Bolivia Coca growers fight for control, protests turn violent

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A coca protester flees from the police

By Daniel Ramos and Monica Machicao

LA PAZ, September 28 (Reuters) – Bolivian coca growers are fighting for control of the main leaf market in the mountainous city of La Paz, a conflict that has seen growers and police clash in the streets with slingshots and tear gas, and even a burning building.

Coca growers in the neighboring Yunga region disagree over the leadership of the body that manages the huge market for coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine, but which many in the Andes chew on to ward off the effects of high altitude or infuse in teas.

Monday’s protests led to a fire in an apartment building near where protesters and police clashed, with both sides blaming each other. Last week, a number of police vehicles were set on fire in a similar process.

Two cliques were formed. One around the head of the government-backed coca management body Adepcoca, Arnold Alanes, while others rallied around government critic Armin Lluta who says the ruling party – and the former president Evo Morales – tries to take more control of the trade.

“Evo Morales… wants to form a large national confederation of coca leaf producers, he wants to be the leader of the Chapare and the Yungas,” Lluta told reporters, referring to the two main coca producing regions.

The Yunga region produces and sells around $ 200 million worth of coca a year in the local market, according to estimates from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which said most Bolivian coca is not sold on approved markets.

Protesters flee from police during a demonstration by coca growers for the control of the coca market, in La Paz, Bolivia, September 27, 2021. REUTERS / Claudia Morales

Alanes told a group of coca growers on Tuesday that he was elected to his post by the farmers themselves and said the criticisms against him were because he was trying to root out corruption in the market.

“Arnold Alanes’ crime is to propose the systematization of Adepcoca’s economic income. Arnold Alanes’ crime is to prevent and eradicate corruption, ”he said.

Augusta Colpa, a coca farmer, said conditions were tough for the farmers fueling the unrest.

“How much do we harvest on a plot of coca? In cold weather we don’t harvest much. … This is not enough for our family, ”she said, denying police accusations that farmers threw dynamite during protests.

Ronald Lopez, a leading coca producer, told protests that hit the city last week that Yungas groups were hoping for dialogue with the government over the installation of a new leader of Adepcoca.

“We have put this government in power, with our struggle and our struggles,” he said. “Brethren, you can’t treat us like that.”

Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Monica Machicao in La Paz; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Alistair Bell

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