For the fourth consecutive year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported a decline in coca cultivation in the Plurinational State of Bolivia; the country has achieved a 34 percent net reduction in coca cultivation between 2010 and 2014.1 Bolivia now places well behind Peru and Colombia in its production of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient used to manufacture cocaine, and is very close to meeting its goal of limiting the cultivation of coca for traditional and other legal uses to only 20,000 hectares (about 77 square miles). These accomplishments are being noticed. According to the UNODC representative in Bolivia, Antonino De Leo, “Bolivia’s achievement over the last four years is well known: reduction of coca cultivation through dialogue, participation of coca growers’ unions, and a policy based on respect for human rights. The results are clear in the eyes of the international community.”2
Upon taking office in 2006, President Evo Morales extended a cooperative coca reduction program that was first put in place in October 2004. The policy allows each registered coca grower to cultivate one cato of coca,3 which is 1,600-2,500 square meters (about one-third the size of a football field). Any coca grown beyond that limit is subject to elimination. The government has implemented a sophisticated coca monitoring system that includes land titling, a biometric registry of growers authorized to grow the cato, periodic measurements of coca fields, and implementation of a database, SISCOCA. Local coca growers’ unions work with government officials to ensure compliance with the cato agreement, a policy known as “cooperative coca reduction.” To date, this approach has produced positive results and is promoting long-term reductions in coca cultivation while virtually eliminating the violence and social conflict associated with the forced coca eradication campaigns pursued by previous governments.
Yet the Bolivian government faces significant challenges addressing broader drug trafficking trends and the continuing diversification of trafficking routes: in particular, transshipment of low-priced Peruvian coca paste through its territory. Drugs originating in Peru are now being shipped in small planes. Bolivian officials estimate that 60 percent of coca paste and cocaine interdicted in the country originates in Peru. European Union (EU) official Nicolaus Hansmann laments that, “Peru is a huge problem. It is like a balloon that could explode at any moment and spill over into Bolivia.”4 The government also faces diversified local drug trafficking networks, primarily organized in family “clans,” and the presence of representatives of foreign drug cartels.
Reforming Bolivia’s draconian drug law, Law 1008, is one of the most significant persisting challenges. The government has announced that the law will be separated into two—one law dealing with coca cultivation and the other with drug production and trafficking—in an effort to differentiate between licit, traditional coca production and the illegal drug trade. The Morales administration is preparing draft laws that reportedly will be debated in the Bolivian congress later this year.
Bolivia’s cooperative coca reduction strategy has proven to be more effective than previous forced eradication efforts. At the same time, it honors the country’s own cultural traditions and recognizes that poor people who rely on coca for licit uses and as a source of cash income should not be blamed for a global issue well beyond their control.
It would behoove the Bolivian government to adopt a similar approach in reforming the country’s draconian Law 1008, which was adopted in 1988 and designed by the U.S. Embassy to mimic the United States’ own punitive approach to drugs. Failing to distinguish between levels of involvement in the drug trade, the law has filled Bolivia’s jails with low-level drug offenders, the vast majority of whom spend years in jail before even coming to trial. To address low-level drug offenders, the Morales government should intensify its focus on alleviating poverty—the approach that has underpinned Bolivia’s successful efforts to reduce coca growing. Scarce enforcement resources should be directed primarily against those running the drug trade at higher levels, rather than against those at the bottom rungs of production and distribution, who are in any case easily replaced. Toward that end, the new drug law should ensure proportionality in sentencing—in other words, the penalty should be commensurate with the gravity of the offense committed—and include alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders, including education, training, and employment programs.
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Photo: Coca in the Chapare region of Bolivia. Credit: Sara Shahriari.