<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
 English | Español November 18, 2017 | Issue #34


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The Heart of the Bolivian Coca Trade

A Cochabamba Market Exposes the Contradictions of Coca Prohibition


By Sean Donahue
2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar

August 7, 2004

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA: On a Monday morning in early August, campesinos (peasant farmers) carry fifty pound feedbags full of coca leaves to the government-sanctioned coca market in Sacaba. Coca leaves are piled in a three foot high mound on the concrete floor of the open–air building that houses the market. The walls are painted with faded murals of mountains and sunsets. Here the mostly Quechua and Aymara people of the Chapare region come to buy and sell the coca leaves that they chew to stave off hunger and fatigue.


Bags of coca in its natural state, for sale at the Sacaba market
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
The market has been in business for over a hundred years, predating the rise of the cocaine trade and the regulation of coca. The people of the Chapare have grown and used coca since long before the Spanish conquest of Bolivia. It plays a central role in their culture and their religion. Felipe Caceres, the mayor of the nearby town of Villa Tunari, and a coca grower himself, explains that “For us coca is a natural resource and a part of our cultural patrimony.”

The very existence of the market in Sacaba and its fifteen smaller satellite markets contradicts the U.S. government’s claims that the coca grown in the Chapare is all bought up by narco-traffickers and made into cocaine. Vendors must purchase licenses from the government and carefully document their transactions. The same organization that administers the market confiscates shipments of coca that are being transported by unlicensed vendors, lack the proper documentation, or are being moved along unauthorized routes. Officials store the confiscated coca in a warehouse next to the Sacaba market, and later burn it at high temperatures.


Farmers and merchants trade in Sacaba
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004

The coca growers of the Chapare exist in a strange legal gray area. The Bolivian military and police consider their crops illegal and routinely raid small farms throughout the region. At the same time, the organization that runs and regulates the market in Sacaba is actually a government agency.

In January of 2002, under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, the military tried to shut down the Sacaba market, sparking a fierce struggle in the streets of Sacaba and Cochabamba. By the time the struggle ended, four campesinos and two soldiers were dead and some one hundred campesinos had been arrested and tortured (see Luis Gomez’s report, The War Over Sacaba). Eventually, the government relented and re-opened the coca market.

The sacrifices that the people of the Chapare were willing to make in the battle to re-open the market in Sacaba point to the coca leaf’s essential role here. Evo Morales, a leader in the Chapare coca grower’s union and a major national political figure in Bolivia, says that “to speak of eradicating coca is to speak of eradicating the Quechua and the other indigenous groups because it is so central to their culture.”


A Sacaba warehouse destroyed during clashes with the government in 2002
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
According to Angel Sandoval, a coca farmer from the town of Rio Alto, “We grow coca because there is no other plant that will give us enough money with which to live.” In a good year, a single hectare of coca will bring in just under $4,500. A hectare of palmitos will only bring in about $250, and farmers actually end up losing money on passion fruit because of the costs of pesticides and labor. Many campesinos are farming on as little as one sixth of a hectare.

At the market, farmers often receive a higher price for their coca than they would from narco-traffickers. However, each farmer is only allowed to sell one hundred pounds of coca at a time. Some sell their coca illegally in order to avoid this limit. That illegal coca is usually bought by drug traffickers and made into cocaine.

Legal markets like the one in the Sacaba serve to help raise coca prices, making the crop less appealing to narcotraffickers and helping the campesinos who grow coca support themselves without taking part in the drug trade. According to Silvia Rivera, a sociologist from the Aymara region near La Paz, U.S. opposition to legal coca markets is based on the misguided theory that the “economic effect of repression -i.e. closing markets to the legal trade, is that interdiction will lower the prices, and peasants will have to switch to alternative development products. The Bolivian case shows that hypothesis is untrue.” The price of coca in the legal markets has actually increased dramatically since the Bolivian government began U.S.-backed crop eradication efforts. If supply decreases and demand increases, the price of coca rises. “Eradication and interdiction policies are based on bad liberal economics,” Rivera says, the drug warriors “flunked the test even on their own terms.”

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