems unstoppable. The square kilometers of nothingness that surround the town are uncountable — fields of grass, mango plantations, abandoned huts — as is the number of boats that enter and leave the port.

Seated on the rear patio of the house, next to a guava tree and a dog with eyes full of parasites, Pedro said that during the last years he spent working in the business, he sent hundreds of kilos of coca to the other side of the Mamore. “I reached a point where I was moving 160 kilos a month and earning some $15,000,” he said.

Later, Pedro moved to Santa Cruz, the most important city in eastern Bolivia. He worked in an operation that stored, packaged and disguised cocaine shipments destined for a Brazilian group. They hid the drugs in Land Cruiser vehicles, which had ideal hiding places. “We put up to 60 kilos in there and sent them to Brazil,” he remembered fondly. “We sent some 300 per month.”      

During the years Pedro was referring to, near the end of the 1980s, Santa Cruz became the city it is today — a hot spot for drug trafficking. On May 13 this year, police seized 120 kilos of cocaine and an airplane in the city, and dismantled two processing laboratories. Four days earlier, they seized 783 kilos of drugs in two trucks. Just three years ago, authorities captured the border region’s king of coca, Maximiliano Dorado, near the center of Santa Cruz. “Max” trafficked cocaine from Guayaramerin and is now serving time in Brazil for drug trafficking, murder, financial crimes and money laundering.

“His motto was ‘neither lies nor thieves.’ A robbery was nearly equal to death,” said Pedro, whose gang in Santa Cruz fell nearly a year after they began to work with Max. The police destroyed the storage center and he escaped. One day a Brazilian knocked on his door, offering him work, this time from Guayaramerin, gathering drugs from that side of the Mamore and organizing shipments to Guajara-Mirim. The coca came from Peru; the Bolivian border was the storage center. The risk of “tumbes” — thefts of drug shipments — kept him always on the alert. Pedro had been attacked one time while sending a package, and the blow he received left a scar on his face, reminding him always of the need to stay hidden from both police and cocaine thieves. “The police act like they are blind, deaf,” he said with the conviction of someone who knows the ins and outs of the trade. “The police protect the traffickers, the mafiosos. They give them security, cover.”

Days after speaking with Pedro, in an office with covered windows, the head of the Guayaramerin anti-narcotics force (FELCC) relayed an anecdote about his work to us with a frustrated expression. “Some time ago, we caught a Colombian narco, and he told us: ‘We came to your country because there’s less controls.'” A couple of months ago, two Brazilians were murdered after attacking the FELCC post to rescue an accomplice accused of drug trafficking.

They never detained Pedro. If he left the trade, he says, it was not because of the police but because of the tumbadores — a cousin who worked as a hired assassin began to extort him. His group did not have arguments. Pedro organized, was cautious, looked for exit points in the areas around Guayaramerin — dirt paths that led to the river. He loaded a small boat and forded the Mamore, waiting for the boatman on the other side. After ensuring his contact in Guajara-Mirim had received the drugs, he returned to Guayaramerin. This is how things happened time and time again. Then his hitman cousin arrived.

“He started playing dirty with me; that’s what he lived off of doing. He would tell me: ‘Either you give me [money] or I’ll turn you in.’ This happened to coincide with a shipment being seized on the other side, and the flow [of drugs] decreased. I took advantage [of the situation] to get out. I was envisioning the end of my life.”

Seven Times More than Coffee

Around thirty soldiers formed a horizontal line to attack an immobile enemy. They were just waiting for the orders from their general to begin firing at the thousands that were on the other side. Their adversary did not move, nor was it dangerous, but it was difficult to destroy because there was always more. Upon hearing the shout from the general, the soldiers confronted the thousands of coca plants. They ran quickly forward, machetes in hand, to destroy them. “Attack, attack to kill,” some shouted in order to motivate the others. In less than 20 minutes, they had destroyed everything in their path. One by one, they cut the leaves, branches and trunks. In a second round, with a special type of shovel, they destroyed the roots so the plants would not grow back. The peasants who owned the land watched from afar as the plants that they had planted months ago, and that already had grown to more than a meter in height, died.

This was just one of the 25,000 hectares of coca grown in Bolivia. The army has won the battle in Chimore, an area located in the Chapare, the country’s principal coca-growing region, where President Evo Morales was a leader. The government aims to eradicate some 3,000 hectares this year as part of its anti-drug policy.

“Ninety-four percent of coca leaf produced in the Chapare doesn’t pass through legal channels, and this is the case with 65 percent of coca grown in Los Yungas,” said Cesar Guedes, who until recently was the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) representative in Bolivia.

