The World's Biggest Legal Coca Industry Might Get Shut Down

A right-wing power grab in Bolivia could spell the end of a system that has likely kept the drug war in check.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Dispatches from the front lines of the drug war in Latin America.

The landlocked Andean nation of Bolivia is one of three countries in the world that produce the bulk of the world’s coca, the green leafy plant that is the base ingredient for cocaine. And it's the only country where such large-scale production is totally legal—a system seen by some as a future template for legal cocaine production.

Now, amid political turmoil, Bolivia’s legal coca industry could be shut down.


It’s a move that some worry could lead to the return of drug war bloodshed to this relatively peaceful country. Meanwhile, those currently in power say the legal system is not as legal as it seems, and is feeding into the illegal international cocaine trade.

As Bolivia approaches a crossroads during its upcoming national elections in May, the cocaine question has become a key issue for the nation’s future.

Legal coca plantations have existed in Bolivia since the passing of a law in 1988, when 12,000 hectares of land was permitted for the cultivation of the plant. But that law co-existed with violent, United-States-funded forced eradication operations in other parts of the country where legal coca crops were forcibly destroyed. This happened, among other places, in Chapare, the home and now political stronghold of former president Evo Morales.

Morales, a former coca farmer or cocalero, wanted to try something new. After his government was voted into power in 2006, he proceeded to kick out the United States' Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), accusing it of being behind violent anti-narcotics operations. Morales was Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, and his rise to power from the fields of Chapare determined the pro-coca stance of his administration and put coca cultivation at the center of national politics.

Now, rural farming families are permitted to cultivate a limited amount of the plant for chewing and for products in domestic markets such as tea, toothpaste, and shampoo. The plant is intertwined with Bolivia’s history and indigenous cultures, and the scheme has created a legal livelihood for impoverished rural families who felt they had little choice but to plant coca illegally. “Rather than charging onto farms and pulling coca out by the roots,” says a report on coca control in Bolivia, “the government’s role has been to work with community leaders to maintain the quota rather than to recklessly eradicate the plant.”


Crucially, the system has dramatically reduced violence around the illegal drug trade. Bolivia—unlike other major drug cultivation countries such as Mexico and Colombia—has in recent years had one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America.

But like most policies, the scheme is imperfect. There is no consensus over how much of the plant the country needs to provide for its domestic industry of legitimate coca products. Bolivia allows for 22,000 legal hectares of coca (Morales increased the allowance from 12,000 in 2017), but both the United States and UNODC thinks that the country’s legal production surpasses this. Regardless, there does seem to be consensus among critics and fans alike that at least some coca produced in legal plantations is feeding the international cocaine trade.

After more than 14 years in power, Morales’s time in the presidency is over. In November he fled Bolivia after elections that threw the country into chaos. Morales claimed to have won a fourth term, but the results were disputed, after which civil unrest by both supporters and opposition exploded around the country. While he initially resisted calls to resign, Morales eventually lost the support of the police and military and was forced to flee, first going to Mexico and now living in exile in Argentina.

Unrest by coca growers in key cultivation zones worsened and blockades were erected around key cities such as Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and Bolivia’s de facto capital La Paz. Government repression of its opposition worsened, and some incidents were condemned by international observers as massacres.


The interim government of conservative Jeanine Áñez has made it clear that the coca community, or “narco terrorists,” as Áñez and other members of her government refer to them, would not fare well under a permanent government controlled by her. She plans to run for president in elections on May 3.

Áñez’s current Interior Minister Arturo Murillo has accused Morales of sedition and drug trafficking. “Morales has a lot of followers because he has improved the quality of life for millions of Bolivians. But at a high price: Bolivia is becoming a narco-state, like Venezuela,” Murillo told a French news agency.

Other critics have also accused the Morales’s government of pandering to drug traffickers, but the basis for some of those accusations is questionable. Although the United States acknowledges that corruption in the Morales government was a problem—as it is in nearly every country in this region—the U.S. State Department has said that “as a matter of official policy, the Government of Bolivia does not encourage or facilitate illegal activity associated with drug trafficking.”

Coca farmers represent a major part of the political support of the party Morales led, the Movement for Socialism (MAS). Morales is out, but the party still enjoys popular support and its candidate for the senate Andronico Rodriguez is also a former coca farmer.

Morales's departure and the rhetoric around the lead-up to elections in May is already affecting coca farmers negatively, said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network and a researcher at Reading University in the UK. They have been threatened by government ministers, as well as targeted and killed by law enforcement during the repression of protests.


"What’s important to look at now is how, following the coup, the right wing government is promoting a drug-free society and stigmatizing the Chapare coca growing region as a “narco-terrorist” region. It is limiting the licences for licit producers that opposed the coup, the price of coca has fallen and this is seriously threatening the subsistence needs of these families," Ledebur said.

So far, even though there is talk of scrapping Bolivia’s legal coca system, there are no new ideas that could provide alternatives to eradication or legalization, say observers.

“What would be the reasons to upend the existing system? And what would replace it?” questioned John Walsh, director for drug policy in the Andes for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a progressive think tank. “Would the political recriminations and upheaval be worth it? Is a precarious new government going to administer self-inflicted wounds by picking fights they don’t need and don’t stand to win?”

Should an incoming government choose to end the legal scheme, not only will it cut the livelihoods of such families entirely and prompt the politically powerful coca growers to rise up in opposition, but it is likely to go back to the bloodshed of the 80s and 90s that took place around eradication.

And this time it may not be able to count on support from the U.S., even though that most of the cocaine produced by Bolivia is believed to be destined for other countries in Latin America such as Brazil and Argentina, as well as West Africa and Europe. The State Department declined to comment on its plans for anti-narcotics operations in Bolivia. But William Brownfield, who until 2017 was the head of the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, recently said: “Honestly, if I had to put money into counternarcotics, Bolivia would be at the bottom of the list.”

The legal coca system may have holes, but moderates argue it’s preferable to a return to the violence of the past or the present in countries like Mexico or Colombia. In Colombia, coca cultivation is at historic highs despite decades of U.S.-funded eradication and interdiction, and homicide rates recently rose for the first time in a decade. Mexico is also seeing historic levels of violence around the drug trade.

Militarizing the fight against drug trafficking organizations and forcibly destroying drug crops has not defeated the forces of supply and demand in the international drug trade. Legal or illegal, coca feeds the cocaine business, and surely leaders prefer low rates of violence to high ones, said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of politics and international affairs at Florida International University. “Bolivia’s stability will be determined by how they treat cocaleros in the future.”