The Coca Leaf

E-mail Harrigan

Dec. 14, 2005 4:08 p.m.
Cochabamba, Bolivia

Six-hour ride to the coca leaf growing jungles of the Chapare region. Most houses are a few boards propping up a piece of metal, open on all four sides. There are a lot of little kids and mangy dogs on dirt floors. Out back there is jungle and in the jungle are coca bushes, the leaves that are used to make cocaine.

You can get about $2 a pound for the leaves in Cochabamba. If you process the leaves into paste you can get $500 a pound. If you can process that into cocaine and get it into the US, officials here say, that pound is worth $15,000.

The farmers here fill big mesh bags with the leaves, about 30-pounds worth and sell the bags in the open at a coca leaf market. At the coca leaf market everyone is chewing the leaves. We asked them to open their mouths and show us the big green chaws. In its leaf form the locals say coca is used as a medicine, to ease stomach pain and to provide energy. It is chewed and used in tea. One woman who was nursing was chewing. After the child was finished with the breast, the mother handed him a coca leaf.

For the locals, who see it only in leaf form, it is not considered a drug and many of them are puzzled about the fuss, why helicopters and soldiers sometimes appear to eradicate the leaves.

Most people in this region support a man running for President this Sunday, Evo Morales. Morales himself was a coca leaf grower. He argues that the coca leaf is an important part of Bolivian culture, history and tradition and supports its legal growth for these purposes.

Bolivian jungle commandos go out in helicopters to destroy cocaine laboratories. One colonel told us that cocaine cannot be a crime for every country in the world except for one. He said drug traffickers pose a threat to the state.

In support of Evo Morales people here have painted their houses blue, the color of his party's flag. Blue flags fly from almost every house.

The hotel in Chapare was $10 a night. I did not know how much to tip the guy who carried my bag to my room. I did avoid Alfredo's recommendation of rodent on the dinner menu. He realized it was not the most appetizing translation, and tried to backtrack, first with "rodentia" and then with "gopher." He got me once with "cheek meat" in Mexico, so no more, but I think I did hear him say, "put a little side of gopher with Mr. Steve's fish so he can try it."

Dec. 12, 2005 9 p.m.

"You're gonna be a giant there."


"They're short cause of the altitude."

"Yeah. So where do we fly?"

"We fly into Santa Cruz, then catch a flight to Cochabamba."

"Then we have to drive?"

"Yeah. Then we drive to Chapare."

"I bet it's a nice paved road."

"Yeah. He said it's four-wheeled drive. That's why I'm bringing two vehicles."

"That's a brutal itinerary."

"You're traveling light."


"You didn't bring any..."


"Did you bring a gas mask?"


"F that. Just give me an f-ing wet towel."

"If you get gassed at that altitude you're gonna go down."

"If I go down just make sure you roll on it."

Dec. 9, 2005 9:16 a.m.

I met the freelancer Fein for breakfast. He is getting ready to go back to Iraq. He had dark circles under his eyes, and already had a Times under his arm. He bought his Times at the Loews every morning because they did not charge a $.07 cent tax on the newspaper like Starbucks did. He also had a small white paper bag. I knew what was inside, pain au chocolat. He got them from a French pastry shop run by Cubans. Last time I ate with him he had four. I was curious to see if he was going to top that today.

Fein ordered a grande latte. The counter worker asked him if he wanted something to eat with it. No response. Not the first time, not the second time, nor did he give his name to label the cup. Not even a nod.

"That's alright," the other counter worker said. Fein put down exact change in coins, in three neat stacks, then stepped aside.

We sat outside. It was windy and the paper blew. Fein threw out the first three sections, then flipped through the Arts to the crossword and carefully tore across. When the tear went too low Fein stopped and adjusted the paper on the table then continued to tear. He now had the puzzle free.

Fein opened the lid on his coffee and pulled a fistful of sugar packets from his pocket. He took three at a time, shook them, then made an even tear. He did this three times, nine sugars. He lined up three wooden stirrers so they would reach the bottom of the cup and stirred. He stared hard at the square of paper in front of him. He had no pen. On Mondays he tried to do it without the paper.

Dec. 8, 2005 11:07 a.m.
Video: Airport Shooting

I flicked on the television briefly to make sure nothing was happening. A local channel had it first, shooting at Miami airport — then, I clicked to us, not yet, to the others, also nothing yet. Then it came like a wave, breaking over every channel. You try and think how big it will be and how long it will last when the phone rings. Car or taxi. Will the airport be shut down. How close can you get. You have to meet up with a shooter and a sat truck, who are also racing to the scene from different places. When you find them you see other reporters arriving, dozens of channels, throwing on blue blazers, parting their hair with one hand, putting in earpieces. One near me said to his cameraman, "I don't know anything," and the next minute he was on TV. He was able to talk for about five minutes. He must have been doing it a long time.

I saw one reporter go into the terminal and followed him. There was a crush of cameras around an exit gate, all looking for passengers that were on the plane. When one camera light went on there would be a flurry of movement. One small Colombian boy with a hearing aid was suddenly surrounded by 20 betacams, lights and microphones. He had gotten off early due to immigration problems. A tall black man on my right snapped off his camera.

"Man that kid ain't got nothing," he said, but the rest of the circle kept him talking, spinning him from one light to another. He was all they had.


Man do you ever find time to go home and just crash? It seems you are always on the road. Keep your column going it makes for good reading.



I'd bet the large, 12 pound rodent was a nutria, or coyou as they are called in South America.

Atlanta, GA

If it is legalized will the growers make less money? How will legalization affect drug trafficking?



I have no idea how tall you are, but I'm only 5'10". This summer I visited my brother and his family in Cochabamba. I have never felt so tall. Many people are less than five feet tall in Bolivia.


I have missed your blogs and check first thing each time I turn on my computer to see what you have to tell us. You are amazing! I am sure your mom is so proud of you and that your dad will forever watch over you with so much love. Please be safe, I feel you are part of my family, too.

Mary in Texas

There I was ...watching FOX as usual, when who should appear at Miami airport but Steve Harrigan, the man always "on the spot." How do you do that, Steve?

Fort Worth, Texas

Hi Steve

It's good to see a new blog. I'm sure learning Spanish is not easy, but at least you are learning it. Good for you! Keep up the good work and I look forward to seeing more of your blogs!

Wayne, NJ

Come on Steve...say it with me..."Donde esta el bano?"


Dear Steve,

I so enjoy reading your blog and I will enjoy even more reading about Bolivia. I was in La Paz and El Alto and surrounding villages in February 2005 with a medical mission team. A piece of my heart lives in Bolivia now. I can't wait to read about your time there. I like you cause you keep it real. God bless you and Merry Christmas.



Wheatgrass? Yuuuck!

Tampa, FL

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