Los Yungas, located an hour and a half from La Paz, is a region of precipices and coca plantations grown at some 1,000 meters above sea level. Coca has become nearly the only crop grown there, since this is one of the regions with a license to plant it. In Bolivia, coca leaf is ancestral. The peasants always have worked these fields, but over the years the crop has become ever more profitable, since it is harvested four times a year and it pays better than coffee: 50 kilos of coffee cost around $60, while for the same quantity of coca leaf, a person can make nearly seven times more — around $430. Moreover, this hardy plant can handle all kinds of inclement weather over the course of the year.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coca

The production of the leaf is greater than the traditional consumption, although all the residents of the region are accustomed to chewing large quantities of coca, a classic remedy for altitude sickness. “If somebody buys it, we don’t ask questions,” said Desiderio, a farmer from Tocaña, an Afro-Bolivian region where the residents were subjected to conditions of slavery until the agrarian reform that occurred in 1953. Teas, traditional consumption and, above all, sales of the plant, are a nearly constant source of commerce in this town.

Nearly 50 percent of Bolivia’s coca leaf production is concentrated in the Chapare region near Cochabamba, which is more tropical, 49 percent in Los Yungas, and outside La Paz, there is a small coca growing region where the remaining 1 percent is grown.

It is along the border and in the Amazon region where the processing of the coca leaf in maceration pits primarily occurs. Throughout the country, various routes have emerged that are used by Colombians, Peruvians and Brazilians, in cooperation with Bolivian clans. The government recognizes the presence of Brazilian criminal groups such as the First Capital Command (PCC) in these regions, which transport the drugs on to Brazil and later to Europe.

“Brazil has become the most important market for Bolivian cocaine. If it makes it to Europe, this is better for the narcos; if it makes it to Brazil, they are satisfied. The European market is more lucrative, but more risky. In order to supply the Brazilian market, they only have to cross the border and voilá, there they are,” said Guedes, who is now a UN representative in Pakistan. Just 1 percent of the cocaine produced in Bolivia, he said, goes to the United States.

According to the UNODC, Brazil is the “McDonalds of drugs.” Cocaine paste and crack are sold in the favelas in cities such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Porto Alegre in large quantities and at a low price. “It is the roughest part of the market for Bolivian drugs,” said Guedes. Previously, coca leaf was not processed in Bolivia, but now it leaves the country as cocaine, in the form of cocaine paste, or as “rich water” — the nickname used for liquid cocaine in the border region.

“Now they grind the leaves, they stick them in some containers, they use fuel, the precursor and it’s ready to go. What used to be done in pits, near the rivers — by the water — is now done in mobile laboratories built in the Colombian style. They used to get one kilo out of 350 pounds of dry coca leaf; now, they get two,” said Vice Minister of Social Defense Felipe Caceres.

In 2009, the Morales government approved a European Union study to scientifically determine how much coca leaf was diverted into drug trafficking and how much was needed for traditional cultivation. The results of the investigation have not been broadcast, because the Bolivian authorities found the data inconsistent and the study continues, which has raised suspicion within the international community about the lack of transparency in the Bolivian government.

Since Morales has been in power, the United States has reduced its anti-drug aid to Bolivia by nearly 90 percent. “Bolivia is strategic because it is the heart of South America and it lies next to Brazil. The criminal organizations operating along the border are constantly increasing their capital and gaining better logistical support. Sometimes, due to the lack of support, there are operations that end without arrests or the seizure of even a gram of cocaine paste,” said the vice minister.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Bolivia

The government has increased the number of eradication campaigns in coca-growing regions. In these operations, open to the public and the press, the president normally gives a discourse regarding his new anti-drug policy, which has caused opposition from some coca-growing sectors, particularly in Los Yungas. Following his speech, a group of soldiers from the Task Force takes on a hectare or half a hectare of coca crops. They are armed for the cameras. The soldiers support each other and run around as though this was a plant-pulling competition. In the area surrounding the one hectare chosen, hundreds more plants remain — it is just in that little piece of land that the yanked-up roots and the leaves of the destroyed coca plants lie. The peasants that are usually affected by this program just plant the coca again.

Hired assassin killings are an everyday occurrence. Dorian Arias was on the air with his program on Radio Bambu when a bleeding man entered the station running, to hide from a couple of hit men who were pursuing him. “He had stolen some drugs; he had it in his pocket and entered running and hid in a room,” said the journalist, who at that moment had been interviewing the mayor and the police chief in the room adjacent to what is his house, television studio and radio station. When his assistants alerted him, Arias came out and told the man to leave. Minutes later, the hit men arrived. “Either you turn him in to us, or we’ll come in and kill him right there,” they told him. But knowing that the police chief was at his side, the men had no other option than to leave and the injured man escaped. “They probably caught him later, because they were waiting for him,” said Arias, one of the most well-known journalists in the region, in a resigned manner. 

Bolivia has one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America — 7.7 per 100,000 residents — but in recent years, homicides have gone up 12 percent, a rise driven largely by the regions bordering Brazil. In 2013, opposition councilwoman Dagimar Rivera was murdered on a Monday in a karaoke bar, reportedly after having accused the Guayaramerin local government of misappropriation of funds and corruption.

