The Defined Line Between Coca and Cocaine
By Nick OlleMay 7, 2013
Now that it has successfully trafficked quinoa, the Bolivian government wants to prove the ancient medicinal properties of the coca leaf to the rest of the world. Really, it’s nothing to sniff at.
Night is fast approaching and a steady drizzle lubricates the asphalt. The government-issue 4WD heading from La Paz deep into the Bolivian jungle sits low on its suspension, straining under the mushroom of luggage and provisions strapped to its roof. Ten hours and some of the world’s most perilous roads stand between us and La Asunta, the remote hometown of our host, Bolivia’s Vice-Minister of Coca and Integral Development, Dionicio Nuñez.
The heavy-set Nuñez is riding shotgun while his driver, Florencio, expertly negotiates first the slippery bitumen and later the fraught cliff-hugging dirt trails that weave through the Andean hillsides. The vice-minister’s son and aunt are tagging along to visit family and friends. Nuñez’s wife, Maria, is waiting for him in their family home in La Asunta and will accompany us on our return to La Paz a few days later (along with another passenger and a restless chicken, as it turns out). I’ve been given the relatively luxurious seat directly behind the vice-minister and, adding to my embarrassment at this honour, my luggage has been given pride of place inside the vehicle to keep it dry.
Nuñez talks almost without pausing. He explains each new barely visible scene that flashes by the car windows, interrupting himself periodically to ask questions. What is Australia like? How many people live there?
Much of the first leg of the journey is at altitudes in excess of 4,000 metres and I’m very grateful for the mate de coca (coca leaf tea) I drank earlier, which, as advertised, has proved to be an effective antidote to altitude sickness. It’s a bonus that Nuñez is impressed by my having taken such preventative measures, and assures me I’ve done the right thing.
Assuring people about the coca plant is what Nuñez does. His coca ministry is, not surprisingly, the only one of its kind in the world, and the portfolio work includes “demystifying” Bolivia’s hoja sagrada (sacred leaf) on the world stage. He explains:
“We are showing the world that the consumption of coca leaves has nothing to do with the consumption of cocaine hydrochloride or cocaine sulphate, which is the drug.”
Cultivation and consumption of the coca plant predate the Incan empire and remain a fundamental part of contemporary Andean culture. Coca production in Bolivia is worth more than USD350 million annually, the US State Department estimates. In every corner of the country acullico (coca leaf chewing) is habitual, particularly among indigenous groups, such as the Aymara and Quechua, who collectively account for about two-thirds of the country’s population. Coca leaves, rich in minerals, vitamins and nutrients, are also commonly used in food and drink products, and in medicine. Chewing the sun-dried, bitter-tasting leaves in their natural state relieves hunger and fatigue, while as the base of the stock cooking ingredient coca flour, it appears in a wide variety of foods. Coca leaves can also be manufactured into medicines used to treat asthma and colds and to stimulate stomach function.
In addition to the many uses it has in Andean culture, the coca leaf is also, notoriously, the key raw ingredient for the production of cocaine, a fact that has beleaguered Bolivia, Colombia and Peru for decades. The coca leaf itself is listed alongside cocaine as a narcotic drug in the United Nations’ 1961 “Vienna” Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
This month Bolivia’s President Evo Morales expelled the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), accusing it of meddling politically and economically in Bolivia’s affairs. Likewise, in 2008 he expelled both the US ambassador in La Paz and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And in 2011, in perhaps his most audacious diplomatic move, Morales withdrew Bolivia from the Vienna Convention, claiming it too was at odds with Bolivia’s national dignity.
A former cocalero (coca farmer) – and like Morales, an Aymara Indian and coca farmers’ union leader – Nuñez is on a personal crusade to ensure that the leaf and the drug that can be made from it are considered as separate, albeit related, issues. And central to this distinction are the notions of sovereignty and national dignity. Throughout the journey he regales us with tales of his defiant lone stands in defence of Bolivian culture as a whole. He argues that the coca leaf is “absolutely fundamental” to the cultural identity of all Bolivians – “It is present in all the important parts of our lives, from the family to the community as a whole”. He resents the fact that it is necessary to defend the coca leaf at all. As he puts it, thousands of years of peaceful tradition are worth defending independently of the modern scourge of cocaine. It’s clear from his animated tone that he enjoys enlightening foreign officials uninformed on the cultural and practical benefits of the coca leaf, but there’s a hint of annoyance in his voice when he points out that not even Bolivia’s coca-producing neighbours Colombia and Peru can be relied upon to back him up.
