Cocaine: A Story That Begins in the Bolivian Jungle

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Last Updated on April 26, 2024 by Audrey Scott

I need to fill up the tank completely. Finding gasoline in Chapare can be unreliable. It’s one of the ingredients in cocaine production – and that gets first priority.

— Alvarro, our client and guide in Cochabamba, Bolivia explains why it’s necessary to gas up in the city before heading into the jungle.

Paraguay customs. We had just crossed the 200 mile desert frontier with Bolivia. Border agents dressed in knit shirts, their shoulders adorned in crossed Paraguayan and U.S. flags, scanned our bus’s contents –- all of it piled before us. As we waited for a drug-sniffing Labrador retriever to finish pacing and pawing suspect bags, we figured it was time to bring the cocaine story to its finish.

And just as we thought this, the guard approached: “Miss, place your bags up here. We’d like to take a look.”

Latin America's Cocaine Corridor

Drugs — as a topic of conversation – have followed us throughout Latin America. The problem in this part of the world is not so much local drug use (although that is growing), but rather the effects that drug production and distribution have on local economies and societies

The anecdotes began piling up in Central America. Salvadorans told us of thuggish drug gangs who earned their stripes on the streets of Los Angeles only to graduate to the streets of their country’s capital, San Salvador.

Guatemalans blamed Mexican drug gangs for the violence that spilled over into its Peten region. On the Guatemalan Caribbean, locals indicated that DEA (United States Drug Enforcement Agency) agents paid regular visits in order to intercept drug shipments making their way up from the south along the Mosquito Coast. While we were on the Honduran island of Utila, a “narco” flight crashed; locals apparently availed themselves of a few kilos of ditched cocaine as payment for the disruption.

Such are the stories along the cocaine distribution corridor.

We recently had a chance to collect another puzzle piece. By traveling to Chapare, Bolivia’s largest coca production region, we got a peek at the front end of the cocaine production trail where the drug begins its life in the form of a rather innocuous leaf.

Coca Leaves of Bolivia
Buying coca leaves at the market.

Coca as Local Tradition: In the Andean mountains of South America, the tradition of chewing coca and drinking coca tea goes back thousands of years. Ask any Andean native about coca leaves, and he’s likely to give you a laundry list of natural benefits: it gives you energy, it’s a source of calcium, it curbs hunger, and it helps control altitude sickness (soroche). Some coca production and distribution in Bolivia is legal and regulated by state-run companies. However, our conversations with locals put the estimate of coca production for legal use at only 5-10% — leaving a sizable heap for the production of cocaine.

Cocaine, Money and Making a Living

We were visiting Chapare on a photo shoot for CIDRE, a Kiva partner microfinance institution (MFI) that aims to develop and support alternatives to coca production in the region. The deal: CIDRE provides small loans and capacity training to local farmers and businesses in exchange for their agreement not to grow coca.

A family growing coca leaves can earn around $500 per month. That’s a lot of money, particularly in rural Bolivia. Considering that coca isn’t as labor- or capital-intensive as most other agriculture products common to this area, how do you convince family with the immediate needs of feeding and schooling their children that switching crops is a good idea?

Talk about a hard sell.

Even in the days of U.S.-Bolivia coca eradication programs, as fast as the coca fields could be burned, they were replanted anew.

When the economic incentive is there, so is the will.

Money of Every Kind -Bolivia
Money of every variety.

These days Bolivia features a more coca-friendly government, thanks in part to Bolivia’s current president Evo Morales, a former cocalero (coca grower) himself. Add to this the fact that new and improved cocaine processing technology arrives continually from Colombia and you have a recipe for a better-fired cocaine factory.

Yet the serious money is not in coca leaf production. The women sun-drying coca leaves on tarps in their front yards are not wealthy; their homes are far from fancy.

Further up the production chain, the standard of living improves noticeably.“See over there, that’s where the cocaine is made. Nice houses, too,” Alvarro said as he pointed towards the outskirts of Cochabamba. New modern villas — clearly out of place — were scattered amongst the mud block homes in the villages near the base of the mountains.

Choosing a Different Path

However, there are people in the area who have chosen the alternative.

We visited an older couple running a tropical flower plantation. They used a loan from CIDRE to improve their machinery; they sold their flowers throughout Bolivia, from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz and even abroad to Argentina. They were older than most other borrowers we’d met that day, but their age didn’t dampen the energy with which they described their plans for expansion and improvement –- of their lives and business.

Tropical Flowers of Bolivia
Growing tropical flowers in Chapare, Bolivia.

Another visit took us to a banana packaging facility. Amidst a sea of banana plantations, a conveyor belt of dangling banana stalks hummed its way in from the fields. We watched the workers –- many with prodigious wads of coca leaves packed into their cheeks –- cut, clean and pack the bananas for export.

Banana stalks make their way from the fields by way of a long pulley line. Men machete the stalks into smaller bunches and women pull the reject bananas and wash the rest. After a few more cleaning dips and a spray or two, the green bananas are hand packed into boxes to be sent to destinations around the world. Often with the aid of chemicals, the bananas ripen along the journey. By the time you buy them in your grocery store, they've known a color change and a long journey.

