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July 1, 2007 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

OpEd: Reaping Unintended Consequences

By Joel Brinkley, professor of journalism at Stanford University and former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

OF THE MANY enduring memories from my early years as a reporter, a visit to Bolivia's Chapare province offers a special resonance today. In 1984, I traveled to this isolated corner of Bolivia and chatted with Bacilia Flores, a peasant woman who was spreading coca leaves inside a tennis-court sized frame in her front yard.

That was her sales display for Colombian cocaine traffickers, who landed small planes on the splendid two-lane highway that swept past her home and dozens of others, each with its own eye-catching, coca-leaf sales exhibit. The Colombians would step out of their planes, pay cash for the leaf and fly off. Coca, of course, is the primary ingredient of cocaine.

But as I drove back along the "cocaine highway," as it was called, I drove over a bridge that bore a brass plaque. I n English, it said: "Built by Alliance for Progress. 1969."

In LaPaz, I asked Henry Bassford, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development about this, and with a plaintive tone, he complained that "the farmers signed agreements not to grow coca" before the United States agreed to build the highway.

For decades, diplomats and drug-enforcement officials have put forth this argument: To fight the drug war, attack the problem at its source. The logical approach is to uproot coca plants or opium poppies in foreign lands rather than try to catch drug traffickers at the border, or on the streets of American cities.

But when American logic butts up against poor people determined to make a living, guess who usually wins? As a result, time and time again over the last 40 years, American drug-eradication strategies have given birth to perverse unintended consequences. Over time, they have worked to the advantage of the traffickers and helped to increase the production of drugs smuggled into the United States.

Consider Bolivia. Starting in 1967, the dawn of the modern age of drug abuse, the United States built that first road into the Chapare with the notion that it would allow peasants there to grow oranges, lemons and other legitimate crops, instead of coca, and then drive the fruits to market. Instead, the road opened the Chapare to airborne Colombian drug traffickers and inadvertently set off a mad rush to increase coca production.

Later, in the mid-1980s, the United States sent combat troops to Bolivia to raid cocaine labs. I went along. Yes, they found a few labs, but the most notable result, to me, was the anger the troops roused in the farmers who made their living growing coca. Then, as now, they argued that coca has legitimate local uses. Many Bolivians chew the leaves. They provide a mild stimulant, and that is the fig leaf growers offer to justify enormous coca farms.

Successive American-funded programs to fight the coca trade have had little effect -- except to empower the coca farmers' unions. Finally in 2005, union leader Evo Morales ran for president. At rallies, his campaign laid out large sacks of coca leaves as props, each emblazoned with his smiling portrait. After he was elected, drug enforcement virtually stopped. Even as he sits in the Presidential Palace today, Morales still leads the coca growers unions.

Last month, high-level government delegations from Argentina and Brazil bitterly complained about the new flood of cocaine flowing across the borders from Bolivia. At about the same time, President Morales announced that he planned to encourage an increase in the coca crop -- for "legitimate" uses.

The same principle works elsewhere: In Colombia, the United States has spent nearly $5 billion since 2000 to field a small air force, about seven-dozen aircraft, charged with spraying herbicide on coca plants. Last month, however, the White House finally acknowledged that Colombia's coca crop is larger now than when the program began.

The reason: The American plan forced Colombian coca farmers to adapt. Two years ago, Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, Colombia's police chief, told me that farmers were simply replanting their crops as soon as the spray planes left. Stabbing at a coffee table with his finger, he said: "If we eradicate here, they replant there ... and there and there."

What is more, growers have learned to harvest more leaves from young plants and extract more coca paste from each leaf - greater efficiency acquired because of the American program.

Across the border in Ecuador, meanwhile, farmers began complaining this spring that the herbicide sprayed in Colombia was drifting over the border -- killing crops, harming livestock and damaging the farmers' health - an assertion the United Nations endorsed last month.

With that as his excuse, Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, announced in the spring that he was suspending all drug-enforcement cooperation with the United States. Once again, a big, expensive American program has worked to the advantage of the traffickers it was intended to stop.

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