“The Brazilians come from the other side to kill and to buy,” said Arias, while driving us to the city. The roads are dusty, made of red dirt, and at night they turn into points of passage for contraband smugglers and traffickers. These routes are well-known by locals, but nobody says anything. Arias drove over the empty roads, where in the early mornings the cars or motorcycles arrive loaded with drugs, which they later put in canoes to cross the river. He passed by Carmen, the “red neighborhood,” where the police do not enter and the hit men hide. Some of them came out when they saw the car, showing their tattoos and gold chains.

“A few years ago, they killed a kid in a settling of scores,” said the stout, gray-haired man, as he pointed out the colorful houses of the most famous drug traffickers.

“On Sundays,” said his wife Chavela, “the fathers always talk about the murders and the other events of the week, and the narcos go there to beat their chests.”

The car also passed by the neighborhoods dominated by the gangs, which, in the Central American style, clash with each other and dominate the streets with their graffiti: Diablos Rojos, Los Chiflados and Extraterrestres are the most common names on the walls. When the tour ended, Arias took the car around the two principal plazas in the city, passing in front of the stores that proliferate in the center. Dozens of posters announced the candidacy of Jessica Jordan, the former Miss Bolivia, for mayor. Not one candidate mentioned the words drug trafficking in their campaign.

“It is a remote and distant, abandoned border. It is comparable to Mexico and the United States, in that they are pairs of cities like Tijuana-San Diego, Reynosa-McAllen, but in these locations (Guayaramerin-Guajara Mirim or San Matias-Caceres), they live almost exclusively from illicit activity — contraband of food, gasoline and vehicles, and people and drug trafficking. They are troubled towns, where the mafia acts without any controls,” said Cesar Guedes.

In Guayaramerin, the cars that are “chutos” — stolen and without plates — roam compulsively around the plazas. “It is common to exchange cars for drugs,” said Arias. According to the FELCC, throughout the border region there are dozens of clandestine landing strips and unidentified planes. A large part of the cocaine crosses the border as “rich water,” and is later turned into cocaine paste in the Brazilian state of Rondonia.

“Guayaramerin is a storage point. We find drugs in vegetables, balls, electronics, potatoes, furniture, toys and sardines. There are people that swallow the drug and those that attach it to their bodies. We have to track them down, because since the DEA left, the arms, the equipment and the personnel have all been cut in half,” said Lieutenant Choque of the FELCC, adding that sometimes there was not even enough fuel for operations.

Dancing or Dying

The gangs have proliferated along the border. According to Gregorio Quiroz, the director of the Children’s Advocacy Office in Riberalta — a border city located a half hour from Guayaramerin — around 20 different gangs exist in the area.

The boy is called Pilingo and he used to be an Extraterrestre; that is to say, a member of a criminal group that at one point had as many as 200 members. “Half of them are in jail or dead,” said the 23-year-old youth.

Everything started with dancing, at the age of 11. “None of us were normal. Seven of us danced hip hop, Latin pop, the robot. We had a leader. We wanted to form an academy, but we needed money. We didn’t feel like we were capable, and we were scared. We won several competitions, but others were envious of us and started problems,” said the former Extraterrestre.

The drugs came knocking on his door. According to Pilingo, who is already retired, at that moment there was no other way to live. For months, he had been looking for work in a construction company, with no success. “We bought the base and made the cocaine. The Colombians taught us. They killed 10 of our companions during that time… you cannot trust the Brazilians. If you play with fire, you get burned,” said the nearly six foot tall young man with a skeletal face. He explained the dozens of tattoos on his arms one by one: hell, a cemetery and a doorway with the devil, in addition to a drunk man and a rabbit of death, the number 666 and a symbol of death on his left arm.

The Brazilian groups recruited his cousin. He brought drugs from Santa Cruz to Italy, Spain and Portugal. Each trip cost $15,000 and the drugs were sold for $60,000. “It gave me a bad feeling,” said Pilingo, who was accompanied by his girlfriend as they sat in the office of Jimmy, a man who helps youth get out of violent situations. His sister was also involved and one day, in a raid on the house in Los Almendros where they all met up, they found her with one kilo. “They betrayed my cousin, they charged him. Now he’s in a jail in Sao Paulo; when he gets out he’s going to get revenge,” said the ex-gang member, who was always armed with a caliber .38 or .22 pistol in case of possible confrontations.

One day, a group of Brazilians followed Pilingo and his group, trying to steal their drug shipment, even though they were carrying arms at the time. “There were five motorcycles against two,” he said. The young man decided to leave the gang, after his girlfriend got pregnant. The majority of the group began to fall and currently, he said, there are just “little puppies” left, kids of 15 or 16 years of age, who cross the border with bags of cocaine paste that they cell for 5 bolivianos (around $0.70).

“If I stayed there, everything was going to end badly. I got tired of having the police interrogate me, of not being able to trust anybody, and of the idea that one day they would catch me or kill me. If they throw you in the river, nobody will find you.” 

*This article was also contributed to by Jose Luis Pardo. Reprinted and translated with permission from Alejandra S. Inzunza and Pablo Ferri. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com. This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal. See original here