- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Indigenous coca farmers who helped put President Evo Morales in power are violently resisting even the token eradication efforts demanded by the United States to avoid Bolivia’s decertification as a country cooperating against drug trafficking.

Dissatisfied with new laws permitting peasant farmers to grow up to half an acre of coca for traditional use, the farmers are backing demands for increased acreage with road blocks and gunfights that so far have killed two growers and wounded two police officers.

The government, which this week was maneuvering in New York to secure a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council, is divided on how to proceed.

It came to power in January with strong backing from Andean Indians who for centuries have used the coca leaf as a mild stimulant, and Mr. Morales, a former coca grower who heads Bolivia’s largest coca-growing syndicate in the Chapare Valley, has repeatedly pledged to use “peaceful” means to limit cultivation of the leaf.

But police and elements in his own government are concerned that as much as half the current coca production is being diverted into the production of cocaine for the illicit international market.

The State Department publicly warned Mr. Morales during his visit to the United Nations in New York last month that Bolivia must eliminate 12,000 acres of coca cultivation or face decertification as a country cooperating against drug trafficking, which would mean a cutoff of aid.

The statement followed talks in Washington with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, who agreed to eradicate roughly 15 percent of the country’s estimated coca acreage.

But Felipe Caceres, the vice minister for social defense and a former coca grower himself, said in a recent interview with Bolivia’s largest newspaper La Razon, that 50 percent of coca production currently goes to drug trafficking, an estimate supported by national police.

U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg also has called on Bolivia to renew joint operations with U.S. anti-drug agencies. But Mr. Morales has rejected U.S. calls to end his policy of permitting traditional coca farmers to cultivate up to 1 cato, or half an acre, of the crop.

“We won’t accept impositions,” the president said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, where he called for coca’s legalization.

Instead, Mr. Morales has appealed to the coca syndicates to hold down production out of their own self-interest.

“We cannot allow the uncontrolled growth of coca, as it will reduce the price,” Mr. Morales recently told a gathering of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Tropic of Cochabamba. He also admitted that “there exists an excess production of coca that generates a legal problem.”

Even so, coca growers are now demanding to be allowed to double or triple the permitted acreage. More than 1,200 peasant farmers who have planted about 2,000 acres of new coca in national parklands outside the Chapare Valley have insisted that they need to grow more because of their distance from roads and markets.

Officials of Bolivia’s U.S.-trained anti-narcotics unit, the Special Force to Fight Crime and Narcotraffic, have reported that the excess production is controlled by drug traffickers. But police and army teams were pulled off eradication missions after a gunfight two weeks ago in Carrasco National Park in eastern Cochabamba province.

Two coca growers were killed and two seriously wounded police officers had to be evacuated by helicopter during the heavy exchange of automatic weapons fire.

Eleven soldiers including an army major were taken hostage. The servicemen were released following negotiations with the government, but several hundred coca growers then used dynamite to cut the main road between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

Interior Minister Alicia Munoz has minimized the incidents. “These conflicts are small. The government’s anti-drug policy is macro. It seeks to dignify the coca leaf and eliminate illegal cultivations which exist in protected areas,” she said as coca farmers threw up more blockades in the Yungas Valley.

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