Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

One thing about chewing coca leaves that is weird to the neophyte is their specific, sylvan kind of taste. Unlike the chemical stain that cocaine burns on the back of the throat, coca can seem like a hippie cleanse for the mouth. To start, there is the inescapable fibrousness; even with some dexterous tongue and tooth work, little twig-like stems end up pressed against the inside of the cheek or stabbing at the gums. Then there is the flavor, a musty piquancy of autumn leaves suffused with a tannic tang. The effect is slightly astringent. Chewing is generally a misnomer, since coca is piled up into a wad on one side of the mouth and sucked on, but some people gnash at the lanceolate leaves until tiny green specks garnish the teeth like dried parsley.

When a person chews coca, a cocktail of compounds is secreted from the leaves and absorbed into the body. This contains dozens of alkaloids that include the cocaine compound, and it has mild psychotropic effects in its unprocessed form. Its processed form, obviously, is a different matter. People from Andean countries like to say that coca’s relationship to cocaine is like the grape to wine. The equivalence isn’t totally precise, but coca is a centerpiece in traditional ceremonies and has the status of a sacred substance and so it enjoys, like the Holy Eucharist, a certain factual leniency.

Of course, neither its natural consumption nor its spiritual status has saved the coca plant from becoming a harbinger of bloodshed. Coca garnered its peculiar status when a German graduate student isolated a pure form of its electrifying alkaloid from a fresh shipment of leaves in 1859 using alcohol, sulfuric acid, sodium carbonate and ether. Cocaine’s global market is now worth around 80 billion dollars per year. It is also illicit. An untold number of people have been killed for having some connection, tenuous or not, to the trade. Drug-related violence has made parts of Latin America among the most dangerous places on the planet.

Nowhere has coca been more important than in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country. Though its governments have traditionally toed the line of U.S. foreign policy on drugs since at least the 1980s, Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, threw out the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) nearly a decade ago while vowing to resuscitate coca’s sullied reputation. “Coca,” Morales has said so often that the phrase could be printed on the currency, “is not cocaine.” After decades of sweaty counter-narcotics operations, during which U.S.-trained soldiers scoured the jungle uprooting coca bushes and Americans and Europeans snorted cocaine anyway, Morales called a stop to eradication campaigns in his country. Instead, the cocaleros of Bolivia have cultivated the conviction that they can spread the gospel of coca. “Our philosophy is clear,” the country’s leading anti-drug official, Sabino Mendoza, told me. “Coca should be consumed, in its natural state.” To that end, the Bolivian government has spent millions of dollars and put forward a law to support its coca market. It has shunned the War on Drugs and sought instead to create alternate markets for coca leaf by supporting industrialization. Teas, shampoos, wines, cakes, liquors, flour, toothpastes, energy drinks and candies that feature the leaf have been produced, some in government-backed factories.

It sometimes seems like Bolivians will market anything that contains their quasi-magical plant. Anything that could lure investors. Anything that could trade internationally. Anything, anything but cocaine.

*

Every time I travel to Bolivia, I seem to arrive at night, so it’s not until the next morning when I wake up in La Paz that I really see the jagged mountain ridges grazing the sky. Arriving to Bolivia is like getting off an elevator at the highest floor on Earth. Not at some executive suite, because the poverty is too palpable for visions of luxe, but at a point unmistakably higher than most others, where the air is thin, and where there is an ineffable sense of majesty.

In 1910, a British mountaineer marveled that there was, “no other country in the world where you have, within a territory only five times as big as the United Kingdom, not only this remarkable rich forest district, low-lying, tropical, and, almost within view of it, mountains, 21,000 and 22,000 feet in height, covered with great glaciers and perpetual snow.” But for all its beauty, Bolivia’s radical geography is also a curse. Ever since the colonial era, the vicissitudes of Bolivia’s landscape have frustrated ambitions of prosperity, and in past decades the country’s industries have been sluggish. The precipitous elevation changes also make people ill. Bolivians call altitude sickness sorojchi. For this, they recommend coca.

