Morales Struggles to Balance Drug Policy

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President Evo Morales announced last week that he will relaunch an “international campaign” promoting the decriminalization of the coca leaf, the raw material for making cocaine.

While drug-related crime in Bolivia is low compared to other coca-producing countries like Peru and Colombia, the country’s “yes coca, zero cocaine” policy fails to halt a significant increase in cocaine production.

Since his election in 2005, Morales has been pushing for international bodies like the United Nations to decertify the coca leaf as an illegal narcotic. His government’s official policy is geared towards “yes coca, zero cocaine,” and allows for up to 12,000 hectares of legal coca cultivations nationwide each year. Excess coca cultivations must be eradicated under law, and this counter-drug campaign is aided by funds from the U.S. State Department. Last year Bolivia accepted $22.5 million in U.S. State Department funds to support Bolivian anti-trafficking police. This is despite a tense relationship between Bolivia and the U.S., following Morales’ ejection of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office from its territory in 2008. 

Morales said in a weekend press conference that he is now lobbying Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to push for international “acceptance” of coca. Colombia was recently elected to a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Under a UN convention signed in 1961, coca was classified alongside heroin and cocaine as an illicit good, a policy loudly rejected by Morales and the powerful coca farmer unions which backed his rise to power.

Unlike in Colombia, where most coca goes towards cocaine production, in Bolivia there are high rates of ritual usage. The leaf remains an important symbol in the country’s nationalist politics, and Morales has attempted to enforce a distinction between legal coca consumption versus the illicit cocaine trade.

But Bolivia’s anti-narcotics unit, known as FELCN, reported a record year in cocaine seizures during 2010, confiscating 29 tons of the drug, compared to 27 tons in 2009. This is one indication that larger quantities of cocaine are transiting through, if not being produced, in Bolivia. According to the U.S. State Department, since 2008 the FELCN is finding more cocaine HCI processing labs in the country, compared with labs that merely process coca base. Numbers from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) also proport that the potential manufacture of cocaine in Bolivia is in fact rising, from an estimated 104 tons in 2007 to 113 tons in 2008, according to the most recently published data.

Bolivia still ranks behind Peru and Colombia in terms of cocaine production, and while Mexican cartel operatives are believed to be present in the country, drug-related turf wars are not prevalent here. Particularly startling was a burst of violence in May 2010, when gunmen attacked the personal convoy of William Rosales, an alleged drug trafficker based in the Santa Cruz province. Such outbreaks of drug-related violence are rare in Bolivia, and the attack, which left six people dead, including three Serbian bodyguards, pointed to the pervasive presence of cocaine smuggling networks in the country.

Bolivia plans to eradicate 8,500 illegal hectares of coca in 2011, compared to 8,200 in 2010, the government said Sunday.

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