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Cocaine production doubles since Jan. 2006 - Bolivian official

BUENOS AIRES, April 5 (RIA Novosti) - Cocaine production in Bolivia has almost doubled since incumbent president Evo Morales took office in January 2006, the head of the country's anti-drug agency said.

Bolivia is the world's second largest producer of the coca leaf after Peru and the second largest producer of cocaine after Colombia. Most of the cocaine refined from the Bolivian coca leaf is

consumed by the United States.

"During the first quarter of 2007, more than 4 metric tons of cocaine was confiscated," Rene Sanabria said. "We estimate this amount to be only 40% of the total produced."

The official said Bolivia has become not only one of the largest cocaine producers in the world, but also a major route for cocaine-trafficking from Peru to Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

"Although we have more than 1,600 officers and agents involved in the fight against the illicit drug trade, we cannot cope with cocaine production in the country," Sanabria said.

Ever since his election as the first indigenous president of the country, Morales has expressed strong support for legalizing the coca plant for traditional and medicinal uses and has been an outspoken critic of U.S. drug policy and of U.S.-backed coca eradication programs.

Many Bolivians view the coca plant as an important part of indigenous culture. In its natural form coca is used by a significant part of the population for medicinal purposes and is considered sacred.

Meanwhile, Bolivia's economy is one of the poorest on the American continent. The coca plant, the source for the illegal drug cocaine, has become the cash crop of the country, bringing millions of dollars to the informal sector of the economy.

It is also the only source of work for thousands of poor people who feel the country's government is unable to provide their basic needs.

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