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The lowest rung of the cocaine trade

Modern Bolivia is misrepresented as a narco-state by some commentators but Bolivians involved in the production of cocaine paste are in an even less secure position than previously, argues  Dr Thomas Grisaffi|

Mary O’Grady recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal (27 Oct 2013) that Bolivia under Morales is turning into a narco-state awash with drug money. Meanwhile the Bolivian press has argued that cocaine production sites are growing ‘like mushrooms’ (El Potosi, 27 May 2011) and that coca farmers are a class of “nouveau riche” peasants who spend their ill-gotten drug-money on luxury cars, parties and houses (Noticias Fides|). And it’s not just the press -ex-President Jorge Quiroga recently accused the Chapare Agricultural Federations, and by extension the Morales government, of protecting illicit cocaine production (El Deber 14 Nov 2013).

Bolivia, the world’s third largest producer of coca leaf after Peru and Colombia, is caught at the lowest rungs of the international drug trade, producing significant quantities of low-value cocaine paste - the first step towards refining pure cocaine. While cocaine paste production takes place throughout the country, the Chapare - one of Bolivia’s two main coca-growing regions – is often presented in the mainstream media as the primary hub for drug production and trafficking.

Three key arguments about of how drug production and trafficking function easily dispel this widespread misinformation. First, the majority of Chapare coca farmers are not directly involved in drug trafficking. Second, most low-level drug traffickers do not actually make much money from it. And finally, the Chapare agricultural Federations are not complicit with illegal activity; rather, they have proven to be active partners in the fight against drug production and trafficking.

In the Chapare cocaine paste production is referred to as pichicata and the people who make it are known as pichicateros. The pichicateros set up their artisanal laboratories – henceforth referred to as ‘production sites’- by creating a makeshift ‘vat’ with a heavy nylon tarp which is then filled with coca leaves. The leaves are soaked in chemicals including sulfuric acid, ammonia, caustic soda and gasoline. Young men, known as ‘pisa cocas’ are employed to stomp on the coca mulch for several hours to mix it up. The ‘rich water’ or agua dulce is skimmed off and it eventually forms into a beige paste called pasta base or cocaine paste.

Over the past ten years the ‘coca stomping’ method has largely been replaced by a mechanized technique first developed in Colombia. The mechanized approach speeds up the maceration process, reduces the amount of coca to process one kilo of paste, and requires fewer workers, with most production sites now employing three people instead of five people.

One kilo of base paste in the Chapare is worth $1450 dollars.  The production costs (including labor, coca leaf, and precursor chemicals) add up to around $1300, so the profits are relatively slim – at around $150 per kilo. Production is intermittent and most sites produce a maximum of ten kilos per month[1].

Just like any other industry the drug trade is stratified, with owners of the means of production and others who sell their labor.  The three key roles in include – the day laborer, the chemist and the owner of the production site.

  • The Laborers or ‘Peons’:‘Peons’ represent the majority of the pichicata workforce. They carry out manual tasks such as carrying the heavy bags of coca and precursor chemicals to the production site, stomping the coca, shredding coca leaves and acting as lookouts.  Most laborers earn about $30 a day (agricultural labor pays less than half that) for work that is tiring, tedious, irregular and harmful to their health.  It’s also very risky: if caught, they face 8 years in prison.
  • The Chemists:The chemists are skilled laborers who are familiar with the basics of processing cocaine paste. The chemist earns around $30 for every kilo of paste produced, which means that on a good day they can earn up to $90 – but that would be exceptional – average earnings are more like $50.
  • The Owners:At the top of the local production ladder are the owners of these rudimental production sites. The owners are few in number; they might be richer peasants or non-resident immigrants from elsewhere in Bolivia, on the whole they do not work directly in cocaine paste production. The owner makes the most money from the operation – a generous estimate would be $2000 dollars a month, less than an assistant manager at McDonalds

The point is that neither the workers nor the owners get rich from pichicata – all it allows them to do is to save up to buy their own plot of farm land, small business, car, or even a house.  These are modest ambitions – the cars they buy are beat up Toyota station-wagons, and their rural houses are often made from rough cut planks that do not count on running water, sanitation or electricity. Many claim that once they have amassed the requisite capital to invest in a productive activity then they will abandon their illegal activities.

Previous governments treated the coca growers’ Federations as criminal organizations. In contrast the Morales administration has conscripted them as partners in the fight against drug trafficking.  The Chapare’s 45,000 coca growers are organized into sindicatos – these are territorially bound self- governing units of between 30 to 200 members - which in turn are grouped into federations.

Over the past five years the Federations have made a concerted effort to tackle cocaine paste production. Local leaders organize frequent commissions to check that no member of the community is producing cocaine paste on their land. If a functioning or even abandoned production site is found then the Sindicato will impose sanctions against the landowner, including prohibiting them from growing coca or in extreme cases, confiscating the land and expelling the culprit from the community. The Federations work closely with the anti-drug police and union members frequently denounce people involved in pichicata– anyone caught with a production site on their land faces up to fifteen years in prison.

The pichicateros feel the pinch of the Chapare Federations’ commitment to tackle drug production. Previously during the US backed drug war – pichicateros could process cocaine paste close to the main roads, safe in the knowledge that their neighbors would not denounce them to the authorities. US-financed repression against growers was effective in convincing all Chapare residents that the police were enemies.  But this is no longer the case; one pichicatero lamented that ‘before the compas (coca growers) would tell you when the UMOPARES (anti-drug police) were coming, now they just turn you in’.

As a result of this pressure, the pichicateros are forced to alter their behavior. They now set up their production sites in ever more remote areas, and they never maintain a production site in one place for more than two weeks – lest people get suspicious. That the pichicateros go to such lengths to hide their activity from the coca growers reinforces the argument that the Federations do not accept drug trafficking.

While the coca-cocaine industry represents a significant segment of Bolivia’s economy the people who produce cocaine paste are not the industry’s major beneficiaries. The majority of the workers including the labourers and chemists receive relatively low wages for dangerous work that damages their health.  These people should therefore be thought of as the proletariat of the cocaine trade rather than as drug kingpins.

Given the low wages, harmful working conditions, and the risk of being caught, processing and transporting cocaine paste is not a particularly attractive option. As a result the bulk of people involved in these activities are temporary migrants or young people who do not own their own land and who have little to lose. Meanwhile the coca federation members who own land would prefer a quiet life dedicated to farming.

Contrary to the dominant and often dramatic portrayals in the media, the Coca Federations are not in cahoots with drug trafficking organizations. Rather the Federations take their role in the fight against drug trafficking very seriously indeed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been a shift in the coca grower perception of drug trafficking. In contrast to the pre-Morales era, today the coca growers identify strongly with the government’s anti-drug goals and are motivated to actively collaborate in the fight against drug trafficking. However, it would be unrealistic to expect the coca unions to be able to stamp out drug production completely – even the DEA was unable to achieve that.

A longer version of this article is available on the Andean Information Network website|.

Dr Thomas Grisaffi is an LSE Visiting Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow on the SSRC Drugs, Security and Democracy program.