Bolivia’s second-most important coca growing region, the Chapare, is often cast in both local and international media as the principal hub of the local drug trade. Coca leaf farmers are described as ‘nouveau riche’ peasants who spend their ill-gotten drug gains on luxury cars, parties, and houses. And it is not just the press—ex-President Jorge Quiroga recently accused the Chapare Agricultural Federations, and by extension the Morales government, of protecting the illicit trade.
Such images and myths belie the harsh reality of drug production and trafficking. Bolivia perches on the lowest rung of the international trade, mostly fabricating low-value coca paste (the first step in manufacturing cocaine) at sites scattered throughout the country. Most drug workers (known as Pichicateros) are young men without land or much hope of decent jobs, not unionized Chapare coca growers.
Pichicateros labor in rudimentary operations to soak shredded coca leaf in solvents that extract the cocaine alkaloid. The lure of fast money and the chance to amass enough to escape grinding poverty and buy a rusty old taxi or a patch of land is usually what drives them. Some become addicted to smoking paste cigarettes (known as pitillos) and find themselves trapped working in the trade to ensure their access to drugs. Their living conditions are poor; most of their houses are made of rough-cut planks without running water, sanitation, or electricity.
They earn about $30 a day (agricultural labor pays less than half that) for work that is tedious, irregular, and harmful to their health. It is also very risky: if caught, they face eight years in prison. During a research trip to the Chapare in October 2013 I asked a 14 year-old pisa-coca (coca stomper) about his work. He described wading around in a toxic stew of coca, gasoline, and acid for several hours a day. The fumes gave him a terrible headache and his flimsy rubber boots let in acid that turned his toe nails green.
Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert.