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Behind Bolivia’s Less Violent Cocaine Trade – Latin America News Dispatch

A coca plantation close to Caranavi, in western Bolivia, 2010. (CIAT/NeilPalmer / CC BY-SA 2.0)


July 28, 2022


By Linda Farthing and Thomas Grisaffi

This article is co-published with NACLA.

Lurching alongside cobbled roads in Bolivia’s Chapare area on his mud splattered motorcycle, coca farmer Umberto Flores looked for his kinfolk and pals as a result of he had coca seedlings able to plant however wanted extra assist. Eventually his nephew, Angel, agreed to affix him throughout the hour. He needed to—Umberto was his padrino, or godfather. Umberto instructed Angel that quickly he can be occurring one other “trip” and invited him to affix him, a subtext Angel understood instantly as referring to processing cocaine paste, step one to refining pure cocaine. 

In Bolivia’s lowland Chapare area, a lot of the inhabitants grows, dries, and sells coca leaf, and a few immediately course of cocaine paste or smuggle the ultimate product. However, Bolivia is the one nation within the Americas that has avoided much of the violence so generally related to drug manufacturing.

In Colombia, for instance, incoming president Gustavo Petro is determined to shake up the nation’s U.S.-driven 30-year warfare on medication that has failed to scale back the circulate of medicine northward whereas bringing repression, violence, fumigation, and compelled eradication to these on the backside of the drug hierarchy: the peasant farmers who develop coca leaf. His administration may do properly to check out Bolivia.

“This is not Mexico; this is not Brazil!” insisted a retired police official who requested to stay nameless. “We do not see extreme violence over the control of territory here. Occasionally we see the settling of scores, but they are only ever isolated incidents.” The causes for this noticeable lack of violence lie in how the drug commerce is embedded in native cultural norms and values.

Umberto embodies this. He first obtained concerned within the drug commerce 30 years in the past in highschool. Working along with his uncle, he soaked shredded coca leaf in solvents to extract the cocaine alkaloid. Sometimes he traveled by bus to the lowland metropolis of Santa Cruz with two kilos of paste stashed in his bag. “For one kilo, you got $100. It was easy—there wasn’t a lot of control,” he mentioned.

But then when he was 20, he carried 5 kilos of cocaine to Brazil and was caught. Umberto was locked up for 2 and a half years. “They are very violent there,” he mentioned, placing two fingers within the air to mimic a gun.

For Umberto and Bolivians like him in tropical agricultural zones, involvement within the cocaine commerce is an earthly affair, a commonsense strategy to earn a living in a spot the place turning a revenue from farming is hard.  “We all live from this,” he defined. “We protect it…It generates work.” The drug commerce in Bolivia, he mentioned, was nothing like Brazil: “Here it is peaceful. We look after each other; we respect each other.”

For Chapareños, to be entangled with each other by debt and obligations is the very foundation of sociality. Reciprocity, writes anthropologist Catherine Allen, is the “pump at the heart of Andean life,” with accountability for group and kinship relationships falling totally on ladies. Anyone who will get forward is pressured to reinvest surplus again into the group. These age-old customs, that infuse coca growers’ involvement in illicit actions usually explicitly exclude outsiders whereas efficiently coexisting with market-oriented methods. 

Seventy-three yr outdated Silvio Zavala remembers how his household migrated to the Chapare within the Sixties, clearing land and planting maize, rice, and a few coca. “We practiced ayni: it’s reciprocity. One day, I work for you and another day you work for me—all with no pay,” he mentioned.

While Indigenous peasant drug staff rarely get rich, the commerce nonetheless represents an avenue for unparalleled social mobility even when these drug staff not often act as profit-maximizing people. Working collectively as a company unit ensures the group a gradual manufacturing of coca and cocaine paste for the advantage of all. Far from producing chaos, dysfunction, and inequality, the unlawful drug commerce contributes to the Chapare area’s prosperity and stability.

When Silvio first moved to the Chapare, “people had anemia, kids’ bellies were always swollen—the aim was just to survive. We grew coca, it was the only thing that made sense. We cut out our own roads, built our own schools, made our own laws,” he mentioned. Self-governing unions became the local government, controlling land tenure and administering justice.

Coca growers usually solely admitted folks they already knew into their unions. These had been normally prolonged kinship networks of neighbors from the highlands and outdated pals. Disagreements, together with theft, boundary disputes, or excellent money owed are nonetheless resolved at community-wide union conferences. 

“When we say something, we make people respect it. We are very strict,” mentioned Chapare coca farmer Alfredo Higuera. “If you are expelled from the union, you lose your land, your family, your neighbors—it is like you are an orphan.”

During the Eighties, the booming U.S. cocaine market pushed up the value of coca and attracted impoverished Bolivians to the Chapare in droves. People knew the place the coca leaf that they processed into medication ended up whilst they used it to heal themselves, to make choices to deities, and in divination ceremonies. When coca growers insist that “coca is not cocaine,” they’re stating a heartfelt fact: certain, it may be cocaine, however that’s not its essence.