Coca, especially in the highlands, enjoys near panacea status. It had deep ties to indigenous culture, and the 30 percent of Bolivians who chew it regularly believe that it can alleviate most ills. In the new and growing coca product market, this tonic-like reputation is its most marketable aspect. “With Coca Real, it’s just the same,” one of Bolivia’s rising coca entrepreneurs, Juan Manuel Rivero, told me, referring to his flagship product, a carbonated energy drink containing coca extract. “A healthy beverage that will effectively combat sorojchi, alleviate exhaustion, and eliminate physical or mental fatigue.” Rivero is one of a dozen or so entrepreneurs who have obtained permission from the government to purchase coca for industrial development. While it’s not illegal to have coca in Bolivia, there is a limit on the amount that can be transported without a permit, and the movement of leaves is closely monitored. His Coca Real drink is one of the products that have entered the market seeking to capitalize on a sympathetic regime and shifting global attitudes about regulating certain kinds of substances.

At Rivero’s factory, where he produces soda concentrate, he offered me some of the finished, neon-green liquid product in a glass to try. It tasted like coca’s distant cousin, just arrived from Miami smacking bubble gum and raving about party yachts. Sweet, bubbly; the unmistakable descendant of Red Bull. I drank it quickly, and recognized an afternote redolent of coca’s tang. “Coca has one bad alkaloid, which is cocaine, and the rest of its alkaloids are good,” Rivero said. (The white powder cocaine is usually the cocaine alkaloid isolated in hydrochloride salt form, occasionally cut with other substances.) “We are sure that our product does not contain a single bad alkaloid. We want to show Bolivia and the world that it’s possible to make appealing derivatives that can be consumed and don’t cause addiction.”

To demonstrate his point, Rivero ushered me into the distillation rooms where he produces the extract from coca leaves that gets shipped to a bottling plant in La Paz and mixed with water to make the energy drink. A small cluster of chambers containing metal vats, the distillation area was where Rivero believed the cocaine alkaloid was removed from the plant through a process of high-temperature water pressure. But he couldn’t be sure. The only way to know conclusively is to test the finished product in a laboratory, of which there are few with sufficient equipment in Bolivia to do the job.

There are different views on this problem. On one hand, some officials in the government think removing the alkaloid is a precondition to successfully accessing international markets. But others believe it shouldn’t matter so much. Absent chemical extraction, the cocaine alkaloid exists in the raw leaf at such a negligible percent – between 0.25% and 0.77% by most estimates – that the effects of consuming it are most often compared to drinking a cup of coffee. It is not physically addictive. It isn’t toxic. What’s the big deal? After all, while no Bolivian would say so, it’s just a plant.

*

In July 2017, I travelled to the Chapare, a tropical province north of Cochabamba and one of Bolivia’s two major coca-growing regions, to meet Rivero’s outreach team. The road from the highlands down to the rainforest river basin traces its way along mountain saddles overhung with clouds and neon panicles of lobster claw flowers. It is also punctuated by checkpoints. Just a few decades ago, growing coca in the Chapare was prohibited. The area became ground zero in the U.S. War on Drugs. Interdiction forces conducted merciless campaigns against coca growers, who still bitterly resent the authors of their suffering.

I was going to the annual coca fair, where Coca Real was making a pitch, held just up the road from a mirrored glass-plated factory that was built to produce coca products. Flanked on all sides by the hyper-green rainforest, the fair stalls created haphazard corridors where revelers wandered, their cheeks bulging with coca. One vendor, selling frosting-smeared cupcakes topped with decorative coca leaf, told me that she had experimented for months to get the flavor right–there can’t be too much coca, she said, or the cake turns bitter. A man hawked coca shampoo as a cure for hair loss.

Nowhere in Bolivia has the impact of President Evo Morales’s 2005 election been felt more dramatically than the Chapare, where his activism leading one of the major coca unions thrust him into the national political spotlight and ultimately carried him to electoral victory thirteen years ago. Morales, who is the country’s first indigenous president and who was raised in poverty in the highlands before moving to the Chapare as a young man, has remained loyal to his base. Duly, he had promised to make an appearance at the fair. On the day of his scheduled arrival, farmers stood in their mud-splattered shoes and Sunday shirts with eyes turned skyward waiting for a sign of his helicopter.

Morales has increasingly become a subject of controversy in Bolivia, ever more with his recent efforts to massage the constitution to extend his long tenure in the presidential palace. But in the Chapare, support for him is unflagging. Asterio Romero, Morales’s friend and union colleague and currently the mayor of one of the region’s largest cities, told me he believed Morales was sent by God. That, he said, was the only explanation for Morales’s famous work ethic–the president sleeps little, and has been known to call ministers to the palace for meetings at 5 o’clock in the morning. To the people of the Chapare, he also represents someone who understands the pain of the drug war years.