In his own country Nuñez is less salesman and more service provider. The second part of his job title – integral development – is what matters most here. And this is why we’re heading to La Asunta, deep within Los Yungas, the biggest of the country’s two coca-producing regions (the other being Chapare). Nuñez will visit the local school to inaugurate some government-funded building works and meet with community leaders to discuss further government investment in the area.
Even in tiny five-house towns hours from La Asunta, local cocaleros wave us down to talk with the vice-minister – with whom they are invariably on a first-name basis – sometimes to air grievances, other times just to catch up. During one such pit stop we overhear speculation about the fate of senior cocalero union leader Ramiro Choque, who remains missing after his suspected abduction. Police have arrested four people in relation to the disappearance but neither they nor Nuñez and the cocaleros are sure what is behind the unprecedented situation. All that seems to be generally agreed is that the kidnappers are also cocaleros.
In general, certainly in La Asunta, the Morales administration seems popular. There is nothing resembling affluence here, but people identify with Nuñez as one of their own and largely attribute the town’s growth to the investment of his and other ministries. At La Asunta school, the vice minister is received like a homecoming hero. As we approach the school grounds, students rush to form a guard of honour and present Nuñez with an elaborate wreath made of coca leaves. And when he welcomes “the Australian media” in his address to the students, we too are quickly presented with a wreath of our own. After the formalities of the visit are over, it is announced to great approval that Nuñez and Maria will stay behind as guest judges for the school beauty contest. The winning contestant is all nervous blushes when Nuñez congratulates her, telling us later that being chosen as winner was a “dream” for her.
After leaving the school, Nuñez invites us to a traditional Bolivian lunch with a few local families in an isolated plot of land above the town. Several giant pots of marinated chicken legs, potatoes and other vegetables are buried on a sunken bed of hot coals and heated rocks and left to cook for an hour. While we wait, Nuñez demonstrates the art of drying coca leaves. He fashions a broom out of a tree branch and wades into a 15m by 5m pile of coca leaves strewn on a mesh fabric a few metres from the underground oven. La Asunta is littered with similar drying patches. As he turns the leaves with deliberate swings of the wrist, Nuñez explains that it is vitally important that the coca leaves are evenly dried. Get the drying wrong and the leaves can lose their flavour and effect.
SINCE taking office in 2006, President Morales has practiced a radical brand of ‘coca diplomacy’ and slammed the classification of the coca leaf as a drug as an “historical error”. In 2009 he oversaw the drafting of a new national constitution that expressly protects coca as “cultural heritage, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and a factor of social cohesion”. Later that year he famously chewed coca in front of a 2009 UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) session in Vienna (as captured in the video above), mocking the notion that the coca leaf in its natural state is a narcotic.
Nuñez, too, admits to travelling with a suitcase of coca and coca-derived products, to enable him to make the case for the much-maligned leaf in international forums. Invariably, he says, people are surprised to learn that this “controlled substance” is so versatile and useful.
But now, thanks to a clever political ploy and some effective counternarcotics policies, Bolivia has gained momentum in its crusade to decriminalise the coca leaf and perhaps even legally export it. (In fact, Nuñez foresees the coca leaf following in the footsteps of quinoa, the grain that Andean countries including Bolivia popularised, taking it from what was a vegan-only option to a global food trend.)
The first important development in Bolivia’s campaign came in September 2012, when the UN released its most recent report on the eradication of coca in the three producer nations. Bolivia, the smallest of the trio, had recorded a 12 per cent reduction in cultivation for 2011, down to 27,200 hectares, its lowest level since 2005. Despite having expelled the DEA in 2008, the country achieved this result through its policy of “social control”, which involves the co-operation of cocaleros with state institutions and international entities including the UN and the EU, in delimiting coca production zones. Coca cultivated within the agreed parameters is deemed “legal” coca and can therefore be traded on local markets, while all excess and wild coca is deemed illegal and eradicated. In Chapare, individual cocaleros are each entitled to cultivate one cato (40m by 40m), whereas in Los Yungas legal cultivation zones are delimited on traditional geographical grounds. The production zones are, in the first instance, voluntarily policed by the communities themselves.
In contrast with Bolivia’s success in reducing production through such co-operation, Peru and Colombia both recorded increases in cultivation over the same period.
“We nationalised the fight against narco-trafficking,” says Sabino Mendoza, General Coordinator of Bolivia’s National Council for the Fight Against the Illegal Drug Trade (known by its Spanish acronym CONALTID).
“The system is based on internal vigilance between producers so that no one exceeds the permitted cultivation of coca.
“As opposed to external policies of forced eradication imposed in the ’80s and’ 90s, now the rationalisation is agreed with the producers and in this way we avoid State violence and advance quicker and more effectively in the field.”
