- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

CHAPARE, Bolivia For more than a month, 200 Bolivian soldiers have been living in Victor Franco's back yard.
The soldiers, trained and financed by the United States to eradicate coca in this jungle basin, arrived in helicopters, setting up camp a stone's throw from Mr. Franco's house, a dirt-floored structure made of unevenly cut wooden planks and a rusted sheet-metal roof. They pitched tents on top of his small yucca plantation, and chopped down his pineapple plants and mandarin tree to clear a helicopter-landing pad.
At first, they left Mr. Franco's coca plants alone, eradicating the crops of other families in the area. Mr. Franco said soldiers came to him twice asking for a small amount of coca a mild stimulant when stuffed in a cheek and sucked, and long used by Bolivia's indigenous people and the rural poor.
Then, a few days before the crop was ready for harvest, the soldiers chopped down Mr. Franco's coca plants.
It is the fourth time his crop has been eradicated, said Mr. Franco, 42, holding a plastic bag of coca leaves in his leathery hands as he squatted with family and neighbors in the shade of a mango tree.
"How can they cut down all our plants?" sobbed his wife, Gomercinda Franco in her native Quechua, wiping away tears with her arm. "I have eight children. What are we going to live on? All our coca is gone."
From 1995 to 2001, U.S.-funded Bolivian anti-narcotics forces wiped out 70 percent of the country's illegal coca fields, nearly all of them in Chapare, winning praise from the U.S. State Department as the "model for the region in coca eradication."
Bolivia went from supplying the coca leaves for one-third to one-half of the world's cocaine to being a relatively minor producer of coca, most of which never leaves South America.
But the U.S.-led war on drugs in Bolivia provoked an unintended backlash: tens of thousands of defiant, sandal-wearing coca growers, called cocaleros, who refuse to cooperate.
Although they can do little to stop eradication, cocaleros such as Victor Franco doggedly replant their coca fields after anti-narcotics troops leave. As a result, coca production in the Chapare jungle has increased ninefold, from 1,500 acres to 13,500 acres, in two years, according to U.S. government statistics.
Meanwhile, the cocaleros, operating in tight-knit organizations called syndicates, have brought the government to its knees by blockading the nation's most important highway connecting La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Bolivia's three largest cities with logs, rocks and curved, tire-popping nails called miguelitos.
Authorities have had limited success dispersing the cocaleros, who defend the highway and their coca fields with sticks, slingshots, dynamite booby traps and pre-World War II-vintage Mauser rifles.
In January, 11 persons were killed and more than 1,000 arrested in violent clashes between cocaleros, and police and soldiers armed with tear gas and M-16s.
The cocaleros may represent the single greatest threat to the fragile mandate of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who is clinging to power after the violence in Chapare in January and a clash last month between police and soldiers in La Paz that caused 33 casualties.
"There is no other force in the country that has the coherence, the discipline and the ability to mobilize like the cocaleros," said Ana Maria Romero de Campero, Bolivia's ombudsman and co-winner of the 2001 Carl Bertelsmann Prize, who has mediated negotiations between the government and cocaleros.
Caught between cocalero demands for coca legalization and U.S. insistence on continued eradication, the government appears to be looking for a way out. "Not giving the government some room to maneuver with the cocaleros is tantamount to causing its downfall," Mrs. Romero de Campero said.
In recent weeks, authorities have hinted they may be willing to bend to cocalero demands for legalizing and regulating the production of coca in Chapare. Ernesto Justiniano, in charge of drug policy as vice minister of social defense, said the central government is considering a proposal that would allow families there to continue cultivating a limited amount of coca for six months.
During that time, a study would be conducted to determine domestic demand for coca leaf, which has been chewed as an herbal stimulant for millennia by indigenous people in Bolivia. In addition to being used to treat altitude sickness and other ailments, Bolivians use coca to kill hunger and as a sacred offering in religious ceremonies.
Bolivia permits cultivation of nearly 30,000 acres of coca in the rugged region of Los Yungas, northeast of La Paz, while mandating the U.S.-promoted policy of "zero coca" in Chapare. If the study shows that domestic demand exceeds the amount grown in Los Yungas, it could open the door to legislation legalizing coca farming in Chapare.
