Violent tensions are flaring in Bolivia's capital between hostile factions of one of the country's coca growers’ unions, escalating a long-simmering conflict for control of legal coca production in the Andean nation.
The clashes broke out at the beginning of August between two sectors of the Departmental Association of Coca Producers of La Paz (Asociación Departamental de Productores de Coca de La Paz -- Adepcoca) -- one group loyal to President Evo Morales, the other to jailed union boss Franklin Gutiérrez.
While the former group has staged elections for new union leaders, the latter continues to demand the release of Gutiérrez and other jailed unionists, claiming that the elections were organized by government stooges to undermine the association.
Gutiérrez was arrested in August 2018 on charges he allegedly masterminded the murder of police officer Daynor Sandoval. Sandoval’s death occurred when a group of coca growers reportedly ambushed members of a combined task force charged with eradicating illegal coca plantations in the community of La Asunta, located in Yungas province northeast of the capital La Paz.
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Since his arrest, Gutiérrez has become a symbol of the growing conflict between Morales’ government and the coca growers of Yungas. Tensions have spiraled since Bolivia’s 2017 Coca Law extended legal coca cultivation for traditional use, ending Yungas’ monopoly on legal production and authorizing previously illicit plantations in Morales’ home province of Chaparé.
Simultaneously, the Morales government increased eradication activities in unauthorized growing areas, including 1,500 hectares in La Asunta. This sparked a furious response from Gutiérrez and other leaders of Adepcoca, the coca growers’ union covering Yungas province and La Paz. They insist that the distinction between “authorized” and “unauthorized” plantations does not correspond to the distinction between crops grown for licit and illicit purposes, and that communities such as La Asunta are being made scapegoats for Chaparé’s supplying of the cocaine industry.
Nine members of Adepcoca are currently behind bars, accused of crimes such as attacks on authorities and possession of dynamite. Their followers hold frequent protests for the release of who they call political prisoners, claiming that they were arrested on trumped up charges to undermine opposition to the Coca Law.
Since 2017, clashes between police and demonstrators opposed to the Coca Law have resulted in six deaths and 23 injuries, according to El País.
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The coca growers' conflict shines a spotlight on a regional divide that has shadowed President Morales’ move to legalize traditional coca use in the country. The question at its heart: Is the Bolivian government genuine in its claims of “coca yes, cocaine no,” or is it merely undermining traditional growers while permitting production that fuels the illegal market?
The 2017 Coca Law brought the legal area of coca cultivation in the country up to 22,000 hectares -- 14,300 in Yungas and 7,700 in Chaparé. According to a 2013 study, the legal coca market can be supplied by 14,700 hectares of coca, implying an excess of roughly 7,000 hectares. The 2017 coca cultivation survey produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated the total area under coca cultivation in the country at 24,500 hectares, implying that up to 9,800 hectares are entering the illegal market.
While Yungas is the region that has historically grown coca leaf that is chewed by Bolivia’s indigenous communities, Chaparé arose as an alternative production center in the 1980s, primarily growing coca as a base for cocaine. At first glance, the UNODC's figures seem to support Yungas’ claims that Chaparé is still primarily responsible for this illicit supply.
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Bolivia’s overall coca production has been on the rise since 2016, reversing a five-year declining trend. Production rose 17 percent in Chaparé from 2016 to 2017, and only one percent in Yungas. This brought Chaparé to account for 34 percent of land in Bolivia under coca cultivation. Due to the higher productivity of Chaparé’s fields, the UNODC estimates that the region produced almost half the country’s coca leaf. But its one authorized market accounted for only nine percent of sales.
However, the UNODC also notes that Chaparé’s market is much less accessible than in Yungas, meaning that growers in Chaparé are more inclined to sell their product directly to local distributors. This does not necessarily mean that it is used for non-traditional purposes.
Although it still seems likely that more coca from Chaparé enters the illegal market than from Yungas, Chaparé also accounts for more eradication activities: 78 percent, next to Yungas’ 18 percent, according to the UNODC.
The available data makes it difficult to state with certainty whether government eradication policies unfairly target the Yungas growers. Furthermore, the current distribution of authorized growing areas was the product of extended negotiations in which the growers’ unions of both provinces were involved.
The irony, however, is that current forced eradication policies and violent battles with coca growers are starting to bear resemblance to the actions of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Bolivia in the 1980s and 1990s, which Morales fiercely opposed.