Authorities in Argentina are seizing bumper crops of coca leaves coming over the country's northwest border with Bolivia, causing the price of the leaves - likely intended for chewing as a stimulant - to surge.
On August 7, a military police patrol stopped a car on the winding Cuesta de Lipan highway in the northwestern province of Jujuy near Argentina's border with Bolivia. The distinct scent of fresh coca came from the car's trunk, which contained 100 kilograms of coca leaves, local newspaper El Tribuno reported.
At the end of July, meanwhile, authorities seized seven kilograms of coca leaves during raids on properties belonging to a family accused of drugs and contraband trafficking, El Tribuno reported. Four siblings - two brothers and two sisters - were arrested during six different raids carried out in Jujuy by more than 50 police.
In addition to the coca leaves, law enforcement seized marijuana, cocaine paste and illegal firearms.
According to investigators, the family had a carefully established modus operandi to traffic their illicit products from Bolivia into Argentina, using backpackers and buses.
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The backpackers, hired in Bolivia, smuggled the drugs across the border to La Quiaca in Jujuy for 10,000 pesos ($103) per kilogram. From there, drivers with a bus company picked up the drugs in La Quiaca and hid them in false bottom compartments or fuel tanks. The drivers, who received 30,000 pesos ($309) per kilogram, transported the drugs to Salta for resale and distribution.
There are no official figures on the number of coca leaves seized each year by law enforcement, dozens of news releases this year by Argentina's military police show the confiscation of tons of coca leaves. In Argentina, it is legal to possess coca leaf but it is illegal to import it into the country.
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Ongoing border controls in Argentina and Bolivia to prevent the spread of new COVID-19 variants have led to increases in seizures of coca leaf commonly smuggled over the border and sold for consumption.
Although coca is the primary ingredient in cocaine, the leaves are largely chewed for their stimulative properties. The amount of leaves seized means they were unlikely to be destined for any kind of cocaine manufacturing.
The possession of coca leaves is permitted under Article 15 of Argentine law 23.737. Because of its use in cocaine, though, coca cultivation and importation remains illegal in Argentina. This has created a black market for coca leaves smuggled from Bolivia to Argentina for private consumption, though some regions of Argentina also have the proper climate for coca cultivation.
As in Bolivia and Peru, Indigenous people in Argentina have long consumed coca and use leaves in traditional ceremonies. Manual laborers have also picked up on the age-old practice of coqueo, or the chewing of coca leaves, mixing it with yista (sodium bicarbonate) to give them a boost of energy and suppress hunger pangs.
In fact, coqueo is so popular in northwestern Argentina that the consumption of coca in the city of Salta is estimated to be worth a staggering $600,000 every month. Based on coca prices before the COVID-19 pandemic, this is equivalent to roughly 14,000 kilograms of coca leaves.