For Morales, the piecemeal documentation of atrocities committed in the 1980s and 1990s in the name of eradicating coca plants is not jarring. He was there for clashes that produced albums filled with grainy photos of men and women with lash-like bruises and gaping bullet wounds, undergoing emergency outdoor surgeries or building barricades to block police trucks; the medical certificates of hematomas, contusions, puncture wounds and edemas; the autopsy reports documenting bullet trajectories. One report from 2008, published by Bolivian government agencies, in which Morales says he was tortured during his many detentions by anti-narcotics squads, includes photographs of the president himself. In them, he has the same mop-top haircut, but his face has the sheen of youth, and he is propped on a medical examining table with purple lesions crisscrossing his back and snaking over his shoulder.

By the time the report was published, Morales had been elected to his first presidential term, and he would with short shrift expel the U.S. Ambassador and the DEA from the country. Although many of the boots-on-the-ground anti-narcotics campaigns were carried out by special Bolivia police and military forces like UMOPAR, the Chapare was one of the first places where the DEA began its foreign War on Drugs operations, and many Bolivians still hold the U.S. responsible for the squads’ violence and corruption. “From the U.S., they made the DEA pressure us at gunpoint and with gas,” a coca union leader named Isidora Coronado told me. “It was a difficult time. A lot of women, especially, were traumatized; there were assaults, and the men in uniform could do whatever they wanted. But from the moment [Morales] became president we haven’t had those kinds of clashes anymore.”

If anything, the coca fair was celebration of the victories won, and by extension, each artisanal coca product on offer seemed a small tribute to the struggle (Coca Real’s stand, with its flashy cardboard cutout of a life-sized bottle, was nearly alone in its unabashedly commercial design). Wherever Morales goes, he is greeted by garlands of flowers; shortly after his helicopter landed on the afternoon of the fair and he emerged from a black SUV among a flock of bodyguards, Morales was garlanded with coca leaves and presented with a shamrock-colored cake made from ground leaves and varnished with white icing. Farmers with pleated skirts and long braids presented him with baskets of guava and sweet potatoes. He spoke for 15 minutes, praising the new coca policies and promising more industrialization. To finish his speech, he chanted a famous slogan in Quechua, joined by hundreds of voices: “Kawsachun coca! Huañuchun Yanquis!” Long live coca. Down with the Yankees.

*

About 17 million people around the world used cocaine at some point in 2015, according to the latest data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). A third of those people were in North America. While the DEA estimates that cocaine use is increasing in the U.S., most of its field divisions don’t consider the drug to be as urgent a threat as other controlled substances. Cocaine-related deaths have spiked, but this is largely due to a fad of speedballing it with fentanyl. In any case, the agency’s laboratory analyses conclude that 92 percent of cocaine in the U.S. market originated in Colombia and six percent in Peru–two countries where American interdiction programs are still robustly in place.

Bolivia, however, has been singled out by the U.S. government as being a special pain in the ass. Its truculence has earned it repeat mention on the White House’s annual presidential memorandum on illicit drug producing countries, where it is rebuked for having “failed demonstrably” to adequately enact counternarcotics policies. Since it’s an illegal market, drug production can only be measured by proxy, and so the UNODC calculates the number of hectares of coca cultivated using satellite and aerial imagery to guess at the amount of cocaine produced (it also looks at police seizures of finished cocaine and of the intermediary butter-like paste product). Its most recent data for the three major coca producing countries put cultivation at 146,000 hectares in Colombia, 43,900 in Peru, and 23,100 in Bolivia. The U.S. Department of State disagrees with the methodology and says there are more hectares in cultivation, though still less than in Colombia or Peru. But in September’s memo, the White House exempted Colombia, reasoning that its police and army are close security allies.

Bolivia is something else entirely. Though there was a small increase in cultivation in last year’s accounting, Bolivia had a five-year stretch of continuous reduction that started shortly after Morales expelled the DEA and that earned him praise from the UNODC representative in the country. For the U.S., this success in its absence is diplomatically irritating. “It’s not pleasing to the U.S. to have what it views as a political humiliation and rejection of its policy and positions–all U.S. funding was lost–and to have things still go well,” Kathryn Ledebur, a coca analyst and director of the Andean Information Network, based in Bolivia, told me. “If things can be done without the U.S. and with a different model, then that means the U.S. loses a lot of influence in the region it still perceives as its backyard.”