The UN figures earned Bolivia widespread praise but, despite acknowledging Bolivia’s record reduction in cultivation, US President Barack Obama declared for the fifth consecutive year that Bolivia had “failed demonstrably” to meet its international counternarcotics obligations. Despite the increase in coca cultivation in Peru and Colombia, neither of those countries, in which the DEA is still operating on behalf of the US, was rebuked in this way. Obama pointed to evidence that, notwithstanding its gains in reducing the volume of coca under cultivation, the Morales administration had been unable to stop cocaine production from increasing (due in large part to improvements in alkaloid-extraction methods used by cocaine manufacturers, which we’ll come to later).
Relations between La Paz and Washington have been strained throughout Morales’ presidency. This no doubt added to Bolivia’s satisfaction in achieving a second significant, if largely symbolic, victory: Having withdrawn from the Vienna convention in 2011, ostensibly in protest against the categorisation of the coca leaf as an illicit drug, Bolivia successfully rejoined the convention on February 10, 2013. The victory lay in the fact that the re-accession was granted with Bolivia’s reservation acknowledging the traditional use of coca within its territory. The reservation excludes Bolivia from Article 49(2)(e) of the convention, which stipulates that the practice of coca-chewing had to be abolished within 25 years of the coming into force of the convention (by 1986). In reality, there have been no attempts made to enforce this provision.
Before withdrawing from the convention in 2011, Bolivia had attempted to modify it by removing the coca leaf from the list of controlled substances. The opposition of just one of the 183 member states would have defeated the request, but 22 countries, including the United States, objected.
By withdrawing from the convention and reapplying with a reservation, Bolivia could only be defeated by the objection of a full third of member states. This time, there were 15 US-led objectors, though according to the UNODC’s representative in Bolivia, César Guedes, they were opposed more to the means used to press the amendment than to its end.
“They were the 15 most powerful countries in the world – all of the G8, all of the member states of the security council,” Guedes told The Global Mail. “What upset them is that a member state would go in and out of the convention and bend the instrument to their will. They thought this was not done in good faith.”
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent body created by the Vienna Convention, released a statement denouncing Bolivia’s “unprecedented step” in February 2012, a year before member states could object to Bolivia’s readmission.
“If the international community was to adopt an approach whereby State parties use the mechanism of denunciation and re-accession with reservations to overcome problems in the implementation of certain treaty provisions, the integrity of the international drug control system would be undermined.”
Nuñez, though, is unapologetic when he discusses the process Bolivia used in dealing with the UN.
“The world needs to understand that the coca leaf is part of our identity, part of our worldview and our tradition, but never something harmful to people. We are not in favour of legalising drugs, we don’t want our coca to be diverted to illegal ends.”
It is worth pointing out here that Nuñez is equating illegality exclusively with the drug trade. In reality, the coca leaf itself remains a controlled substance under the Vienna Convention and acullico and other traditional practices are legal only on Bolivian soil. This is to say that Morales chewing coca leaves in Austria and Nuñez lugging coca products abroad in his suitcase are illegal activities, however innocent they may seem.
BACK IN HIS OFFICE IN LA PAZ, Nuñez admits as much, but he clarifies that if the government has its way, this “ridiculous” situation will be only temporary. Buoyed by recent wins, he says the next objective is to share Bolivia’s coca wealth with the world.
“What we want now is for the traditional practice of consuming coca and for products derived from coca to reach beyond our borders, to show the medicinal, cultural and nutritional values of the coca leaf so the world comes to recognise its great value.”
He clarifies that Bolivia already manufactures “about 50” coca-derived products including flour, energy drinks, wine, pasta, chocolate and even shampoo.
“Now we’re in 2013, the international year of quinoa. Before, quinoa wasn’t recognised by the international community, but the world has managed to learn the great nutritional value of quinoa and now there is a demand for it. The same happened with llama meat – it wasn’t considered fit for human consumption, but now studies show that it is very healthy.”
More than 1.8 million Bolivians live outside the country and Nuñez says formalising their right to practice their culture wherever they live would be a good place to start. Indigenous Bolivians, he adds, are guaranteed this right under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
Much Bolivian coca travels south to the northern provinces of Argentina, where large populations of Bolivians and other Andean peoples practice acullico. The Bolivian government is set to release a mid-year report on the volume of coca leaves transported to Argentina, but Nuñez estimates that it is at least 20 per cent of all the production in Los Yungas. A certain commonsense tolerance rules this enormous illicit trade to the south, but the situation is more complicated to Bolivia’s north on its shared border with Brazil, the world’s second largest cocaine consumer after the US.
