CHIMORE, Bolivia -- The day after Evo Morales' victory in Bolivia's presidential election last week, government counternarcotics teams were streaming back from patrols into their base in the Chapare jungle. Col. Rosalio Alvarez Claros, commander of this base, watched them from his small office window.
"We will continue with our work here as usual, until someone tells us to stop," he said. "And that hasn't happened yet."
It might soon.
Morales, 46, a former coca farmer who got his start as a political leader of the cocaleros, or coca growers, campaigned on the promises of decriminalizing all cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine, and ending eradication efforts. He has reiterated his intention of fulfilling those pledges when he takes office next month.
Doing so would be a slap in the face to Washington, which gives Bolivia -- the world's third-largest coca producer, after Colombia and Peru -- $150 million a year in aid. Two-thirds of the money goes toward eradication of coca leaf, destruction of cocaine laboratories and encouraging alternative agricultural projects for coca growers.
Morales is the latest Latin American leader to come to power on an anti-American platform. He's friendly toward Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez, who commonly ridicules U.S. policies in Latin America, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Morales will travel today to Cuba to visit with Castro.
Morales partied until dawn Thursday at a victory celebration with coca growers, the Associated Press reported. "We are winning the green battle: The coca leaf is beating the North American dollar," Morales told supporters.
His coca campaign platform appealed to farmers and tapped into anti-American sentiment that views U.S. drug policies in the region as imperialism.
"We are sustained by coca," says coca farmer Leandro Valencia, 63, who admits that his plots -- in the valley near Morales' hometown of Villa Catorce de Septiembre -- are illegal. "I put my three children through school on coca money. ... You talk about drug problems, but whose problem is that? I care about money for my family."
By growing coca, Valencia says, he can make "10 times" what he would growing pineapples or yucca, a staple crop here.
"It is the foreigners who came in here and started tempting us with big and easy money," Valencia says.
Morales has said his position on coca growing does not mean he intends to be soft on drug trafficking. "Yes to coca, no to cocaine" was one of his campaign slogans. He has suggested that the additional coca cultivated would be absorbed by the local, legal market, or alternatively would jump-start a legal export industry for products made with coca such as tea, wine, soft drinks and toothpaste. During the campaign, he was vague about how to create such an export market.
The movement to legalize coca growing may be catching on elsewhere in the region. In neighboring Peru, where more than 123,000 acres are planted in coca, a rising star in politics these days is Ollanta Humala, a populist, anti-U.S. leader in Morales' mold who has also vowed to decriminalize coca growing if elected president in April.
"There is as radical a coca movement here as in Bolivia, and the two coordinate," says Jaime Antesana Rivera, an expert on drug trafficking at Lima's Peruvian Institute of Economics and Politics.
Morales' position on coca production has not been consistent. During the campaign, he advocated total legalization, but after the Dec. 18 vote, he suggested the government might put limits on cultivation. He has not changed his vow to stop the eradication program.
It is also not clear whether Morales will actually follow through on all his campaign rhetoric.
The United States is reluctant to comment on Morales or his policies before his inauguration Jan. 22. "We will make an evaluation of what kind of relationship we will have with Bolivia based on the drug policies Bolivia's new president pursues," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says.
Bolivia grows about 67,000 acres of coca a year, according to Col. Luis Caballero Tirado, head of Bolivia's special counternarcotics police force. Under an agreement with the Bolivian government, 38,000 acres, mainly in the Yungas region, are cultivated legally and used for local, legal, consumption. The remainder of the acreage is illegal coca farms.
Revered culturally by Bolivian Indians, the coca leaf is chewed to ward off hunger and fight illness and is used in traditional ceremonies. Even some of the anti-narcotics special forces chew it. Legal uses of the leaf also include tea and medicinal pastes.
Coca tea, for example, is sold in markets and served at tourist hotel breakfasts. The coca liquid, says Sdenka Silva, owner of a coca museum in La Paz, "produces an anesthetic effect in the mouth, light euphoria, and sensation of increased awareness and energy."
Coca leaves can be more profitably made into cocaine. Typically the product is sold to middlemen who transport it to jungle laboratories, where it is mashed and processed into a cocaine paste. It is then moved out of the region to more sophisticated labs, where it is condensed and further refined.
The coca growers here are paid $800 to $1,000 for providing enough leaves to make a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine paste, Caballero says. Once processed, the price of that kilo of paste cocaine goes up to $2,500, he says.
Some of the cocaine from here goes through Mexico to the USA, but most, Caballero says, moves through Brazil to Europe.
The U.S. State Department estimates that Bolivia produces and sends 71 tons of cocaine to the world market annually. In 2005, the Bolivian military uprooted and destroyed 19,800 acres of coca fields. The Bolivian counternarcotics forces, trained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, destroyed 3,888 jungle cocaine labs, confiscated nearly 50 tons of cocaine paste and arrested 4,208 suspected drug traffickers, according to the Bolivian government.
U.S. DEA agents are in Bolivia training police and military counternarcotics forces, but they do not participate in raids.
"We catch more, they produce more, then we catch more," Alvarez says. "The drug traffickers have more money and better technology than we do. Look, our mobile (phones) don't even get reception when it rains. So, who's winning? It is hard to say."
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