Six years after expelling the DEA, Bolivia has quietly become one of South America's leading success stories in the war on drugs.
According to a new report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Bolivia has slashed its illicit coca production by 34 percent over the past four years, and is now on pace to reduce its cultivation levels to within legal parameters by 2016.
Bolivia's success is not exactly cause for a ticker-tape parade, but it's an important vindication for a leftist country that decided to fight the drug war on its own terms.
"Just because the U.S. is not a main actor doesn't mean there isn't a serious effort to limit the flow and production of coca," says Coletta Youngers, who recently co-authored a research report on Bolivia's drug war efforts for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "The DEA is overrated."
Youngers says Bolivia's homegrown drug-war strategy is built on two pillars: economic development in rural coca-producing regions, and a policy known as "cooperative coca reduction" that allows registered farmers to grow limited amounts of coca crops while legally titling their lands. Participating farmers are allowed to cultivate coca on 1,600-2,500 square meters (one-third the size of a U.S. football field) for personal consumption and commercialization in authorized markets, WOLA reports.
The results of cooperative coca reduction are stunning. Antonino De Leo, the UNODC's representative in Bolivia, notes that the government of Evo Morales, a former coca producer himself, has reduced the area of coca cultivation in Bolivia by one-third in just four years. That's the size of 15,000 soccer fields, to use a more regionally appropriate sports analogy.
Bolivia's success is inconvenient for the United States. The two countries have long been at odds, expelling each others' ambassadors and exchanging heated rhetoric over the years. President Morales booted the DEA in 2008, and tossed USAID in 2013 amid claims the agency was conspiring against his government.
The two countries' differences extend to drug-war policy. While the U.S. pushes for criminalization, persecution and forced eradication, Bolivia has moved more towards legalization, regulation, and cooperative control. Consuming coca, the plant used to manufacture cocaine, is legal in Bolivia. People chew the leaves for energy, or use them to make tea. Coca is also used as a key ingredient in the Bolivian energy soft drink Coca Colla.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. doesn't love the idea. And it and hasn't been too congratulatory when it comes to recognizing the merits of Bolivia's drug-war policy, which the Obama administration says has "failed demonstrably." But the U.S. is inconsistent when it comes to the issue. WOLA notes that the state department earlier this year coincided with UN reports that coca leaf cultivation in Bolivia has "declined steadily over the last four years."
"U.S criticism is clearly politicly motivated," Youngers told Fusion. "There are still people in Washington who feel deeply wounded that the DEA was thrown out of Bolivia."
The DEA declined Fusion's request for comment and instead deferred to the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia, which didn't respond to phone calls or email by the time of publication.
The rest of the world, however, is more generous when it comes to recognizing Bolivia's accomplishments. The UN has become a leading cheerleader for the Andean nation's drug-control policies, and the EU recently granted the Morales' government a new five-year $72 million package to support counter-drug efforts.
"Bolivia's achievement over the last four years is well known: reduction of coca cultivation through dialogue, participation of coca growers' unions, and a policy based on respect for human rights," the UN's De Leo said.
Still, in drug war that's ultimately unwinnable, success is relative and dangers always loom large.
Bolivia is still a transshipment country for international drug-trafficking — especially coca paste coming from Peru— and there's increased concern about the corrupting effects of international drug cartels that are moving into the country. The country also still has a draconian drug law on the books that WOLA claims "was designed by the U.S. Embassy to mimic the United States' own punitive approach to drugs."
More also needs to be done to protect public health as "the first principle of drug control," De Leo says.
"Law enforcement is only a means to achieve that end," he says. Unfortunately, he adds, in the implementation of the drug control system "the means became confused with the end."
Ultimately, he stressed, more needs to be done to put health first. "Drug users have been perceived, at best, as people with a moral affliction or, at worst, as criminals who needed to be punished. All this flies in the face of conclusive scientific evidence that drugs dependence is a disease, not a crime," De Leo said. "Treatment offers a far more effective cure than punishment."
So a lot of work remains to be done — in Bolivia and elsewhere. But experts say the South American country appears to be on the right path, and its early success could provide lessons for Peru and Colombia, the world's leading coca producers.
(Editor's note: a previous version of this article misattributed a quote to Antonino De Leo. The line has since been removed.)