Cocalero leader Evo Morales is demanding that every family in Chapare be allowed to cultivate roughly 1.2 acres of coca, or that eradication be halted while a study of domestic demand is conducted.
"If not, the alternative is a permanent confrontation, and coca will become synonymous with militarization, synonymous with war," said Mr. Morales, 42, an Aymara Indian who grew up tending llamas on a high-desert plain before moving to the Chapare jungle when he was 19.
On the other hand, the United States continues to make clear its strong opposition to any pause in coca eradication. "It clearly sets a bad precedent," said a U.S. Embassy official who asked not to be identified. "Once you permit any legalized coca, it would probably multiply and never stop."
Looming over whatever the Bolivian government decides is nearly $200 million in U.S. aid and the United States' influence in international lending organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Mr. Justiniano, the vice minister in charge of drug policy, said eradication in Chapare will continue regardless of any agreement with the cocaleros.
The U.S. government contends that all the coca grown in Chapare is used to make cocaine. The Chapare leaf is larger, has a higher alkaloid content and is more bitter than that produced in Los Yungas, making it less desirable for chewing without affecting its qualities for processing into cocaine.
But the Chapare cocaleros, most of whom consume leaves from their own harvest on a daily basis, insist that most of the coca they grow is for poor people who cannot afford the more expensive Los Yungas coca. A visit to coca retailers in other parts of Bolivia supports this.
In a bustling open-air market in Cochabamba, native women perch over two leaf-stuffed bags one containing coca from Los Yungas and the other, at a reduced price, from Chapare.
Although cocaleros concede that much of the coca they sell could be bought by narco-traffickers, they show little remorse that they might be helping supply the cocaine trade. For the vast majority of families in Chapare, growing coca is not a fast track to riches, but a means of survival. Often it is their only non-subsistence crop, and the earnings help buy food, clothing and other necessities.
The U.S.-financed Agricultural Program of Development of Bolivia (PDAR) has won relatively few converts. Even when farmers reap successful harvests with alternative crops, market access is limited and the prices for their products often do not justify the costs.
In contrast, coca plants yield three or four harvests a year, the leaves are lightweight and easy to transport and, most important, buyers abound.
"We haven't been successful in putting money in people's pockets," said PDAR spokeswoman Claudia Vargas. "Coca is much more profitable than other crops, and people here have no conception of its illegality."
Mrs. Vargas said more than half the 12,000 or so families participating in the alternative-development program also grow coca.
Although the cocaleros have drawn the ire of much of the Bolivian middle and upper classes for the inconveniences caused by their traffic-blocking protests, they have won sympathy among the poor and indigenous majority of the population in this landlocked nation of 8.4 million people.
In July, that sympathy propelled Mr. Morales to within 42,000 votes of winning the presidential election, despite a warning by then-U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha that his victory could threaten U.S. aid to Bolivia.
Under the umbrella of a political party called Movement Toward Socialism, Mr. Morales has joined forces with other grass-roots organizations and proposed a progressive broad-based agenda, including a call to re-nationalize partially privatized companies and a rejection of the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
But the movement has made little headway in having the Bolivian legislature enact its program, and with 30,000 to 40,000 organized cocaleros demanding the right to grow coca, the conflict in Chapare has flared again as the country's most pressing issue.
Several hundred cocaleros gather daily in the central plaza in Cochabamba, where they spread out coca leaves on rainbow-colored blankets called aguayos and hold signs reading "Causachun Coca, Wanuchun Yanquis" Quechua for "Live Coca, Die Yankees."
In small towns straddling the Chapare highway, indigenous women wearing traditional wide-brimmed hats with flower-printed ribbons, colorful pleated skirts and white embroidered blouses sit with their children by the roadside in 24-hour vigils, chewing coca and waiting until the next call to block traffic.
"The war on drugs is failing," Mr. Morales said. "The United States thinks it can spend billions of dollars to reach zero coca, but this isn't a solution. All this social and political revolt is thanks to the coca leaf. The coca leaf is what is giving people consciousness."

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