The Farmers

2011

Cocaine’s route to America begins in thousands of small villages high in the Andes. Farmers who grow and harvest coca are called cocakros. They own and harvest, on average, five acres of coca bushes. One acre can support about five hundred bushes, each of which produces hundreds of leaves. Because coca grows so well in this environment, cocakros harvest four to five crops a year. To keep up with the demand for cocaine in America and Europe, South American growers slashed and burned jungles to make way for more coca bushes and terraced the hillsides to maximize the amount of land available for cultivation. Despite this lucrative business, life for a coca grower is difficult. Claire Hargreaves, in her book Snowfields, interviews one coca farmer in Bolivia who describes the many obstacles to getting started:

Finding a plot wasn’t easy because the Chapare [Valley] was already full…. I found one plot… but it was poor quality and often got flooded so the crops were destroyed. Next I found a place down the road from here, but you could only get to it by crossing several rivers by canoe. Often our provisions and clothes fell in the water on the way. I had to go to La Paz to sort out the papers giving the land titles. That was expensive: I had to pay the bus fare and, on top, bribes to the right people.

Once in the village, the men who carry the coca leaves to market, called zepes, or ants, seek out the middlemen, or pichicateros, who buy the leaves. Prices fluctuate with demand, like other commodities. When the price of coca leaves is high, cocaleros can bring in $5,000 annually per acre; when prices are low, a farmer might earn one-tenth that amount.

The cocaine trade has been a boon to many South American villagers who grow and harvest the coca plants, and this is one reason it has been so difficult to eliminate at its source. Some of the taxes paid by the farmers finds its way back into the village and helps pay for schools, roads, simple hospitals, and other community-related improvements. These tax revenues are in addition to money the local cartel bosses hand out to the village mayors. The bosses do this in return for the mayors’ guarantee to provide protection from the police and to encourage farmers to increase coca production.

Colombia’s Cocaine Violence

Cocaine-related violence is not restricted to the streets of America. All of the South American countries involved in cocaine production experience related violence. Nowhere else, however, has the level of bombings and public shootings exceeded that in Colombia, as cartel drug lords duel for control of cocaine production and export In 1993 Bob Edwards, host of National Public Radio’s (NPR) Morning Edition, interviewed reporter David Welna about daily cocaine violence in Colombia. Welna reports:

On a Bogota radio station, the news is about a 69-year-old newspaper publisher assassinated the night before in a provincial capital. As he got out of his car in front of his house, another car raced up and three gunmen opened fire. Five bullets killed the man instantly, while his wife and daughter looked on in horror. It’s the kind of murder that makes news in Colombia for maybe a day or so, then gets lost under a new avalanche of killings… There’s no mystery about Colombia’s violence. Colombia’s prosecutor general recently blamed the government’s eight-month-long failure to capture Pablo Escobar on three factors he said predominate in the country-incompetence, cowardice, and corruption. Meanwhile, Colombians are doing what they can to escape the violence. Some ride in bulletproof vehicles, others contract shotgun-toting security guards, and still others save money for a ticket to Miami.

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