Bolivia reverses years of progress with new draconian coca policy, supported by the EU
By Kathryn Ledebur, Linda Farthing and Thomas Grisaffi (*) – The
seen widespread public protests in recent months against the
interim government, led by Jeanine Añez, which has twice postponed elections
due to coronavirus. Her government has repeatedly violated its mandate
by passing new laws and persecuting its political opponents, including coca growers in
the Chapare region east of Cochabamba, who we collaborate with on research
Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of cocaine, a
drug manufactured from coca leaves, which is central to Andean culture. Under
the previous government of Evo Morales, coca growers benefited from a
programme that allowed them to cultivate a plot of coca up to 2,500
square metres, and actively engaged farmers to self-police to respect these
This policy, which emphasised community participation and
respect for human rights, was lauded and funded by the European
Union. Internationally recognised in the mainstream
press as best
practice in this area, Bolivia’s community coca control programme has
long served as an example for cooperation in
other parts of the world.
But this approach was recently reversed. One former EU
official in the country confidentially told us that this represents a
“significant setback”. Yet the EU has been helping to make this happen.
In February, the EU promised
to provide €10 million (£9 million) in drug control funding for
Bolivia’s interim government, and support its new “drug free” five-year
strategy. On August 16, the Bolivian press reported that the EU representative
to Bolivia, Joerg Schreiber, had
affirmed this commitment.
This sparked criticism from former interim president and
ex-head of the supreme court Eduardo
Rodríquez and former president Evo
Morales. Support of Bolivia’s new drug control strategy stands in stark
contrast to the EU’s long-term focus in Bolivia and its internal policy
An interim government
Jeanine Añez came to power without a constitutional
mandate on November 12 2019, two days after Morales was forced to
resign at the military’s “request” after a police mutiny. The next day, the
military unleashed lethal force against demonstrators protesting Morales’
Human rights violations, arbitrary detentions and threats
against human rights defenders soon followed, as United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle
Bachelet has frequently
noted. Añez’s interim government has
rejected Bachelet’s statements as “subjective, erroneous assumptions”
and an “attack against democracy expressed by the people”.
The post-election crisis last year resulted in at
least 35 deaths and 800 injuries, most of them during army and police
operations. Dozens of former government officials and people related to the
former administration have been persecuted.
Bolivia’s Interior Minister, Arturo Murillo, continuously
makes troubling public statements. He has, for example, referred
to people with drug dependency as “the worst scourge of humanity”.
He joined the rest of Añez’s cabinet in signing a law
guaranteeing impunity for police and military actions that led to the death
coca growers and the wounding of over 100 others on November 15. A
subsequent military and police attack on unarmed protesters left 11
dead and scores injured.
coca control” programme adopted during the Morales years (2006-2019)
focused on working with coca leaf growers to shrink crops destined for illegal
markets, while increasing human rights, alternatives to coca and permitting
traditional uses of the plant. This successfully reduced illegal production,
and was hailed
by the UN Development Programme as an innovative approach superior to
decades of forced eradication.
The Añez government quickly drafted its own drug strategy,
“Together and Drug Free,” in coordination with the EU technical experts and
DITISA, an EU-funded consulting firm. The strategy was later later rebranded as
Drug Free” after the original name provoked outcry that the EU was granting
legitimacy to Añez’s government by incorporating her party’s name (Together) in
It presents a hardline and often muddled stance on drug use,
interdiction and supply control issues, demonstrating little knowledge of
existing Bolivian policy or national dynamics. Its authors copied text from the
US international narcotics control strategy
report and press articles word for word and dismissed the previous
strategy as “permissive and impractical” and “merely a political discourse”.
Aggressive statements from key high-ranking Añez officials
characterise Chapare coca farmers as “narco-terrorists”.
Ongoing threats of intervention against growers by Bolivia’s security forces
fly in the face of longstanding EU policy in the country.
Añez announced the
plan on state television only 11 days after the EU announced funding, but the
full text wasn’t made available to the public until three months later. “This
lack of transparency is problematic,” a Bolivian drug policy expert who asked
to not be identified told us. “Neither government nor the EU has provided
information about the action plan that has to accompany all EU-funded
The strategy also fails to comply with EU gender
and generational funding requirements. Although the policy cites a
focus on “vulnerable populations”, it makes no reference to accompanying
integrated development with direct involvement of the project beneficiaries,
Loss of trust
The lack of consultation as well as the Añez government’s
suspension of existing development projects has eroded the high level of trust
in government that previously
existed in coca-growing regions.
“Before, we worked closely with the European Union to
control coca so as to stay within the legal limits,” a coca-grower leader who
didn’t want his name used because of fear of government retaliation told us.
“We want to keep doing this, but everything has broken down with this de facto
government. They don’t communicate or coordinate with us at all.”
The EU had actively
explored adapting the previous policy to neighbouring countries. But
now, the lessons from the community-based experience are quickly being lost.
“It would be a disaster to lose all the progress Bolivia made on coca control,”
lamented one drug policy expert. “The technical focus has gone down the drain.”.
(*) Kathryn Ledebur is the director of the
Andean Information Network, a human rights organisation that works on coca,
development and human rights issues. She receives funding from the Global
Challenges Research Fund for research and on coca policy in Peru and Bolivia
and from the Open Society Foundation for coca, development and drug policy in
Bolivia. She has worked as a senior expert consultant on
coca, development, drug policy and gender for the European Union and research
receives funding from the University of Reading Global Challenges Research
Fund. —Thomas Grisaffi receives
funding from Global Challenges Research Fund. He has previously been a
fellow of the Leverhulme Trust and the OSF/SSRC’s Drugs, Security and Democracy