Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Coca Leaf Escapes North

A soldier chops down coca bushes in Colombia? Peru? Bolivia?
Actually, it's southern Mexico. (Revista Punto de Vista)
Soldiers used machetes to chop down the coca plants last Thursday, then piled them up and burnt them. Another 1,639 coca plants had been destroyed.

However, this didn't take place in Bolivia, Peru or Colombia, the three countries which have monopolized the production of coca leaf - the base ingredient for cocaine - for the last several decades. Rather, it was in southern Mexico. And these were the first coca plants discovered outside the Andean region of South America during recent decades.
How does your garden grow? Coca plant in Sri Lanka,
possibly mistaken for sandalwood.

It was probably inevitable that coca plantations, which South American nations have tried to eradicate with mixed success for decades, would shift to other regions. And, it's not so novel as it sounds.

Coca plants are native to Andean regions above 1,000 meters. However, the hardy plant can flourish in many regions. Back before coca leaf and cocaine were prohibited, plantations of the bushes were cultivated in Java, India, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, British Guyana and Malaysia. Around the turn of the 20th century Java, a Dutch colony, was the world's main supplier, and Japan later had industrial-scale coca leaf plantations on its then-colony Taiwan.

Today, coca leaf grows as an ornamental plant in Sri Lanka, where it has been mistaken for sandalwood, and I've seen reports of it being planted in Africa.
Coca cultivation areas in the Andes
in 2007 colored in red and yellow.
(Map from

"However, coca is a relatively easy plant to grow," according to the Transnational Institute. "Coca could easily escape the Andes for other tropical regions if enough pressure to eradicate the plant is applied."

Critics of the War on Drugs have long argued that there is a 'balloon effect.' As eradication and interdiction increase in one region, criminal groups shift to other regions.

The economic incentives for planting coca leaf outside of South America and closer to cocaine markets in the United States, Europe, China and Australia are tremendous. After all, virtually all of the final street price of cocaine comes from the costs and risks of transport and the bribes necessary to carry the stuff across borders. The best proof of that is the perpetual poverty of the campesinos who grow coca leaf.

The Mexican coca leaf plantation, in Chiapas State near the Guatemalan border, measured only 15 by 75 meters, and was hidden under banana plants. The coca plants had grown more than 4 meters high, indicating they'd been there for a long time. A week before, Mexican authorities had discovered 180 kilograms of coca leaves and several plants in a house in the city of Tapachula, also in Chiapas.

Will this be the last coca leaf plantation discovered in Mexico or Central America? Don't bet on it.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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