Tug of war over cocaine
The Economist Magazine
Mar 18, 2006
A clear-cut victory over growth of the drug is impossible. It can, perhaps, be contained.
La Macarena National Park is a dramatic mountain ridge that cuts like a serrated knife through the tropical grasslands of Colombia. It is a refuge for dozens of species of wildlife found in few other places on earth.
But recently it has become a new front in the "war" on the cocaine industry that the United States and its allies have now been waging for a generation in the Andean states of South America.
Each day, hundreds of peasant labourers march through the park, spades in hand, to plots planted with coca, whose leaves are used to make cocaine. They yank out bush after bush under the eye of more than 1,000 police.
That protection could not save Jose Bermudez, a young labourer, who was killed on March 10 when he trod on a land mine placed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- known as the FARC -- the leftist guerrillas who control the coca fields of La Macarena. In all, the FARC have killed 13 police or eradicators in the park this year.
In its first three years, the government of Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's president, unleashed a massive program of aerial spraying of coca crops with weed killer -- at a cost of $200 million a year paid by the United States.
This cut the coca crop by between a third and a half, according to the U.S. State Department and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, both of which try to guess the size of the crop.
But spraying is controversial. Critics say it wipes out food crops and may damage health. And to evade it, coca is no longer grown in vast plantations but in thousands of tiny plots -- some in national parks like La Macarena where spraying is forbidden.
A year ago Uribe's officials launched a big manual eradication effort in parallel with spraying. In 2005 the civilian army of peasant eradicators uprooted more than 31,000 hectares (77,000 acres) of coca; this year, the government hopes for 40,000 hectares. Yet this Herculean effort may be in vain.
In November, the drug warriors in Washington, D.C. claimed a small victory. After years in which cocaine has been cheap and abundant, its retail price rose last year by 19 per cent, while its average purity declined by 15 per cent. They attributed this to the massive eradication effort in Colombia.
Yet victories in the drug "war" have long proved illusory because of the protean geography of the cocaine industry. A decade ago, the bulk of coca-growing shifted to Colombia from Peru and Bolivia. Now coca cultivation is on the rise again farther south.
The U.S. State Department's latest estimates, released on March 1 in its annual drug-control report, showed an increase over the past year of 38 per cent in Peru (to 38,000 hectares) and a smaller, but steady, rise in Bolivia (to 26,500 hectares).
Though this trend is a "problem," coca is still mainly grown in Colombia, points out Anne Patterson, the senior anti-drug officer at the State Department and a former American ambassador in Bogota.
But while Uribe seems set for a second term, eradication faces a new political challenge in both Bolivia and Peru, countries which until recently were seen as success stories in the drug "war." Evo Morales, long the leader of Bolivia's "cocaleros" -- "coca farmers" -- won a landslide victory in a presidential election in December.
He says he will halt forcible eradication. He also says that he opposes cocaine and the drug trade, but wants to promote new uses of coca. These include pharmaceuticals and, improbably, biscuits, bread and chewing gum.
In Peru, Ollanta Humala, a nationalist former army officer, might win a presidential election whose first round is next month. He has two cocalero leaders in his parliamentary lists and says that he would stop eradication.
Since taking office in January, Morales has given signs that he would prefer to avoid a fight with the United States. On March 11, at the inauguration of Chile's new president, he met Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and presented her with a charango -- a Bolivian ukulele -- decorated with lacquered coca leaves.
Avoiding a clash may be hard. Morales faces pressure to allow more coca in the Chapare, a big centre of the drug industry a decade ago. Under an agreement suspending forced eradication there in 2004, 3,200 hectares of the shrub are tolerated pending a study on how much is required for traditional uses, such as chewing and tea. Another 12,000 hectares are grown legally in the mountainous Yungas region.
The Chapare accord works out to one "cato" -- a measure equal to 1,600 square metres -- for each of the 23,000 families who signed up to it. Now the cocaleros want to expand that number. Morales' predecessors turned a blind eye as 40,000 families took advantage of the one-cato rule.
Morales is unlikely to take them on. He wants to amend the 1988 law that limits legal coca to 12,000 hectares. Any new limit is likely to be negotiated rather than imposed. He has also said he wants to strip the army of its role in fighting drugs -- seen as "mission essential" by John Walters, the United States drug "czar."
Both the United States and Bolivia now face stark choices. The Americans must decide between the drug war and supporting democracy. Their options include withdrawing aid and vetoing loans to South America's poorest republic.
Morales, for his part, knows that more coca would boost Bolivia's drug industry, which in the past had fascist links.
The two countries are in an "uncomfortable detente," according to Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network, an NGO. She sees in the moderate tone toward Bolivia in the State Department's report signs of a "more strategic approach" to coca. But reaching a deal -- which could involve a harsher crackdown on trafficking and more aid for alternative crops -- will not be easy.
"We want to work with the government," says Patterson. But if coca returns on a large scale in Bolivia "it will undermine all the effort we've undertaken in Colombia," she adds.
Peru may be potentially the weakest link in the Andean anti-drug chain. Despite 12,000 hectares eradicated last year, the State Department reckons there is more coca than at any time since 1999. After cocalero protests, the government of Alejandro Toledo scaled back eradication.
The remnants of the Shining Path, a Maoist terrorist group, are said by some analysts to be strengthening their grip over the drug trade, in a pattern familiar in Colombia.
"Peru is moving toward becoming a drug state," says Jaime Antezana, a sociologist who has studied the cocaleros.
Even in Colombia, the success of the drug warriors is fragile. Manual eradication is far more laborious than spraying. An American study found that the manual teams pulled up an average of 20.5 hectares a day, while the spray planes covered 734 hectares a day. But unlike manual eradication, spraying may merely wipe out one harvest, rather than the plant.
American officials say replanting almost matches eradication. They admit their figures may be underestimates. The United Nations reported last year that 60 per cent of the coca fields it detected in 2004 were new, some of them in virgin areas. There is evidence, too, that yields are steadily increasing.
A "clear-cut victory" over coca is impossible, Patterson concedes. "It's just a question of containing it where it breaks out."
The problem is that containment carries heavy political costs for democratic governments in the Andes. The drug trade itself undermines democracy, but so do the heavy-handed American efforts to contain it.
As long as rich-country governments insist on imposing an unenforceable prohibition on cocaine consumption, Andean governments will continue to be faced with the thankless task of trying to repress market forces.