In 1986, U.S.-financed repression started in earnest. Twenty years of financial hardship and human rights violations later, Evo Morales and the coca grower unions political get together, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), received a landslide victory within the 2005 nationwide election, thrusting Morales into energy for the following 14 years. Morales continued a coverage adopted in 2004 that legalized rising a small quantity of leaf. This inspired coca unions to self-police and front-loaded improvement help to allow economic diversification. “One reason the drug trade remains peaceful in Bolivia is precisely because of the government’s harm-reduction approach,” argued a retired anti-drug police officer.

Unlike Colombia, the place armed teams dominate the commerce, within the Chapare, no single individual, household clan, or gang has ever been in management. Fifty-year outdated Ivan Choque has labored producing cocaine paste most of his life. “Everyone directly or indirectly involved is from here,” he defined.

Coca farmers produce anyplace between 4 to eight 25-kilo sacks of leaf each three to 4 months. To remodel this into paste, the gear is reasonable, the talents straightforward to study, and the chemical substances out there at a ironmongery store or gasoline station. 

But solely native folks have the mandatory relationships to succeed. Because the union controls entry to land, solely its members can develop coca. They promote their crop to largely ladies coca retailers who’re a part of their prolonged kin-group. In return, retailers present farmers with money advances and act as godparents to their kids. 

The subsequent step is paste manufacturing, which requires gasoline. However, native gasoline stations are solely allowed to promote one tank per automobile per day, and police at checkpoints search automobiles and impound suspicious chemical substances. As a consequence, taxi drivers smuggle gas; nearly all are coca growers. They solely promote to folks they’re tied to by kinship or who’re shut acquaintances.

“Trusted” younger males then make the paste, guided by a extra skilled “cook.” On the highest rung are the acopiadores (collectors), wealthier native farmers who transport bricks of cocaine paste to both town or distant jungle refineries. The acopiador, too, is a part of the online of godparenthood relationships. 

“I have to sell to my padrino,” defined Umberto. “He paid for my wedding, so of course I must!” Hormigas (ants) smuggle out one or two kilos at a time.

Those immediately concerned in drug manufacturing earn extra money and are beneath sturdy stress to pay for college commencement journeys, a band for a fiesta, or matching uniforms for the native soccer group. Anyone with surplus money who doesn’t spend money on social relations is taken into account immoral. Drug staff with an incredible many “godchildren” are held in excessive esteem and deemed worthy of group safety. This ensures them each a gradual provide of coca leaf or chemical substances and no native interference.

Outsiders are handled with nice suspicion, and anybody regarded as performing towards the group’s pursuits can undergo vigilante justice, similar to being stripped bare and tied to the palo santo, a tree that’s residence to 1000’s of toxic biting ants. Most coca growers assist this method, believing that violent punishment acts as a robust deterrent. “Criminals are afraid to come here” and “they don’t dare commit crime here,” are repeated continuously.

The coca unions additionally resist state management. If the police fail to ask permission to enter an space from a union chief, they run the danger of violent assault. A neighborhood police commander complained, “We have the law on our side, but the unions have more power. They decide who comes and who goes.”

While Bolivia is the one nation in Latin America with low drug violence, different communities within the Americas have seen comparable success. In the highland area of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, geographer Gabriel Tamariz discovered that sturdy group organizations allowed Indigenous peasant farmers to efficiently resist the incursions of marijuana and opium poppy traffickers. With 75 p.c of land owned by rural communities, he argues that “communal land ownership and the community assembly have been particularly significant in…negotiating government ‘eradication’ of [drug] crops and relationships with drug trafficking organizations.” This resonates with the historical past of Mexico’s drug commerce the place “up to the 1970s, violence was rarely employed to sort out disputes between drug traffickers,” writes historian Benjamin Smith, “Deep ties of blood, marriage, friendship and neighborhood…prevented the frequent use of force.”

To make cocaine (identified domestically as la fina), cocaine paste passes by a second and extra advanced stage of processing. It requires talent, gear, and industrial chemical substances which might be tough to come back by. Start-up prices are excessive, someplace between $150,000 and $300,000.

Over latest years, crystallization labs have crept south into the Chapare. Local safety forces have found and destroyed a number of mega laboratories, a few of which may course of as much as 500 kilos of pure cocaine per day. In communities the place the labs are situated, traffickers pay the native villagers as much as $500 every week for work and safety.

Chapare locals fear about this growth. 

“Violence is reaching us, bit by bit,” warned Ivan. “The armed guards who protect la fina will not hesitate to silence anyone.” The bigger investments, concentrations of capital in fewer palms, and faceless sellers, rupture long-standing reciprocal relationships.

“Before, drug trafficking was more communal,” Ivan mentioned. “We all shared the benefits.”


Linda Farthing’s newest ebook is Coup: A Story of Violence and Resistance in Bolivia, co-authored with Thomas Becker (Haymarket, 2021). She has additionally written on Bolivia for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and The Nation.

Thomas Grisaffi is a visiting Professor on the University of St Gallen (Switzerland). He is the creator of Coca Yes, Cocaine No (Duke University Press, 2019), and co-editor of Cocaine: From coca fields to the streets (Duke University Press, 2021).

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