LA PAZ – Bolivian police seized 27 tons of ground coca leaves concealed in packets of yerba mate tea that were about to be shipped to Lebanon for processing into cocaine, the government said Monday.
This is the first time Bolivian authorities have discovered an attempt to export coca with the intention of producing cocaine in another country, Interior Minister Hugo Moldiz told reporters in the eastern city of Santa Cruz.
Once transformed into cocaine, the roughly $350,000 in shredded coca leaves would have been worth up to $90 million, he said, describing the trade in illegal drugs as “a highly capitalist business.”
Police have arrested two people who were involved in the bid to ship the coca via a Chilean port, according to the deputy minister of Social Defense and Controlled Substances, Felipe Caceres.
Bolivia, like neighboring Peru, permits the cultivation of coca in limited amounts for use in teas, folk remedies and Andean religious rites.
In its unadulterated form, coca is a mild stimulant that indigenous Andean people have used for millennia to counteract altitude sickness. But the only purpose of shredding coca leaves is to prepare them to be processed into cocaine.
About half of the coca grown in Bolivia is cultivated illegally, the United Nations says.
Caceres acknowledged last year that 47 percent of Bolivian coca output is diverted to cocaine production.