- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

The U.S. anti-drug policy in Latin America and our desire to see Peru and Bolivia on a stable course toward democracy are on a collision course. We seek stability by propping up weak Andean region governments and institutions and building infrastructure. Our antidrug strategy of spraying poison on coca crops to curtail cocaine production may be all that is needed to upset the apple cart.

If our present course continues, a recent report by the International Crisis Group says we risk “aggravating social tensions” in both countries “with potentially explosive results.”

In Colombia, our defoliation policy known as Plan Colombia, together with President Bush’s Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI), have focused on reducing supply. According to data just released by the White House drug control policy director, massive 2004 aerial spraying in Colombia left 114,000 hectares under cultivation, about the amount as the prior year and only 8,000 hectares less than Colombia had at the end of 1999, the year Plan Colombia went into effect.

These figures, however, are grossly misleading. Plan Colombia has been abysmally failed to raise the street price of cocaine or curtail consumption in the United States. As hectares are withdrawn from cultivation in Colombia, they seem to pop up in Bolivia and Peru. And, coca growers compensate by increasing the yields per hectare in many other areas.

Colombia gave us Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel and is the world’s leading cocaine producer. It also has the facilities for refining coca leaf into the alkaloid paste that becomes crack and powdered cocaine. But Bolivia never hosted and Peru no longer hosts the “narco-terrorists” who are the targets of Plan Columbia and ACI.

Bolivian and Peruvian drug lords are independent, not cartelized. Coca producers are small farmers or “cocaleros” who produce coca leaf in some measure for the international drug trade, and for well-established legal purposes, too.

The Bolivian cocaleros are well organized politically. Their party, headed by socialist Evo Morales, was a political cipher until the American ambassador in La Paz public warned during the 2002 election campaign that we would look unfavorably on any head of state who did not support our drug policy. Mr. Morales soared in the polls and almost won the election. Now, he is said to be Bolivia’s second-strongest political force. And, while the Evo Morales syndrome has not spread there, Peru’s cocalero factions could readily form a coalition with other radical antigovernment elements.

What are the legal purposes of coca production? Licit coca leaf uses are imbedded in the Andean culture. For centuries, indigenous users used the leaf to make tea, for medicinal purposes or chewed it as a mild stimulant. The Incas are said to have used it in tribal rituals. Coca-Cola Co., which until 1903 laced each bottle of Coke with Andean cocaine, legally imports 8 tons of coca leaf annually from Bolivia and Peru for its tightly guarded flavoring formula. Cocaleros think the Coca-Cola exemption smacks of U.S. hypocrisy.

Coca leaf production is a fact of life in both countries. Though production waned as a result of the robust eradication program of the late 1990s, it is up again, probably because of the interdiction policies in Colombia that create incentives for Peruvian, and ultimately Bolivian, farmers to pick up the slack.

Unlike Colombia, where crops are aerially sprayed as part of the U.S. interdiction initiative, in Bolivia and Peru eradication occurs only with the “consent” of the farmer under close government supervision. According to the cocaleros, eradication is really compulsory since the government, to be eligible for U.S. aid money, strongarms them into submission. And eradication usually occurs on lands worked by poor farmers, not lands held by the drug lords where might be armed resistance.

Failed U.S. forced crop eradication policies, with a profound adverse economic effect on small farmers, make enemies, breed social unrest and only play into the hands the hand of revolutionaries. Stronger law enforcement and drug interdiction is, of course, needed to sever coca supply from illegal distribution. Unfortunately, not enough is spent on land reform, building infrastructure or providing livelihood alternatives to coca-growing to reverse the illicit production. Sadly, the president’s fiscal 2006 budget just submitted to Congress reduces funding for such strategies in Peru by 20 percent and in Bolivia by 10 percent.

What’s the answer? We should recognize the drug problem can only be resolved by education, parental vigilance and effective law enforcement in our own country. So long as there is a demand for cocaine, someone in the Andes will find a hectare on which to grow it, and no amount of spraying will stop it.

We should rebalance our Bolivia and Peru strategies to focus on aiding law enforcement, interdicting illegal drug traffic, creating jobs and strengthening local institutions. Only then will our intentions and policies have some coherence.

James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations task force on a new U.S. strategy for the Andean region.

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