Another week, another seizure of coca smuggled from Bolivia on the north-west frontier of Argentina. (That's coca, not its derivative cocaine.) The coca leaf is the new cash crop in the Covid-19 crisis, mostly brought across the porous borders of Salta and Jujuy.
In recent weeks, a host of seizures have made the headlines:
– August 20: the driver of a Chevrolet pick-up mocked up to look like a Telecom van was stopped by the Gendarmeria near Orán, Salta: they discovered 148 kilos of coca bagged up and ready for distribution.
– Later the same day, eight people fled after they were spotted crossing the river with bundles strapped to their backs at the border town of Salvador Mazza: Border Guards (Gendarmerie) seized 250 kilos of coca.
– September 2: a car was stopped in a police control in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, Jujuy, on Ruta Nacional 9 south from Bolivia, with 228 kilos of coca separated into 250g packets in the boot.
– Last weekend: 78 kilos of coca were seized in the border town of La Quiaca. In the first incident, a driver threw 55 kilos of coca leaves split into three bundles out of his car window after fleeing a Border Guard checkpoint.
Of course, cocaine is still being smuggled into Argentina from Bolivia too: on August 24, a woman taking a taxi to Tartagal, Salta, was arrested with 46 capsules hidden in her underwear.
According to Martín Grande, a national deputy for the opposition PRO party in Salta, who is spearheading a bid to legalise the leaf, "with the Covid crisis, smuggling coca is now the most profitable form of contraband in Argentina – more profitable even than cocaine.”
The leaf grown in Bolivia can be sold for 10 times its value in Argentina today (twice as much as before the coronavirus crisis) because the closure of the border has led to a shortage of supply.
Jujuy Police even got in on the act: the huge spike in Covid-19 deaths in the region – which has seen the province become the worst affected per head of population after Buenos Aires Province and the capital – has been traced to two officers assigned to accompany governor Gerardo Morales on an official visit to La Quiaca in June.
Policemen Hugo Orlando Cruz and Arnaldo Cesar Ramos are accused of crossing the border into Villazon to buy coca and face up to two years in jail for breaching quarantine regulations.
Coca doesn't grow in Argentina, and is not allowed to be imported from Bolivia, but nevertheless, it is widely available in stores on every street corner throughout the northwest. If you cross the border into Bolivia and return to Argentina, it's legal to bring a kilo for personal use.
“It depends on the view of the Border Guard officer – some days you might be able to bring in two kilos. But most of the coca leaves you buy in Salta have been smuggled,” says Grande.
An old regulation dating back to Argentina’s military dictatorship bans the importation of coca, despite the fact that a previous law passed in 1968 granted special dispensation to import the product given that it was a "local tradition" in Salta, Jujuy and Tucuman.
It's impossible to be precise about the exact amount coming into Argentina from Bolivia, but according to a report by the Transnational Institute; in 1974, legal imports reached a peak of 910 tonnes, at a time when the country's population was slightly more than half of what it is now. In 1997, it was estimated that as much as 2,000 tonnes was arriving "informally.”
Grande, a salteño journalist with 35 years’ experience in television and radio, has joined forces with two other northern lawmakers, Miguel Nanni (UCR, JxC) and Virginia Cornejo (PRO, JxC),
to sponsor legislation to legalise the importation of coca, the value of which is calculated at US$2 million every month in Salta province alone.
“It’s difficult to know the exact value, but that figure was based on a study by the UNSa (National University of Salta) into the sale of coca. Our proposal is to import through [the city of] Salvador Mazza. Everything will be properly controlled and pass through customs, packaged up into bags of 10, 20, 50 and 100 grammes. We’ll set a price where it won’t be profitable to buy it and turn it into cocaine, and the government can tax it.
“I’m salteño born and bred, I chew coca after a big asado, or if I’m driving long-distance. It’s part of our culture and shouldn’t be treated as a drug,” said the Juntos por el Cambio lawmaker.
Submitted to the Chamber of Deputies on August 4, the bill proposes that “the possession or consumption of coca leaves in their natural state for coca chewing or for use as an infusion for tea will not be considered as possession or consumption of drugs. To authorise the importation, distribution and commercialisation of coca leaves in their natural state, destined for the practice of chewing or infusion.… [which] will be subject to the regulation and inspection of the State.”
Coca has been part of religious ritual among the pre-Hispanic population of South America for 4,000 years, and became popular with the mestizo middle classes of the Andean northwest 100 years ago. Mariana Orieta, curator of the Museo del Patrimonio Intangible de la Quebrada de Humahuaca said: “It is a sacred leaf which has nothing to do with drugs or cocaine, it comes from our ancestors and is important to indigenous culture. It’s indispensable for the workers in the countryside and the Puna, it’s like sugar and salt to them: it’s energy.”
Juan Oscar ‘Sombrero’ Lopez, aged 50, a metalworker from Cerrillos, Salta, has chewed coca every day for the last 30 years: “I get up and have breakfast, then start chewing coca until lunch, take it out for lunch, then start again afterwards: If I’m not eating or sleeping, I’m chewing coca. It helps you work, you don’t get too tired. I suppose it’s a vice, it’s a habit, but it’s not bad for your health. I’ve cut down my consumption now because the coca is so expensive, so I get through about 25 grammes per day, which costs me 300 pesos.”
Sofia works in the San Silvestre kiosk on the main road from Salta city to the Valles Calchaquies: “You can use coca to make tea, also the lorry drivers buy a lot from us so they can stay alert during the trip. Other people buy for Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), and they also buy drinks for her. And, normally we have lots of tourists who drop in to buy coca as it helps prevent altitude sickness."