Bolivia: The Villa Fátima Market

Villafatima01_7 A block up from the Plaza del Maestro, in the middle of La Paz's red light district, is the Mercado de Villa Fátima, the largest legal coca market in Bolivia. The building is a faded and weathered green-like color and it bears no sign above the door. The only way to identify the market is by the rows of buses and pick-up trucks parked outside that are loading and unloading bags of coca around the clock.

The coca here is sold in large plastic bags weighing 23 kilograms each. All of it comes from Los Yungas -- Bolivia's traditional and legal coca region, where each farmer is allowed to grow the plant in an area no larger than 1/4 of an hectare -- what locals call a "cato". Los Yungas' coca is considered to be of the highest quality, and as we venture into the market, the sellers we talk to try to show us how good their coca really is.

Villafatima03_6 A woman in her fifties stands behind her open bag filled with the dried little leaves. Isabel is from the village of Coripata, where she tells us, "the absolutely best coca is grown". She says her leaves are lighter and smaller and more difficult to harvest -- and with 3 or 4 crops each year, her family gets little rest. After harvesting, she says she takes a truck or bus to La Paz with 4 or 5 bags in tow so she can sell her coca at this market herself. But most coca from Los Yungas shares the same qualities as the coca from Coripata -- ask anyone who regularly does the "akhulliku" (the Aymara word for chewing coca) and they'll tell you the good stuff is found only in Los Yungas. This custom isn't unique to the Aymara, however -- the Quechua and a few of Bolivia's other ethnic groups; some of the country's white minority, and even visiting tourists, have also developed a taste for the akhulliku.

The Mercado de Villa Fátima is divided into many big rooms representing the communities where the coca is grown -- the Coripata room, the Chulumani, Arapata, Yanacachi, Caranavi, and La Asunta rooms, among others -- and where the farmers from that region sit around and sell their latest harvest. This system, which avoids using middlemen, was established by president Evo Morales as a way to ensure that this legally-grown coca is sold at fair prices and for legal purposes, as well. The hope is that by avoiding middlemen, less coca will end up in the hands of potential drug traffickers.

A young man that goes by the name "Cyder" is standing guard inside the market, making his rounds. He looks intimidating, wearing dark Ray-Ban sunglasses, black clothes and a gun strapped to his belt. "I'm just here to keep the order and make sure that business goes on as it should," Cyder tells us. What he means is, he's there to keep an eye on how much coca is sold, to whom, and how often. He says he's from a coca growing family himself, so he understands the need to sell coca legally. "But this is just a job for me," he adds. "The onlyVillafatima16_8 reason I'm doing this, is so I can afford going to college in the city". Cyder says he has no desire to help his family in the production of coca.

But despite the fact that the Mercado de Villa Fátima is a legitimate coca market, with rules, security guards, a few overseeing government officials and no middlemen; there's really no way to know how much of the coca sold here will end up being chewed or used in teas, medicines or other legal purposes. And no one can tell how much of this coca will be diverted into the production of cocaine. But before we get into all that, we'll take a look at how coca farmers are faring in Bolivia's traditional coca-growing region.