U.S. Tolerates But Won't Support Bolivia's "Coca Yes, Cocaine No" Policy

Latin America and the Caribbean

Last month, the White House called out Bolivia for “failing demonstrably” to comply with international anti-drug agreements for the seventh year in a row. Out of the 22 nations labeled major players in the global drug trade, Bolivia, the only country that permits nationwide legal coca cultivation, was also the only one denied U.S. State Department-managed anti-narcotics aid for the second year in a row. The White House claims it cut funding “due to a lack of sufficient cooperation from the Bolivian government.” While evidence suggests the country might be becoming a bigger player in the international drug trade, the determination has more to do with politics than actual coca cultivation or amount of cocaine trafficked.

Other governments in the Andean Region such as Colombia and Peru get furnished with large amounts of U.S. counter-drug aid. Yet, virtually the world's entire supply of coca for cocaine comes from these two countries, with Bolivia accounting for about 20 percent of the coca supply and about 13 percent of global cocaine production.  

U.S. officials frequently point to Colombia and Peru as model partners in the war on drugs for their willingness to implement U.S.-promoted coca eradication and interdiction programs. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield recently claimed the United States is open to considering more "flexible" interpretations of international counternarcotics agreements, but it’s clear the United States still does not approve of Bolivia's alternative approach to controlling coca cultivation.

For years, U.S. security assistance to Bolivia has been declining sharply. Bolivia received nearly $50 million per year in U.S. counternarcotics aid from Fiscal Year (FY) 2002 to 2006. But this year, the country will receive only $2,000 from the Defense Department’s 1004 counterdrug account. Here's a chart of U.S. Counternarcotics Aid to Bolivia 2000-2015



The drop in U.S. counternarcotics assistance to Bolivia, however, has not resulted in any of the “drastic consequences” that U.S. officials predicted after the relationship unraveled in 2008, says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network. Instead she claims Bolivia now has the “ability to chart its own course” when it comes to drug policy.

And the country wants to keep this course. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who won a third term by a landslide this month, recently made clear that Bolivia had no interest in accepting any future U.S. aid if it comes with conditions requiring the country to return to a prohibitionist approach of eradication and interdiction. Morales’ victory ensures Bolivia will continue its non-traditional approach to illicit drugs.

Morales, who still heads Bolivia’s coca growers’ organization, has implemented a policy known as  “coca yes, cocaine no.” Under this model, farmers are permitted to grow less than half an acre of coca, and the cultivation is self-regulated by the community with minimal assistance from government task forces when necessary. Since 2006, 88 percent of coca crop regulation has been community-enforced. According to Ledebur, Bolivia’s reduction in forced eradication has led to a decrease in human rights violations committed by security forces, as well as fewer eradication-related deaths, with only six recorded since 2004; much lower than in Peru and Colombia.


Before Morales’ first election in 2006, the U.S.-Bolivia security relationship was “quite cooperative,” says Dr. Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivia expert who now teaches at Florida International University. But, in 2008, Morales forced out the DEA, USAID and the U.S. Ambassador, denouncing them for “conspir[ing] against democracy.”

The United States claims Bolivia “has been unable to make up for the loss of the DEA assistance and support,” however, the statistics do not seem to support this. Estimates for coca cultivation from both the United Nations and the United States show a decade-long trend of increasing cultivation in the country may be reversing.

But it’s not all good news for Bolivia’s drug policy -- increasing evidence suggests the country, much like Peru and Colombia, has become a major producer and transit country for drugs destined for South American and European markets. However, Bolivia seems to have been spared the bloody drug-trade related violence that plagues other countries in the region. According to the UNODC, illegal armed groups pose much less of a threat to Bolivia than in Mexico and Colombia because the groups that have been involved in the underworld, referred to as clanes familiares, “have been small and short-lived.”

Although combating drug trafficking, particularly across the expansive border with Brazil, has proven difficult for the Bolivian government, it has become a key point on the policy agenda --regional partners including Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru, have all stepped in to provide law enforcement assistance to the country.  

In addition to this regional aid, Bolivia is currently the largest recipient of European Union aid in Latin America, receiving 50 percent of all its foreign assistance from the organization. The EU recently described Bolivia’s counternarcotics efforts as “successful” and pledged $78 million in counterdrug assistance to the country over the next three years, adding to the $160 million it has provided since 1999.

A portion of that funding aims to support the Bolivian government’s efforts to monitor coca cultivation by creating a relatively sophisticated biometric registry. The database includes almost 50,000 authorized coca producers and tracks coca crops from harvest to sale in an attempt to limit the amount of coca entering illegal markets. The initial results of an EU study suggest that the country may be producing around 20 percent more coca than is necessary to meet domestic demand. However, because most of the cocaine trafficked through Bolivia is actually produced in other Andean nations, this may have little impact on the drug trade.

Moving forward, Morales’ “coca yes” system will be further institutionalized, with the announcement of plans for a small tax on coca production that would go toward funding the fight against drug trafficking. Some analysts have voiced concern that the tax could increase participation in the black market, but the government has not yet released the details of the plan, which is expected to include improvements to the current monitoring system.  

As University of Miami professor and drug trafficking expert Dr. Bruce Bagley points out, “Bolivia is chipping away at the prohibitionist model” that has presided over the region for decades. Even U.S. favorites Colombia and Peru have begun to move away from this model.

Colombia already decriminalized possession of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana in 2012 and recently, a number of top Colombian officials expressed support for even further relaxation of the country's drug laws.  In Peru, there are plans to expand a successful regional experiment with illicit crop substitution; coca eradication has been replaced by crop substitution in the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene River, known as the VRAE region, the country's most prolific coca-producing area.

As counternarcotics efforts continue to change throughout the Andean region, it remains to be seen how U.S. assistance will shift. U.S. Ambassador Brownfield says the United States Government has “to be tolerant of different countries, in response to their own national circumstances and conditions, exploring and using different national drug control policies” within the flexibility of the UN Drug Control Conventions. But, in the case of Bolivia, particularly with the reelection of Morales, while the United States may become more “tolerant,” support for the country’s model is unlikely.