When Morales kicked out the DEA, he did so under the premise that he was nationalizing the country’s drug policy, promising little tolerance for drug trafficking or production and flexing his political clout with coca farmer unions to enlist them in controlling cultivation. From 2006 through 2014, police forces under Morales’s government seized 209 tons of cocaine and conducted 108,185 counternarcotics operations, compared to 65 tons seized and 37,612 operations conducted in the seven years prior shepherded by preceding governments. Statistics released by the U.S. State Department show that Bolivian police forces in 2016 destroyed nearly as many cocaine laboratories as their Colombian counterparts did.

Political opponents have tried to claim that more seizures and arrests point to an increase in narcotrafficking, especially in the eastern lowland city of Santa Cruz, a bastion of vituperative anti-Morales conservativism. It is true that the cocaine produced in Bolivia or, more commonly, transported through Bolivia from Peru, goes largely to the Brazilian market, and Santa Cruz is the major city in Bolivia that’s closest to the Brazilian border. It is also true that Bolivia, with its mild crime statistics and one of the region’s lowest homicide rates, has seen a slight uptick in violence in recent years. That uptick has also been more dramatic in Santa Cruz. A major with the Special Counternarcotics Police Force (FELCN) told me that cocaine laboratories are concentrated in the east of the country. But Morales’s opponents are clearly most rankled by his pro-coca stance, however successful his counternarcotics operations may be. “There is a small amount of coca that is used for chewing. The rest goes to the narcos,” Jimmy Ortiz Saucedo, a conservative political commentator and member of the powerful right-wing Civic Committee, lamented to me. In an editorial, former minister of defense José Carlos Sánchez Berzain, who has been tried in Florida for authorizing security forces to open fire on unarmed civilians while serving under former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, proclaimed that Bolivia has become a narco state.

One of the government’s most consistent rebuttals to these claims is to reiterate that the country’s coca leaves aren’t intended for cocaine. A certain amount of coca has always been recognized as acceptable for traditional use, even under Bolivian’s most bullish anti-drugs governments. What constitutes the right amount is a political numbers game. An ancien régime drug law allowed for 12,000 hectares of coca to be cultivated in the Yungas, north of La Paz. None was allowed in the Chapare. After multiple iterations, the Morales government last year decided to raise the level to 22,000 legal hectares, 7,700 to be allotted to the Chapare. But a recent survey found that only 14,700 hectares needed to be cultivated to meet national demand. Even though it’s a laughably trifling amount compared to other coca-producing countries and a vast improvement from the past (in the early 90s, between 50,000 and 90,000 hectares were planted with coca in Bolivia), the discrepancy still mars Morales’s no-drugs rhetoric. It also goes a long way toward explaining the government’s interest in industrialization. Coca sí, cocaína no.

*

One of the major spiritual centers of the Incan empire was a temple for the sun located on an island in the high-altitude Lake Titicaca, which straddles the modern border between Bolivia and Peru. According to a Spanish chronicler, a ruler named Tupac Inca Yupanqui, who led the Incan empire from 1471 to 1493, was devoted to the temple and made a series of improvements to it that included a small coca garden. “Among the sacrifices of plants, vegetables, and fruits of the land, none was as highly esteemed as coca,” the chronicler wrote. The only problem was that the high-altitude climate wasn’t conducive to growing coca, which thrives at altitudes between 3,000 to 6,500 feet above sea level. Undeterred, Tupac Inca Yupanqui ordered part of the island to be scooped out, creating a haven where temperatures would be warmer and where the plant would flourish. Ultimately the island ground became water-logged from the excavation and part of a gully buckled, burying some of the gardeners. The plan was abandoned.

But coca never left its allegorical position adjacent to the temple, and many Bolivians still associate it with the sacred. In 1567 the Catholic Church declared the leaf idolatrous and shortly after issued a decree prohibiting coca on the grounds that it was satanic, but some Spaniards wanted to keep it available for indigenous laborers and pressured to keep it legal. So it stayed, though not just as a commodity. The lake where Tupac Inca Yupanqui’s temple was is now the place where one of the country’s most famous basilicas stands, visited by thousands of Bolivians every year who drive past the front gate to have their cars–often garlanded in coca–blessed. Coca is present at weddings; it is exchanged during rituals; it is chewed during political meetings. After Morales was elected and he led the ratification of a new constitution, the plant was recognized in the articles as a “factor of social unity” and part of Bolivia’s cultural patrimony. “We call the coca a sacred leaf,” a coca farmer named Flora Bautista told me. “The reason we call it sacred is because it has always been with us; it is ancestral. It allows us to eat; to survive. And it is always with us. So, we will never not have coca.”