While Argentina is the prime destination for Bolivian coca leaves, the cocaine leaving the country is generally transported across the enormous, porous border with Brazil, an expanse much longer and much less patrolled than the US-Mexico border. Cocaine produced in Peru and Colombia also crosses the border, showing that Bolivia is a transit country as well as a producer. According to UNODC’s César Guedes, this trade is largely run by Brazilian criminal gangs, such as the notorious Comando Vermelho and Primeiro Comando da Capital – whose operations extend beyond the drug trade and include the trafficking of weapons and human beings – in conjunction with Bolivian contacts.
As for Bolivia’s plans to take other coca-derived products beyond its borders, Guedes is sceptical. “I’d take it with a pinch of salt,” he says. “The convention is clear: before exporting coca or commercialising coca products outside of Bolivian borders, the coca has to be previously processed and all the alkaloid has to be extracted.” It remains in most of the products Bolivians now make with coca.
“Now that Bolivia is back in the UN convention, any efforts to commercialise coca has to be done in line with the convention and the alkaloid has to be removed, which is not an easy thing to do and is actually quite expensive,” Guedes says.
“If they are able to develop products that have a market, bingo! But first of all you need to create the entrepreneurs who are prepared to invest in this and have the technical capacity to remove the alkaloids. The question is whether or not entrepreneurs could make such products economically viable.”
In Bolivia, products as diverse as shampoos and liquors are generally accepted as falling into the protected “traditional use” category but many of these products have not been stripped of the alkaloids used in cocaine production and, as such, are unsuitable for export. However, Nuñez says plans are afoot to try to legalise the export of these types of products.
The fear raised in the international community is that Bolivia has yet to quantify the number of hectares required to satisfy its internal market, and that the possibility of exporting coca and coca-derived products could see any such figure increase. The argument holds that the more coca leaves there are, the greater the risk that “legal” production is diverted to the drug trade.
This is a concern that the UN shares. Guedes says: “We have alerted the [Bolivian] government – ‘Don’t think that by coming back to the convention you have a free hand to cultivate at your discretion; it is a controlled substance and we fear that part of it could go to supply the narco-trafficking’.”
“The Bolivian government said they would keep a strong eye on that, and that is their word.”
This brings us to probably the single biggest challenge Bolivia faces in its counternarcotics efforts – corruption. As Guedes points out, the situation in Bolivia is not out of control and, given there are just two coca-producing regions, relatively manageable. He says that the involvement of cocaleros in the social control policy has been very positive, but endemic corruption means there will always be “legal” coca siphoned off for illegal purposes. Police and military officials are paid very modest salaries, so the temptation of drug dollars is ever-present.
“Narco-trafficking involves a hell of a lot of money and in some cases it is very easy to reach someone’s price,” says Guedes.
Indeed, Bolivia’s reputation on this front was severely tainted in 2011 when the former head of its anti-narcotic police, General René Sanabria, was arrested for involvement in a drug-trafficking ring. That said, Guedes points to the fact that Bolivia is the only country in the world to have an anti-corruption ministry – “a good sign that they are trying to do more”.
After Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivia, UNODC lost much of the funding it had previously received from the US and was forced to restructure with new, mostly European, donors. And just last month the US announced that it was pulling its logistical and financial support from Bolivia’s fight against drugs. Ideological differences aside, another reason for the US exit is the fact that Bolivian cocaine accounts for just one per cent of the US domestic market for cocaine, so it sees little value in deploying money and resources here. Guedes says the US’s unrivalled technical capacity is a great loss for Bolivia, particularly at a time when drug traffickers are able to use chemical precursors to extract more of the alkaloid needed for cocaine production from each coca leaf than ever before.
It is this phenomenon more than any other that accounts for Bolivia’s “demonstrable failure” to reduce cocaine production, despite its successes in reducing coca cultivation.
“It is a concern,” Guedes says, “but we’re embarking on a study at the moment [with the governments of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia] to recalculate the ratio of how much cocaine you can produce taking into account the new methodologies.” The results of the study are expected to be released next year.
CONALTID’s Sabino Mendoza, is at pains to remind everyone that the coca leaf is but one of the ingredients necessary for making cocaine. “The underlying problem is the control of chemical substances with which the narcotic is produced, because without them there is no cocaine production.”
“These products should be more tightly controlled, they should be subject to the same measures as the plants sanctioned in the UN conventions.”
Nuñez agrees, arguing that Bolivia can balance its counternarcotics efforts with its celebration – and potential commercialisation – of the coca leaf.
“When we defend the coca leaf, we defend it as an ancestral product, as a product that has nothing to do with drugs,” he says.
“If we’ve achieved an international year of quinoa, our aspiration for the future is to achieve an international year of the coca leaf.”