Cocaine production rise spells trouble for Bolivia

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In a basement in La Paz used as an improvised warehouse, millions and millions of coca leaves – cocaine’s raw material – are stockpiled in white, grey and blue bags.

The leaves were seized in numerous operations by Bolivia’s police to stop them reaching cocaine producers.

But Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief Felipe Caceres warns that “we are running out of storage space”.

For many in Bolivia and elsewhere, this is clear proof that the country’s cocaine industry is growing at an alarming rate.

There is further evidence. Cocaine seizures have been increasing and laboratories using processing methods long used in Colombia are mushrooming.

And, for the first time in Bolivia, there is drug-related violence.

Recent months have seen a number of shoot-outs between gangs of drug-smugglers.

“We are seizing more and more [cocaine], and more and more traffickers, that are increasingly violent. That’s true; we cannot deny that,” the head of Bolivia’s anti-drugs force, Col Felix Molina, told the BBC.

“The processing labs are increasingly sophisticated and can produce more and more cocaine.”

Jose Carlos Campero, a leading political economist, says cocaine trafficking is already a major problem and will continue to be so for the next decade.

“We’ve seen a 70% growth in the cocaine industry in recent years. That means that, today, the coca-cocaine circuit is the third largest source of revenue for the country, right after the exports of traditional products such as hydrocarbons and mining.”

From Colombia and Peru through Mexico and on to several West African states, the cocaine trail is littered with violence.

That is not yet the case in Bolivia, but the recent shoot-outs are ringing alarm bells.

“What we fear are the increasing levels of violence; we fear this could turn into something similar to what Colombia was suffering 10 years ago, or what Mexico is suffering right now”, Mr Campero says.

The violence is forcing a partial re-think of the drugs policy adopted by President Evo Morales since he came to power in 2006.

Like many in the indigenous Indian community, Mr Morales grew coca for traditional uses – such as tea, medicine and indigenous rituals – and, as president, he has allowed cultivation for such purposes.

He is also a critic of Washington. He has summed up his attitude several times in public, saying: “Long live the coca leaf, death to the Yankees.”

Two years ago, he expelled the US anti-drugs agents invited in by previous presidents and made local security forces entirely responsible for all rooting out the cocaine business.

It is a policy of “zero cocaine but not zero coca”. But Bolivian police are struggling to contain the spread of cocaine production in what is a strikingly poor country.

UN, US and independent local studies estimate that coca is being grown illegally on around 30,000 hectares.

Many believe more coca will inevitably mean more cocaine.

Full story: BBC News – Cocaine production rise spells trouble for Bolivia