At a muddy camp in the vast tropical lowlands known as the Chapare, about 150 Bolivian soldiers and policemen responsible for destroying the area's illegal coca plants have done little in recent weeks but kill time. They chat outside crude tents built of tree limbs and sagging tarps, haul water from a nearby river and sweat through the fatigues the U.S. government bought for them.
"We're not doing anything these days," one soldier said, ignoring the mosquitoes alighting on his exposed forearms. "We're just waiting to hear what's going to happen next."
It's the $100 million question in Bolivia: What will become of the U.S.-financed program to eradicate coca, the plant used to make cocaine, now that the longtime head of the coca growers' union, Evo Morales, is about to become the country's president?
Morales, 46, who will be inaugurated Sunday, said during his campaign that he might withdraw Bolivia's support for the eradication program, a keystone of the U.S.-backed anti-drug and alternative crop development campaign here. He has hinted at decriminalizing the cultivation of coca, which is legally chewed as a stimulant and used in traditional medicines, and he has criticized regional U.S. anti-drug programs as false pretexts for establishing a military presence.
But Morales has toned down his rhetoric since being elected in December, suggesting that the government might maintain current limits on cultivation, at least until a study assessing the potential demand of the legal coca market is completed. He consistently reminds people that he is committed to fighting cocaine, but not at the expense of the farmers who want to make a living growing coca for legal use.
That ambiguity leaves the door open to continuing cooperation with U.S. counter-narcotics authorities, while feeding an unprecedented optimism among Morales supporters who would like to create an international industry of legalized coca. Those cocaleros envision a country where their crop, instead of being associated with crime, is a key ingredient in exports from soft drinks to shampoo.
Morales's announcement Thursday that he would appoint a coca farmer to head the ministry responsible for fighting drugs was a signal to coca farmers that pressure might shift away from growers toward those who process the leaf into cocaine.
"A lot of people completely changed their attitudes after the election, because finally we're in power -- it's our country now," said Apolonia Sanchez, 42, a coca farmer who tends her plants just a few miles from the eradication camp. "There's a feeling of happiness and optimism right now."
The Chapare is one of two coca-producing regions in Bolivia. Under an agreement with the government, farmers in the Yungas region are allowed to grow 29,600 acres of coca in areas where it has been a traditional crop for centuries. However, the U.S. government estimates another 31,100 acres were grown illegally in the Chapare and the Yungas in 2004. Altogether, a little over 60,000 acres of coca leaf were grown that year.
After clashes between farmers and eradication troops in the Chapare, the government made a truce in 2004, exempting 7,900 acres from eradication. That allotment is split among about 26,000 households, and it has eased much of the tension associated with eradication in the region.
'Winning the green battle'
The villages around Sanchez's farm and the eradication camp are considered Morales's home base, the place where he launched his career as a coca farmer after an impoverished youth. In an interview before the election, he said his political sensibility was formed when he witnessed an innocent coca farmer burned to death on the street by police.
Later he became the leader of the coca growers' federation, openly advocating legalization, rebutting charges of links between farmers and drug dealers and criticizing U.S. intervention.
After his election as president last month, residents of the Chapare threw a massive party for him in this small town. Sanchez helped cook the food, and thousands filled the dirt streets until dawn.
"We are winning the green battle," Morales told the revelers, according to an Associated Press report. "The coca leaf is beating the North American dollar."
The farmers say all of their coca goes to legal uses. They strip it from the plants, dry it, stuff it in 50-pound sacks and sell it at local markets on Sundays. But the U.S. government estimates that Bolivia sends out about 70 metric tons of cocaine each year -- mostly to Brazil -- which would mean that much of the coca it grows is used for cocaine.
Transforming coca leaves into cocaine is a multi-step chemical process. In Bolivia, it usually starts with a maceration pit -- usually a plastic-lined hole in the ground -- where the leaves are mixed with sulfuric acid and stomped to create an acidic juice. The juice is filtered and neutralized with lime or carbonate to form a crude paste.
The paste is eventually purified into a cocaine base through the addition of more chemicals and filtering. According to a U.S. government study, it takes 300 to 500 kilograms of coca leaf to make 1 kilogram of cocaine.
The Bolivian military and police reported that in 2005 they uprooted about 19,800 acres of coca fields, destroyed more than 3,800 cocaine labs, confiscated about 50 tons of cocaine paste and arrested more than 4,000 drug traffickers.
U.S. government officials do not participate directly in drug raids, but Washington pays for everything from the Bolivian forces' helicopters to boots, spending about $100 million a year on eradication and development of alternative crops. Backers of the program say the money has been effective, reducing the amount of cultivation in the Chapare from about 98,800 acres in the 1980s to about 12,600 acres in 2004.
Coca boom predicted
With Morales in power, however, coca advocates are predicting a boom in production. This week in a central square in La Paz, the capital, coca-based businesses organized a fair to showcase and sell coca-based products such as teas, cakes, energy bars, skin creams, cough medicine and acne remedies.
"The market is going to expand a lot," said Juan Carlos Ticona, 24, who works for a company in the city of Cochabamba that makes medicines from coca. "Evo is knowledgeable about these products, and we think that he might be able to open up export opportunities for us in other countries in Latin America and in Europe."
Before that happens, a study funded by the European Union will aim to measure the size of the market for legal consumption of coca. Alvaro Garcia Linera, who will become Morales's vice president, told the Bolivian newspaper La Prensa this month that the study would be crucial in determining the future of the coca industry and the eradication program. If the study indicates that the market can support more than the current 29,600 legal acres, cultivation might be expanded; if it's less, stricter eradication standards might be implemented, he suggested.
"With the study in hand, we will revisit the issue of eradication," Garcia said. "We feel that eradication must be accompanied by alternative crops, for which purpose international aid, especially from the United States, must become much more effective."
The approximately $50 million that the U.S. spends each year on alternative development emphasizes production of crops such as bananas, pineapples and hearts of palm. Although the market for such products has increased in value from $13.8 million in 2002 to about $34.9 million last year, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, many coca growers have been reluctant to give up their coca plots for fear other crops will bring less money.
Earlier this week, a two-lane bridge spanning a muddy river about 200 yards from the eradication camp was reduced to one lane: Santiago Ureña, a farmer, was taking advantage of the flat pavement to spread his coca leaves for drying. He said he wouldn't be unhappy with Morales if he continued the current eradication arrangement, but he admitted that his dream was counter-narcotics officials' nightmare -- significantly increased production.
"We have to grow coca because it's the only crop that brings enough money to feed our families," said Ureña, 54, who paused from sweeping his leaves to fill the plastic bag of a passerby who wanted a little for chewing. "And with Evo, I think things are going to get a lot better."