Military Sowed Conflict for Bolivia’s Coca Conundrum: traditional production vs drug trafficking

The EU is funding a $1.3m anti-drugs centre in Yapacani, a city on the edge of Bolivia’s Chapare region. Chapare is a major production area for coca, the raw material used in cocaine. Whilst the anti-drug centre will focus its work against traffickers, indigenous people worry that their involvement in coca production for traditional purposes will see them targeted.

Chewing coca is part of Bolivia's cultural heritage
Chewing coca is part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage

Coca production and consumption has been a feature of Andean life for thousands of years, with the plant used both as a medicine and as a stimulant against altitude sickness. Whilst limited coca production is permitted for some indigenous groups in Bolivia, the line between legal and illicit harvesting has become increasingly blurred, particularly as some farmers have become involved (forcibly or otherwise) with drug cartels.

The inauspicious-looking coca plant
The inauspicious-looking coca plant

The involvement of indigenous populations in the cocaine industry became embedded in Bolivia during the period of military rule between 1964 and 1982:

With military collusion, a trade in coca leaf was developed by drug cartels which paid poor Indian peasants to grow the traditional leaf for processing into cocaine in Colombia…Many desperate ex-miners and landless peasants migrated to the eastern lowlands, especially the Chapare region near Cochabamba, to grow coca leaf for the drug trade (Williamson, 2009, p. 604)

The economic devastation caused by military rule left many Bolivian peasants and itinerants with no option but to involve themselves in the drug trade. This subsequently precipitated the intervention of American-backed president Hugo Banzer in a brutal ‘cocaine war’ to eradicate coca production sites. (Patton, 2002, p.3)

Whilst the intention to eradicate Bolivia’s link with the cocaine trade was understandable:

Eradication hit the peasant growers very hard because compensation for the loss of their crops was inadequate and alternatives fetched much lower prices. (Williamson, 2009, p. 605)

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president and former leader of the coca-producing federation, has tried to allow increased indigenous production whilst simultaneously limiting the influence of the drug cartels. Such a goal, unfortunately, is almost impossible, as drug gangs and indigenous coca-producers have become inextricably linked in the cocaine supply chain.

Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia's coca conundrum
Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia’s coca conundrum

To eradicate coca production altogether would alienate the indigenous base on which Morales rests his legitimacy. To allow it to flourish inadvertently increases the power of the cartels.

It is an unenviable situation, one caused by Morales’ predecessors and Western habits, where the president is torn between choosing one of two evils or allowing the destabilising status quo to persist.


Patton J, ‘Counterdevelopment and the Bolivian Coca War’, The Fletcher Journal of Development Studies (Volume XVII, 2002)

Williamson E, The Penguin History of Latin America (St Ives, 2009)

Morales Seeks to Emulate Chavez; puts Bolivians in jeopardy

Bolivia’s socialist president Evo Morales has angered American officials by expelling the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from his country as part of a customary May Day speech. Along with Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Morales was a disciple of recently-deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution. His latest attempt to emulate Chavez by defying American wishes is a petty statement liable to worsen the lot of the ordinary Bolivians he is supposed to champion.

USAID has been involved in Bolivia since the 1960s, contributing to educational, infrastructural and agricultural development which have in turn yielded jobs in one of South America’s poorest countries. The expulsion of USAID is a result, says Morales, of its desire to “conspire against the Bolivian people”.

The rule of Morales becomes ever more chaotic and ill-advised
The rule of Morales becomes ever more chaotic and ill-advised

He follows a path well-trodden by Chavez who frequently accused the Americans of meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American countries and made similar symbolic gestures against American “imperialism”.

The argument of the US conspiring to influence the politics of Latin America has some credence of course because, in the not too distant past, America was heavily involved in funding right-wing generals and paramilitary groups against what its leaders and intelligence community saw as dangerous communists.

Bolivia serves as a good example. In 1964, the CIA helped fund and organise a coup that saw General Rene Barrientos overthrow the centre-left nationalist government of Victor Paz. US Special Forces subsequently helped Barrientos solidify his power base by suppressing leftist peasant insurgencies. Barrientos died in a helicopter crash in 1969 and was succeeded by Alfredo Ovando, who had played a key role in the 1964 coup himself.

Times had changed, however, and Ovando had taken a sharp turn to the left. Soon after taking office he nationalised American oil operations in Bolivia and invited noted socialist intellectuals into his government. The US could not stand for it and they began to agitate for political change in Bolivia by backing home-grown insurgents. This at a time when Che Guevara and other communist revolutionaries began to see Bolivia as a perfect destination for their brand of socialism.

After Guevara’s death in 1967, and with pressure against his rule mounting, Ovando retired in 1970 only to be succeeded by an even stauncher socialist, Juan Jose Torres. Torres, Ovando’s right-hand man, and another person of military experience, would not be cowed by the Americans despite a CIA-backed coup attempt in 1970. It would take a second coup in August 1971 to overthrow Torres with Hugo Banzer, another general, lifted to supremacy with American blessing. Subsequent attempts at a counter-coup were quashed with American assistance.

Banzer would embark upon a seven-year dictatorship of characteristic South American brutality; kidnappings, assassinations and random arrests persisted. But, for the US, another country had been prevented from being swallowed by the communist tide.

Hugo Banzer was one of a number of brutal dictators helped to power by communist-wary America
Hugo Banzer was one of a number of brutal dictators helped to power by communist-wary America

Scepticism towards America is understandable in South America. Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War and a democratic transition of some kind in most Latin American countries, the Americans have sought to re-engage with their southern neighbours on a more positive footing. Aside from USAID, the Americans have waived their claims to considerable debt repayments which Bolivia and its bordering states defaulted during the economic crises of the 1990s. Trade ties are also deepening. Barack Obama is meeting with President Nieto in Mexico this week to try to bolster cross-border economic relations.

Morales, meanwhile, threatens to isolate Bolivia with needless intimidation. He has already had the constitution amended to enable him to serve another term (something Chavez also did), angered the indigenous groups he always reminds people he hails from, and driven away foreign investment by the unprofitable nationalisation of key industries.

Morales does not have the charisma of Chavez; nor does he have the Venezuelan oil money. Instead, he is becoming a laughable figure preying on people’s fears of a resurrection of America’s historical role in the region, without recourse to facts. The only people he can harm are the Bolivians themselves.

USAID has helped bolster Quinoa yields through supporting the development of modern processing equipment - such help may no longer be available to Bolivian farmers
USAID has helped bolster Quinoa yields through supporting the development of modern processing equipment – such help may no longer be available to Bolivian farmers