When asked, many Bolivians who defend the idea of coca’s sacredness will cite its pharmacological effects or perceived curative properties. Seeing the leaf as consecrated, though, isn’t just a matter of private faith. It also represents a spirit of resistance. “Coca is a sacred leaf. It accompanies us in work; in studies; in the rituals and ceremonies that reinforce solidarity and unity among communities,” Morales said earlier this year. “It is our companion on the long road of indigenous struggle for dignity and freedom. Previously, criminalized by the U.S. Today, respected.”

*

One day in La Paz last summer, Rivero picked me up in his red Ford Explorer, and we drove out to the bottling plant at the city’s fringes to watch batches of Coca Real clatter down the production line. Rivero brought along a copy of the pro-government newspaper featuring Coca Real to show me as we drove past raw brick houses and neo-Andean mansions. The drink was generating a lot of interest at fairs and expos, and the outreach team was traveling constantly. One of Bolivia’s largest supermarket chains, Hipermaxi, was stocking Coca Real in its stores around Santa Cruz, and the green bottle could be seen at little roadside stands in the tourist-heavy neighborhoods behind La Paz’s main plaza. Rivero, a round man with a prominent groomed mustache, was not exactly happy. But his air of efficiency had the buoyancy of secret hopefulness.

Rivero became a coca entrepreneur through chance and dispute. Trained as a lawyer, but a businessman at heart, he joined another coca drink enterprise in 2012 to manage the paperwork of starting a new company. Rivero’s business partners included a young man who invented a coca-based energy drink formula and the man’s father, who had extensive experience in the soda beverage industry. Together, they produced a drink called Cocandina, which tasted like concentrated coca jam without a trace of the leaf’s usual tannic note. It was on the market for few months before Rivero had a falling out with the others over a batch that had gone bad. The man who came up with the formula, Esteban Ivanovic, built another laboratory and vowed to produce the drink again (he owns the formula and his father owns the brand), but months after he planned to relaunch he was still struggling to get the paperwork approved. Products that use coca on a large scale need to get permission from the country’s coca industrialization authority, which is partially in charge of an extensive national system that tracks legal coca to make sure it doesn’t go to making drugs. Because Rivero filed the initial paperwork, he kept the permissions and the equipment. With these, and after testing different flavor profiles, he launched his new drink.

Rivero was in La Paz to visit the new bottling plant, but he also had a meeting. The government had called major coca entrepreneurs together to discuss the regulations on the coca trade, which businesses generally found to be an undue obstruction and which the government defended as necessary to their counternarcotics efforts. He arrived late, by which time the vice minister in charge of coca had already introduced the government’s new coca law and was being assailed by annoyed businessmen. “We are constantly under inspection. As soon as the coca inspectors leave, we have to prepare for inspectors from the health ministry, and then from the labor ministry,” complained a man with thick-rimmed glasses. “We spend all year reviewing our permits. It takes forever. Isn’t there a way to get all of these inspections to coordinate? I understand it’s necessary to have certain parameters, but it’s impossible to do our work.”

“We can look into avoiding some of the overlap, but it’s really a political situation,” replied a beleaguered government official.

Another man inquired after whether he would be responsible if he had someone else pick up the coca legally allotted to him and some of it went astray. He would, the official answered.

“Look,” interjected a fourth man, in a blue jacket. “We are all trying to grow as businesses. We’re trying to re-define the coca leaf. That’s such a big task. But we come here and the first thing we do is start fighting. We want to show the world that the coca leaf isn’t cocaine, but how are we going to do it?”

“I think we’re losing sight of what we’re talking about here,” Rivero broke in. “All of us sitting here probably don’t even use one ton of coca leaf. But we’re already talking about controls, controls.” Instead, Rivero said, the government should work to identify potential customers in Bolivia and abroad. “The market,” he said, “doesn’t exist.”

After the meeting, Rivero told me that the government expected coca businesses to consume an enormous amount the leaf so that farmers could continue to produce a certain amount and it would remain in the legal market. But Rivero worried that the consumer base was lacking. He was convinced the government wasn’t doing enough to market homegrown coca products aggressively enough that they would stand a chance next to big labels like Coca-Cola, whose trademark red logo is imprinted on nearly every marquee in even the remotest corners of Bolivia. The company’s regional bottler estimates that Coca-Cola products hold a 75 percent market share in Bolivia’s soda beverage industry. It especially irks coca advocates that Coca-Cola has in the past admitted to including coca leaf ingredients in its secret formula, reportedly using an extract furnished by a company named Stepan Chemicals that has special dispensation to import coca despite a 1961 United Nations treaty that classifies the coca leaf as a schedule-1 narcotic drug.