Banana Packing in Bolivia
Packing bananas at a plant in Chapare, Bolivia.

CIDRE provided the loan for the conveyor belt and other machinery. As we admired the facilities and the efficiency with which the workers boxed thousands of bananas, we spotted a half-finished building suffering from neglect, looking like it didn’t belong. The unused building amidst the din of banana packaging productivity: a defunct USAID (United States Agency for International Development) project.

Back to the Paraguayan Border

As the Paraguayan border agents searched our bags, we recalled a Bolivian newscast from the night before: 100 pounds of cocaine seized from a Bolivian vehicle driven by a man wearing a MAS (the Bolivian political party led by Evo Morales) shirt.

The border agent who searched us was hoping to cut off similar shipments, likely headed east to the Rio Paraguay for Brazil and points north, or to Argentina in the south.

After one hour of searching the bus and everyone's belongings, the guards found nothing. The drug-sniffing Labrador was ushered back into its cage, our bus was re-packed and we were on our way.

Oh, the tangled web woven by an innocent little leaf — one that is chewed by manual laborers in the Andes, but when mixed with a few chemicals, ends up as a white powder on the glass tables of the well-to-do thousands of miles away.

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

10 thoughts on “Cocaine: A Story That Begins in the Bolivian Jungle”

  1. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this story – this is some REAL insight into the realities of the world, and exactly why I follow your blog.

    Thank you for writing this! Keep up the fantastic work.

  2. What an incredible post. So many subjects we’ve only touched on in passing — much appreciated.

    In our experience, coca leaves were a major part of culture in Peru. We were thankful for them ourselves, at high altitude. The difference between coca leaf production and cocaine production was blatant, starting with the farmers selling bags of leaves in the marketplace.

    Mexico was another story. California, our home, shares a very troubled border which sees constant problems with drug smuggling. We spent a month driving much further south around the Peninsula, but the evidence of Mexico’s war with drugs was present nonetheless. Internal race-issues were humbling at the 5+ army checkpoints we passed everyday. We were sent through with a wave, while many locals (skin color played a large part, shockingly) were lined up and patted down on the asphalt. I hope no one discovers the prospect of moving drugs in the cars of smiling blond co-eds is all I’ll say about that.

  3. thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    your story really shows the other side.
    the part of life that shows struggle for a living..
    hope you can share a lot more stories like this..

  4. Wow, thanks for bringing serious issues to our attention. Your blog always gives great insight to the local culture. CIDRE sounds like and excellent organization. I agree, it can be a tough sell to make people change from growing cocaine to cocoa when all they are worrying about it putting food on the table. Good for microfinance organizations trying to make a difference.

  5. Wow! What an interesting story. When I think of cocaine, I think of Colombia – not Bolivia! I don’t know why cocaine would be locked within a few borders though. It’s sad that so many drugs are being produced in South America, but it seems to fuel the economy in a large way. Quite a few people will go against their own beliefs if money is talking to them.

  6. Thank you to everyone who commented. We realize this was a heavy piece. But after running into all these experiences, we had to properly process it all.
    @Ash, T-roy, Deals: Thank you!
    @Jeremy and Eva: Your Mexico-US border drug story reminds me of the film Traffic. I remember the border at National City – Tijuana. Crossed it over 25 years ago. Am looking forward to going back and exploring some more.
    @Dave and Deb: Organizations like CIDRE have a way of shedding light on complex subjects (like locals choosing to grow coca) in a way that mainstream media cannot. We believe talking to them makes a difference in the discourse, however small.
    @Lindsey: We too thought of Colombia when we thought of cocaine. Apparently, they don’t have a monopoly, at least on the production of the raw materials. However, the Colombian cartels are probably in the lead with regards to processing technology and distribution.

    Note: It’s common to confuse (because of the spelling) coca and cocoa. For readers still confused: coca is the green leaf used in cocaine production, whereas cocoa is the ingredient for chocolate.

  7. I found the Coca leaf to be of great benefit when hiking around 12000 ft near Huaraz, Peru. I bought a T-Shirt that says, “La Hoja de Coca es no Droga”, the coca leaf is not a drug, a statement against erradication.

  8. @mrbill: I’m not certain if the effect of chewing coca during high-altitude hikes was real or placebo for us, but it certainly didn’t hurt. And I remember the coca leaf t-shirts – decent in Peru, positively stylish in Bolivia.

  9. …an odd set of posts, so will suggest from experience, the following if you speak spanish. colombia has the poorest quality, but much better than quality found in developed nations(80% of US is colombian per govt estimates, however it is nearly as easy to purchase as a soda—rock is better quality, stay away from powder–if you pay more than 5 US per gram, you really are a gringo…it is ubiquitous in cali, buenaventura, south bogota, pablo’s city …peru has better quality, varies, as does price–easy to obtain, fewer fears as to quality–typically comes in sobres, not plastic as in colombia…bolivia is best–easy to find in sta cruz, not so easy in la paz…dont bother if you can’t speak spanish—remember, use by middle class and higher is considered to be despicable–it is enormously stigmatized…leaves sold in market in bolivia-not in peru or colombia

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