<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Coca in the Cola

The soft drink of Atlanta and the coca leaf of the Andes


By Luis A. Gómez
Narco News Andean Bureau Chief

December 20, 2002

This week, Bolivia’s undersecretary of Social Defense, Ernesto Justiniano, reported that his office had authorized the exportation of 350,000 bricks (about 159 tons) of coca leaf to the United States “for the manufacturing of the soft drink, Coca-Cola.”

Yes, read it well, kind readers, a high official of the government of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada has authorized the sale of coca to make the most consumed soft drink in the world.

This statement was denied by a spokeswoman of the United States company, in a telephone interview from Atlanta, with the Mexican daily El Universal, who said that the company doesn’t use cocaine and that it never has been part of the drink’s ingredients.

Then, what’s the story?

Three years ago, the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo reported that an affiliate of Coca-Cola in Brazil bought large quantities of coca leaf in Bolivia. However, the sale was never made directly: a chemical products laboratory (making flavors and other products), subsidiary of the multinational Monsanto, was in charge of buying and “processing” the coca leaf, that was then sold to the owners of the dark-colored soft drink as a mixture. Then, as now, Coca-Cola denied that it uses coca leaf to manufacture “the real thing.” It seems that the same is occurring today.

The operation began in this country when the Albo Export company, once it obtained the necessary licenses, began to warehouse coca leaf. When the required quantity was collected, it was sent to Stepan Chemical of Maywood, New Jersey. The volume of each shipment is determined by the United States laboratory, and according to U.S. government reports, the processing of the coca leaf includes (they swear) a “de-cocainization” of the plant. That is to say, they eliminate the alkaloid that it contains… and later use that to manufacture medicines, anesthetics and artificial flavors.

The Bolivian media, as a result of this report, has begun to speculate about the possible use of the coca leaf as an ingredient in Coca-Cola, although the U.S. company strongly denies it, as its representative declared to El Universal in Mexico. Adriana Valladares, its representative in Mexico, says: “Coca-Cola does not buy coca leaf.” It’s also been made public that the Albo Export, a company owned by Bolivian Fernando Alborta, has exported coca from Peru and Bolivia in recent years, and that between 1997 and 1999 it sent 340 tons of coca leaf to the United States.

These purchase and processing operations are closely monitored in Bolivia by the General Coca Control and Auditing Board (Digeco, in its Spanish acronym) and in the United States, of course, by the DEA, which includes providing the warehouses with sophisticated alarm systems and storage caskets for this curious treasure in New Jersey. This suggests an irony: A government wants to eradicate an Andean vegetable from the planet and, at the same time, use it within its own territory for medicine and food products.

In the administrative resolutions of the Undersecretary of Social Defense 043/01 and 04/02 (the first was published by the previous president’s government last December 14, 2001), the collection of coca was authorized but it resulted that Albo Export was not able to complete the transaction mentioned above. In reality, only 50,000 bricks, instead of the full 350,000, have been delivered. Nothing has been sent to Stepan Chemical, the company that has been accused of contaminating water and land on the border of the United States and Mexico (in the Matamoros region), also an affiliate of Monsanto.

Because, in Yungas, the traditional coca leaf cultivation region in Bolivia, there has not been much commercialization and the price has risen, Albo Export, in order to be able to complete its request and send its shipments in March 2003, has sought permission to store coca leaf in the Sacaba Market, in Cochabamba, in the Chapare region, in the only legal coca cultivation area in the country. But, as Undersecretary Justiniano says, this represents a very small portion of the coca grown in Bolivia, in Yungas or Chapare.

However, while explaining how many acres are required to meet the purchase needs of Albo Export, Justiniano said that 100 tons of coca require 22 hectares of plantations. This contradicts the report of the Latin American Center for Scientific Investigation, that in 1996 determined that 114 tons of coca require 42 hectares. The difference is important: in recent months this has been a central part of negotiations between the government and Bolivian coca growers; the question of how much land is required to satisfy internal and foreign demand for coca.

For now, while the Coca-Cola executives deny using the leaf for their beverage, Congressman Evo Morales has already said that coca should not only be exported, it should also be industrialized. “It seems like a large concession to export 150 tons to the United States. All along, coca from Chapare has been exported, including, in some cases, to meet lower prices for Albo Export in Villa Tunari, in a large operation that lowered the price of coca in order to be able to buy it cheaply,” said Evo to the daily La Prensa of La Paz, on Wednesday.

This story is just beginning and as it develops, kind readers, will be the subject of future reports in Narco News, not only to see if we can discover the formula of the black soft drink (and if coca is used in its elaboration), but also looking at the moral hypocrisy of the United States on this issue, modifying its position regarding coca, depending clearly on whether its own economic (or pharmaceutical) interests are at stake. Of course, the matter will be negotiated face-to-face, as Senator Filemón Escóbar of the Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) says, “between the president of the poor (Evo) and the president of the rich (Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada).”

Stay tuned because the coming year will bring many matters to discuss on that stage…

Correction, December 23:

Kind readers: Between the tobacco smoke and the research papers, this correspondent got a fact confused. The Stepan Chemical company of Maywood, New Jersey, is not an affiliate of the multinational Monsanto company. In fact, Stepan is a multinational company on its own, with affiliates in a dozen countries. We regret the error.

Luis A. Gómez

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America