Bolivia’s new coca law included articles committing the government to supporting the nascent industry through research and market development. In 2016, the foreign ministers of Bolivia and Ecuador inked a bilateral export agreement for coca products to enter the Ecuadorian market, and Morales has said that talks were underway with Venezuela and Panama. But in his office after the meeting, the vice minister in charge of coca, Wilfredo Llojlla, told me that initial high hopes for the industrialization program had run into some issues. “At the moment we haven’t been able to move it forward very much, because we know that the products derived from the coca leaf are still incredibly complicated to export,” he said. “It’s still one of our objectives, but it’s not easy. There are norms that make it really complicated. But we have the political will to do it, as a country.” In one of Morales’s most intrepid moves, he withdrew Bolivia in 2012 from the 1961 UN treaty, rejoining the convention a year later with a reservation exempting the country from the paragraphs on coca leaf. Still, restrictions are in force elsewhere. The treaty makes an exception for coca leaves used “as a flavouring agent” that have been stripped of alkaloids (likely a concession to U.S. lobbyists campaigning on behalf of Coca-Cola), but the technology doesn’t yet exist in Bolivia. After years of extracting the cocaine alkaloid and dumping the leaf to make drugs for the black market, nobody is quite sure how to strip the alkaloid but preserve the rest. More fundamentally, nobody agrees about whether the leaf, so stripped, would still be coca.

*

A few days before I left Bolivia, I called a man named Victor Machaca Quispe, who was listed as the president of the National Council of Indigneous Amautas of the Tawantinsuyu. Amautas were teachers in the Incan Empire, which was called the Tawantinsuyu. The council’s name reflected a taste for wistfulness; a nostalgia for a glorified era, and an assertion of indigenous primacy. Quispe didn’t have time to talk on the phone, but it was soon to be August, the month of the Pachamama, the mother Earth, so could I come to a ceremony he was leading at the plaza in front of the presidential palace in La Paz? I could. He added me on WhatsApp.

On the day of the ceremony, the sky shimmered cold and blue over the belly of the city. Pigeons whirled overhead, their wings susurrating like tree branches in a gale. A dozen spiritual leaders gathered under the bronze statue of a Bolivian independence fighter, laying out a carpet of coca leaves on a woven blanket and arranging sugar oblations. Quispe made some remarks to welcome the season. He asked for strength and gave thanks to the living Earth, while a small group of women poked at little pots of burning herbs. At a certain point, the pigeons settled on the flagstones and a numinous hush fell over the gathering, which lasted for a sun-scorched moment and then, just as quickly, was interrupted by the rattling carts of layered Jell-O mousse vendors. Palace guards in their kepis watched placidly. Quispe explained to me that the coca was the primordial base of Andean cosmological theory; that it was a prophetic channel and the solder of traditional community.

Coca’s problem, Quispe told me, has always been its encounter with modern life. More probably, it never was what it is considered to have been, and it will never be only what it is to the people who believe in its divinity. But perhaps it can be something other than cocaine. That’s what Bolivia is betting on. When I asked Rivero if he believed coca was sacred, he told me he thought that if such things were true, life should be easier. His mother believed, and she gave offerings to the Earth. But Rivero was more of a Catholic man. A practical man. He was a man who believed in moral rectitude and believed, also, in the irrepressibility of his own fate. And fate, in Rivero’s conviction, had good fortune in store for him. “This is going to be more successful than you can even imagine,” he told me late one night in La Paz, sitting behind the driver’s wheel of his SUV. “You are going to be amazed.”

***

Reporting for this piece was supported by the International Reporting Project.

Jessica Camille Aguirre

Jessica Camille Aguirre is an American writer and journalist currently living in Germany. She is the recipient of the 2018 Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award.

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One Comment on “Bolivia’s Quest to Spread the Gospel of Coca

  1. The Stepan Company in Maywood, N.J. imports 25 metric tons of coca leaf per year to be used in making Coca-Cola. The “alkaloid” Ms. Jessica mentions is methyl benzoyl ecgonine, (C17H21NO4). The Coca Real drink may not be that different from Coca-Cola in its use of the coca leaf as a flavoring agent. It is, of course, hypocritical for the U.S. to let the Stepan Company import the leaf for commercial purposes while condemning Evo’s government for trying to do the same thing.

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